The next phase in our series of articles describing the architectural design process is the Contract Documents phase. The importance of the contract documents process cannot be overstated, as it bridges the gap between architectural creativity and the physical manifestation of structures, ensuring the project is built to specifications, within budget, and on schedule.

Let’s dive in. You’ve finished the Design Development phase. The design is beautiful, you love it. Let’s start building!

Not so fast… There is still a great deal of work that needs to be done before the contractor can get started. It is time to move into the Contract Documents, or Construction Documentation phase.

What is the Contract Documents phase?

Quite simply, this is where the architect creates the Contract Documents, which include both a detailed set of drawings and a specifications document, that together give the contractor all the information they need to build the building to match the design intent.
This starts with getting all the information, dimensions, labels, explanations onto the plans, sections and elevations. But a full set of construction documents goes well beyond that. This might be surprising to you, but there aren’t standardized ways of building, especially in custom residential work. This means that, to get your building to look the way you want to, and perform the way it needs to, many details need to be communicated from the architect to the contractor. These details include everything from baseboard and moulding profiles, how windows and doors are cased or trimmed out, how recessed lighting or roll shades are concealed, to how the roof is waterproofed, and they need to be precisely and clearly drawn.

While it seems like the design is mostly done at the end of the Design Development phase, there is still a lot of work to do. This is why the Contract Documents phase represents around 40% of the overall design fee.

What is the Contract Documents phase_

Blueprints and Detailed Descriptions

Blueprints and comprehensive specifications form the core of the contract documentation process. These elements are the architect’s language, conveying complex architectural concepts in a way that a contractor that hasn’t played a major role in the design process can understand and build.

Blueprints, with their detailed drawings and specifications, provide a visual and technical roadmap for project construction. They detail every aspect of the building, from its dimensions and materials to the placement of electrical systems and plumbing. Accompanying these visual guides are detailed descriptions that articulate the quality standards, materials, and workmanship expected for every project component. Together, these documents ensure that the contractor and their team have a clear, comprehensive guide to bring the architectural vision to life with accuracy and precision.

Meetings and Expected Outputs

As a client you should expect a slowdown in the frequency of meetings you’ll be having during the contract documents phase. During the Schematic Design phase, the meetings were focused on the big picture design; getting the layout right, the style and massing the way you want it. During the Design Development phase, you are part of regular meetings to check in on the progression of the design, while behind the scenes your architect is constantly meeting with their team of consultants and engineers to get the building and all its systems to work and work together.

The Construction Documents phase is about details, specifics and production. As we discussed, the drawings are completed with all the information, dimensions and labels the contractor will need to build, the outline specifications from Design Development are turned into the final specifications document. As such, the meetings during the Contract Documents phase are about specifics. The overall design shouldn’t be changing. You are reviewing and deciding on flooring options, paint and plaster colors, selecting appliances and light fixtures, approving moulding and millwork designs, and so on.

Every jurisdiction has their own process you need to follow to get approvals and permits. Some have pre-application meetings where a planner gives feedback on the in-progress design. Sometimes there are differently levels of planning and building permits required. You may be presenting to an HOA board. These will slot in at different times throughout the process, but ultimately, the blueprints will need to get a final stamp of approval, and the timing for submission will be coordinated with your architect.

Expected outputs include finalized contract documents ready for approval and permitting, a shared understanding of project timelines, and a consensus on the construction methodologies and an updated budget.

As the Contract Documents phase nears completion, the blueprints and specifications will generally go through an internal quality control review process. Each firm will have it’s own way of making sure that everything meets their standards.

Meetings and Expected Outputs

Getting Ready for the Build Phase

Transitioning from the planning and design stages into the build phase marks a significant milestone in the architectural process. It is a period where the theoretical meets the practical, and the design vision becomes real.

If you are sending the design out to a list of contractors for them to bid on, these contractors will take the drawings and specifications at the end of the Contract Documents phase and prepare a detailed cost of construction, including everything shown in the documentation.
If you have selected a contractor early on, and included them as part of the select team, this transition happens more smoothly. They have had the opportunity to give feedback throughout the design process, should be familiar with the vision, the quality and with any challenges the project will face and will have begun to make preparations to hit the ground running once permits are approved.

Either way, the big goal of the Contract Documents phase is to prepare for the switch from design to construction.

What Happens After the Contract Documents Phase?

After the careful planning of the contract documents phase, the project moves into the construction phase—with a bidding and negotiation phase in between, if necessary—where plans and specifications begin to take physical form.
During the Construction Administration phase, the architect remains closely involved with the project. They are available to answer questions that come up during the build, and make regular site visits to oversee the work.
Moreover, this phase is characterized by implementing change orders and adjustments, as actual conditions or client demands might require altering the initial plans. The rigor and foresight embedded in the contract documents are crucial for navigating these changes smoothly.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Navigating the contract documents phase is fraught with potential pitfalls that can derail the project’s timeline, budget, and overall success. Common challenges include ambiguous or incomplete documents, leading to misinterpretation and costly errors during construction. To avoid these pitfalls, ensuring that all contract documents are thorough, clear, and precise is imperative. Employing experienced architects and legal advisors to review these documents can mitigate risks associated with ambiguity or oversight.
Another significant pitfall is underestimating the project’s complexity, leading to unrealistic timelines and budgets. This can be avoided by conducting comprehensive site analysis feasibility studies and engaging in detailed planning sessions with all stakeholders to align expectations and resources from the outset.

Another common challenge is communication breakdowns among stakeholders. Establishing clear channels of communication, holding regular update meetings, and using project management tools can enhance coordination and minimize misunderstandings.
Failing to plan for contingencies can leave the project vulnerable to unforeseen delays and costs. Including contingency plans and budgets within the contract documents ensures that the project team is prepared to address unexpected challenges effectively, keeping the project on track toward successful completion.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Client Checklist

As the project transitions from the design and documentation phases into construction, clients play a crucial role in ensuring the success of their architectural project. A well-prepared client checklist can guide them through this complex process, ensuring that all necessary steps are taken and considerations are made. Here’s a sample checklist for you to follow:

  • Approve Contract Documents: Confirm all documents reflect your project’s goals and specifications.
  • Secure Financing: Ensure funding aligns with project costs.
  • Obtain Permits: Verify all required permits are acquired before construction starts.
  • Select a Contractor: Choose a contractor with relevant experience and a good track record. It’s not only about the lowest price. You want to make sure they have the skills needed to complete the project to your standards of quality, as well as having a history of delivering on time and on budget.
  • Communication Protocols: Set regular update meetings with the project team.
  • Material Selections: Confirm your choices for materials and finishes, as well as lighting, millwork, appliances and any other key features (spa, media room, etc.)
  • Understand the Timeline: Be aware of the construction timeline and potential delays.
  • Prepare for Changes: Be ready for potential change orders and decisions to avoid delays. The contracts you have set up with your architect and with your contractor will have established mechanisms in place for the changer order process. It is a normal part of construction. Unforseen things will come up in even the most organized projects.
  • Final Inspection: Know the criteria for the final inspection to ensure standards are met.

This checklist serves as a roadmap for clients, guiding them into the construction phase, emphasizing preparation, communication, and informed decision-making.