Myth Busted: Documents from Architect are not Direct Contractor Instructions

True or False? Documents are prepared by an architect for the contractor to build from. This statement is probably more false than true. Surprised? Let me explain. While the contractor does use the documents prepared by an architect to prepare their documents to build from, the documents are not stand-alone instructions for putting together a building. So, what is their purpose, if not to directly construct from? The purpose of the documents, often inaccurately referred to as construction documents, is to communicate the design of the building. True Construction Documents include shop drawings, submittals, coordination drawings, and alternate sketches prepared by the contractor. True construction documents are sufficient for building from. The better term for the documents prepared by the architect is contract documents because they convey what the contractor is contracted to produce.

It may seem like semantics to define terms so strictly, but it’s a common misconception, and, in the spirit of transparency, a distinction that should be clarified. The preparation of contract documents is one of many reasons to hire an architect when building a structure. A contractor has experience interpreting drawings from the architect and creating coordinating construction documents and building structures. Without documents outlining the intent or vision of the client first, how can fulfillment of what the contractor is contracted to do be measured? Furthermore, this distinction precludes “scaling” the design drawing literally determining dimensions from the drawings with a scale and constructing accordingly.

The Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice explicitly addresses the limited content of the architect’s drawings this way:

“It is important that all parties understand that construction documents are not intended to be a complete set of instructions on how to construct a building. Construction means, methods, techniques, sequences, procedures, and site safety precautions are customarily assigned as responsibilities of the contractor to give the contractor full latitude in preparing bids and carry out the construction phase.”

AIA document A201 General Conditions of the Contract for Construction also clarifies the conceptual nature of the documents prepared by architects and the responsibility of the contractor to prepare the documents required for building. This document outlines the requirement of the contractor to check each submittal and coordinate it with field conditions. Only after this has been done, can the contractor submit to the architect or engineer to confirm conformance with the design concept from the contract documents. A201 charges the contractor to determine how the work will be divided into separate trades, how the work is bid and purchased, how to coordinate purchased products and systems with each other. The work will conform with the design documents. The architect is charged with the responsibility of determining whether or not work conforms to the design and interpreting design documents. Even though they may have been the party to draw the design, the architect is required to review the intent from an unbiased perspective.

Some added benefits of conceptual design drawings in the construction process:

  • Allows for multiple manufacturers to be eligible for conforming with the design. The contractor is not locked into a particular model/dimensions to fit within the design. This allows the contractor to seek the best price/availability.
  • Allows for a design to be timeless. A designer doesn’t have to update drawings because a product is no longer available. The latest technology can be used and still conform to the intent of the design.
  • Allows for contractors to determine best fit based on their expertise and experience. The responsibility of how to put a system together with the expert on that particular system.

By taking a closer look at each document (Contract & Construction), we learn there is a distinction, what that distinction is, and how the responsibilities are divided between the architect and contractor. The value that both parties bring to the project and the people that hired them is clear.

Based on an article posted in AIArchitect in 2005 by 
James B. Atkins, FAIA, and Grant A. Simpson, FAIA found here: 
Best Practices in Risk Management : Drawing the Line

Leave a Reply