It may seem silly to suggest there could be any doubt about the purpose of construction documents, for surely they are supposed to document what is to be constructed. However, the underlying purpose is to document and convey design intent such that construction is in keeping with it. That term – design intent – is a little thorny, because, as you listen to the voices that talk about it, you might conclude that, like beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder. The specifier’s design intent may be different from that of the architectural designer, and the architectural designer’s intent may be different from that of the structural engineer and that of the architect who is responsible for developing the plans, elevations, sections and details that comprise the drawn parts of the construction documents. Further, the architectural designer’s intent may, to some extent, differ from the design intent (i.e., office standards) of the firm that employs the designer. Further yet, the construction contract administrator’s view of design intent may differ from that of the architectural designer and others who have been involved in developing construction documents. You can see the opportunities for a number of persons and firms to be working at cross purposes, even though each would claim to be working to document and convey design intent. (It should also be noted that design intent is generated in large part by the project owner through the program, budget, and schedule for the project.)
In order to avoid inconsistencies and conflicts that may lead to extra cost change orders and claims, the same design intent meaning should be developed, understood, and shared by everyone on the design team, including those who manage and produce the design and construction documents and those who administer the construction contract. And the meaning of the design intent for the specific project (in all its facets) should be vetted and formally acknowledged by the project owner before construction. On most design projects, substantial up-front communication and coordination and regular meetings are necessary for team members (and owner’s representatives) to achieve and maintain a shared understanding of design intent. It’s not enough to have only a kick-off meeting and to assume that everyone already knows what to do. Expectations must be aired and understanding verified through open communication in which every team member actively listens and participates in order to appreciate both “the big picture” and how the team member’s area of responsibility must fit with it. Different firms and different teams may have different names for this process and degree of coordination; it is standard practice for some – even with imperfections. It’s all part of QA – Quality Assurance. Firms that race into a project without this up-front investment in coordination may be surprised by change orders and post-construction issues that are directly attributable to different interpretations of design intent.
Involving the constructor (contractor and/or construction manager) in the process above can also help in developing a design intent that is more responsive to construction needs, if the attending contractor and other team members actively listen and participate in a way that respects the interests and concerns of other participants. A shared understanding of design intent and alignment with it can help a design and construction team make the best use of construction documents to achieve a completed project that realizes the design intent.