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What Design-Assist Isn’t

3 misconceptions about design-assist

By Rocco Gallo, LEED AP, Principal

A few years back, I was working with a design-assist partner on an infrastructure project. As we were doing fieldwork together, I climbed a ladder to poke my head above some ceiling tiles. I wanted to confirm a difficult conduit routing.

That’s when I learned that my design-assist partner and I weren’t on the same page.

He thought being a design-assist partner meant holding the ladder for me. What I really needed was for him to get up on the ladder, look at what I was looking at, and tell me whether he thought my design concept would work.

As we’ve been using design-assist and talking about design-assist, we’ve run into all sorts of misconceptions. Here are three of the big ones.

Misconception #1: Design-Assist Is a Delivery Method

In other posts, we’ve described design-assist as a delivery model. But design-assist is better described as a tool that can be used with different delivery methods.

The extent to which you can apply design-assist, and the way you incorporate design-assist partners, will vary based on the project delivery method. Also, consider what is important or what areas of risk you may want to reduce, and let that shape your use of design-assist.

The bottom line: If there’s an aspect of your project that is uncertain or risky, and getting a contractor’s eyes on it will help your design team mitigate the risk – what are you waiting for?

Misconception #2: Design-Assist Shifts Design Responsibility (or Liability) to the Design-Assist Partner

However much help the design-assist partner provides during the design phase, the architect or engineer is still responsible for the design.

As engineers, we’re still doing the engineering. We’re still the ones required to stamp the drawings. Even if the contractors help create the drawings, like they did with one project we worked on, we engineers are still responsible for overseeing their work.

Of course, the contract needs to make those responsibilities clear. (Cogence Alliance, whose board Jim Cicero serves on, goes into this in its white paper on design-assist.) For example, for public projects here in Ohio, the law specifies that liability doesn’t transfer to the design-assist firm.

Misconception #3: Design-Assist Is Less Work or Pushing Your Work onto Someone Else

We’ve heard the criticism that with design-assist, we’re just shifting our responsibilities to someone else. We’ve also had owners ask whether our fee should be less when using design-assist.

The reality is, we’re not doing less work. Often, we’re doing more work.

Why is that?

Because with design-assist partners on board, we’re getting relevant information at the right time – when it can be the biggest benefit to the project. That information allows us to increase the accuracy of the work.

(Here, an important clarification is necessary: Without design-assist, design team is still doing their job, providing technically correct design, and filling their contractual obligations. The construction team is still doing their job, providing technically correct construction services and filling their contractual obligations. The owner is receiving the services they have contracted for. With design-assist, however, the design team can provide more complete drawings because they have access to information that they otherwise can't or don't with a traditional delivery method.)

With design-assist, our drawings don’t decrease in detail. In fact, we begin to add more detail to support “means and methods” and clearly communicate design intent.

We're also not reducing our effort to increase our profit. Rather, we might work collaboratively with the design-assist team to determine where to spend our effort in order to increase the productivity of both the design and construction teams.

Design-Assist Takes Us out of Our Silos

I can’t say this enough: Design-assist is not going to allow you to remain in a silo!

Looking outside the AEC industry, the concept of design-assist isn’t revolutionary. We’re actually talking about something quite basic: Getting the right people on the project at the right time to make the right decisions.

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