Delegated design in building technology can have costly consequences

By Jeff Carpenter 

How to recognize delegated design

How can you determine if a technology engineer is prone to doing delegated design? Ask to see several examples of previous design deliverables and ask them questions, such as what role vendors play in their design. Also watch out for:

  • The prolific use of notes at the expense of details and riser diagrams
  • Significant use of “… contractor shall …” notes that are scope- and detail-related (as opposed to means and methods)
  • Specification sections that are not consistent in terms of formatting, outline structure, and phrasing when compared to the rest of the engineering specifications. Such sections likely have been provided by a vendor.
  • Details that have dissimilar note styles, fonts, and line spacing. These also are signs that a vendor produced them.
  • Performance-based specifications that are used in lieu of detailed product specifications and details

“Delegated design” is a term that is becoming more widely used and understood in the AEC industry. The phrase basically refers to instances in which a designer passes on a task that is normally their responsibility to another member of a project team to complete.  

This transfer of design responsibility can occur in any type of project or delivery method. It is commonly seen in certain scopes of work, and aids in the delivery of a project when it is clearly documented and communicated among the team. Problems arise, however, when a team member delegates design without transparently communicating it to the other parties. This occurs most often in design-bid-build deliverywith the issue typically becoming evident to all during the construction phase of the project. 

Detrimental delegated design can occur in any discipline but is commonly seen and particularly problematic in technology design, where cuttingedge advances are fast-moving, always changing, and require a significant investment on the part of the engineer to achieve expertiseNot all firms make the investment needed to keep up with the latest developments in technology, however. This is when delegated design may appear, with legitimate engineering work being pushed to the contractor to “figure it out.” 

first heard the term “delegated design” during a recent conversation with a potential client, and it was an epiphany. It proved that some clients are savvy to differentiation in the technology field, a specialty that others treat as a commodity. This client understood that the savings from the lowest fee at the time of design were usually relinquished when resolving problems during construction. “Prove to us that you don’t do delegated design,” he said. If every client asked that in their selection processes, the technology design industry would get cleaned up very quickly. 

Hiring technology engineers that engage in delegated design certainly keeps the fees down, but what is the cost? Here are several likely scenarios you may encounter: 

  1. Wide variations in bid results, due to differences in the contractor’s interpretation of what wasn’t designed 
  2. Inability to make informed bid awards to contractors, due to not having tight enough bids to trust that there’s an applestoapples comparison 
  3. Scope disputes during construction that make the owner decide how to interpret vague performance specifications 
  4. Change orders during construction because the actual solutions weren’t designed until the construction phase, due to the design delegations made to the contractor 
  5. Failure to meet owner goals and objectives because the engineer delegated design to a vendor who never heard the owner’s needs firsthand 

The cost of design is a single-digit percentage of a building’s total life cycle. In the interest of successful outcomes when creating increasingly complex buildings, it pays for clients to protect themselves from delegated technology design. 



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