Understanding the Architect's Role in the School Construction Process

The South Carolina Department of Education has projected that South Carolina school districts will need more than $4 Billion over the next five years to improve and expand their facilities. To help lessen this need, our State General Assembly passed the School Facilities Bond Act earlier this year, which provides $750 million dollars for public school districts' building needs. Under the Act, South Carolina school districts are eligible to receive $250 million in funds each year for the next three years, beginning January 2000. Funds disbursed under the Act are to be used exclusively for the construction, renovation, expansion, or repair of school buildings.

With the availability of this capital, districts likely will undertake an unprecedented expansion of their construction programs. It is vital, therefore, for districts to bolster their understanding of the roles played in the construction process. In a previous Issue of the Month, February 1998, we discussed the various parties in the construction process and the different modes of construction. This issue will focus on the school district's relationship with its architectural firm, which is often the main avenue through which the district obtains information from and conveys information to all other parties involved in the project.

To fully and effectively utilize its architect, a school district first must understand the scope of services provided by the architect. In general, an architect's duties begin with conceptual design and extend through the completion of the construction. Many standard contracts define an architect's duties in five phases:

  1. Schematic design--owner and architect meet to discuss the owner's needs and the architect prepares one or more preliminary design concepts;
  2. Design development--after receiving owner's approval of a design scheme, the architect prepares formal design drawings, a construction budget, and a schedule;
  3. Construction documents--architect prepares detailed drawings and specifications that will be used by contractors for construction;
  4. Bidding or negotiation--architect assists the district in publicly bidding the project, including answering bidder's questions about the design; and
  5. Construction--architect inspects the on-going construction to ensure that the project is built according to design, answers requests for information from the contractor about the design, and, ideally, works with the contractor to solve design and construction issues.

It is important to maintain effective communication with the architect throughout the project. Poor communication or poorly documented communications in the design development phases can lead to misunderstandings between the district and an architect as to what is included in a design. The biggest strain in the architect-owner relationship, however, typically arises during the construction phase. Owners often operate under the mistaken assumption that architects make decisions during construction with the best interests of the owner in mind. This is not always the case. As a result, it is wise to consider an architect as a designer, not an advocate, for the owner.

Typical problems that may arise during the construction phase include disputes over requests for time extensions and what is included in the design (known as scope-of-work issues). As with most disputes, these problems directly impact the owner and its budget. In some situations architects have been known to be too lenient with contractors on these construction disputes for fear that they will earn a reputation that may impact their ability to work with a particular contractor on future projects (with other owners).

Similarly, architects have been known to "trade off" an error, such as a minor design error that causes a delay in construction, by offering to forgive the contractor for one of the contractor's errors. In effect, the architect and contractor agree to offset their mistakes. This may solve an immediate dispute between the architect and contractor, but is not in the owner's best interest. To the extent that either an architect or contractor causes an error, the owner is entitled to demand corrective action from the responsible party at no cost to the owner, or to a contract adjustment. When an architect and contractor trade errors, however, the owner may find it more difficult to establish its right of recourse because both parties will, in effect, "cover" for each other.

Further problems arise when an architect fails to fulfill its duties in a timely manner, thereby causing a possible delay in the project. One common complaint among contractors is that the architect does not respond quickly enough to its requests for information about the design, drawings, and specifications. This may slow construction and perhaps delay the final completion, through no real fault of the contractor. In such a situation, any delay that can be attributed to the architect would not be assessable as liquidated damages against the contractor. Again, maintaining a presence with the architect throughout the project may alleviate this problem.

Overall, architects provide owners with an invaluable service throughout a construction project. Most architects perform their duties well and do so with good intentions. Nonetheless, a district that regularly seeks project information, maintains a presence on the job site and with the architect, and requests sound explanations from its architect, is in a much better position to ensure that its architect makes decisions which are beneficial to the district. As teachers and educators fondly say, "knowledge is power."