The construction industry is ever-changing and always looking for new ways to save costs and improve speed, quality, and efficiency. A common tool employed to achieve these goals is the delegation of certain design responsibilities for the project. For example, a mechanical contractor might be responsible for the design of a building’s mechanical system so long as it meets certain criteria or goals for the project. Delegating the design of certain systems or components of a project carries numerous benefits but should be approached with caution.

The project team or owner responsible for allocating design responsibilities should carefully consider the circumstances of the project and the pros and cons of delegated design. All parties involved are well-served when the contract documents clearly spell out each party’s respective obligations.

Trouble can often arise when the delegated design of certain systems or components must interact with or support other portions of the project which the delegated designer is not instructed to consider or otherwise may not be aware of. For example, if a pre-cast concrete subcontractor is asked to design planks of a certain dimension that can withstand a defined load, a question could arise whether that same supplier assumed the responsibility of making sure the connections or bearing surfaces are sufficient. The same might also be true for a structural steel contractor who submits shop drawings reflecting the details in the structural drawings but does not account for the expansion or contraction of the building.

This was the dilemma faced by a steel subcontractor called Metromont Corporation who was hired for the construction of a new building in Baltimore. Metromont’s shop drawings mimicked the structural drawings and details prepared by the engineer of record which showed rigid welded connections. During construction, it was determined that slip joint connections were necessary due to the expansion and contraction of the building. Understanding that the cost to make that correction was in the millions, the supplier argued it was not responsible. In response, the general contractor argued Metromont was required by the specifications to submit its shop drawings in compliance with certain industry standards, which required slip joints. Ultimately, the court ruled in Metromont’s favor, largely basing its decision on the language of the contract documents and reasoning that if a contractor is required to take the overall design of the building into account, that obligation must be made clear at the outset. The court also noted that  Metromont was not supplied with the type of information necessary to analyze its portion of work within the overall design such as seismic design parameters, soil pressures, pressures of the walls, or temperatures.

To prevent these kinds of challenges from occurring, the contract documents, the project team, and its various designers should carefully and precisely define where certain delegated design obligations start and where they end.

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