Firm management

Predesign services: Prepare for success with AIA Contract Documents

By Forrest R. Lott, FAIA

Effingham County Courthouse located in Springfield, Georgia designed by Lott+Barber

The owner-architect agreement usually assumes that the owner has defined the project sufficiently for the architect to provide basic services. For example, Article 1 of AIA Contract Document B101-2017 provides fill points for project program, description, budget, schedule, and sustainable objective. If the owner has prepared sufficient initial information, the project is ready to proceed. However, when the project definition needs additional information, predesign services can fill the gap. What are these predesign services? Who provides them? How are they compensated?

When an owner needs predesign services, the architect can provide them as supplemental services as part of the basic agreement or under separate agreement. The type of services required will vary by project and may include the following:

  • Site evaluation, analysis, and selection
  • Geotechnical and structural studies
  • Traffic studies
  • Existing building documentation
  • Programming
  • Conceptual studies
  • Blocking and stacking diagrams
  • Project scheduling
  • Project budgeting

An example of a project that needed predesign services involved a new county courthouse where the best location was undetermined. Master planning, budgeting, and site evaluation services were added to the architect’s base agreement. The predesign study found that a downtown location could leverage existing adjacent services, revitalize the urban government core, and save infrastructure costs. As a result, the original proposed location on the highway bypass was rejected.

The predesign process establishes a shared project vision; promotes collaboration, critical thinking, and decision making; and allows the owner and architect to explore options prior to beginning intensive design. The owner benefits from a more defined project description that allows the design to proceed more efficiently. The architect benefits by establishing good client communication, a clear measure of project objectives, and avoids the false starts caused by differing expectations.

The AIA Contract Documents Program provides several “scope of service” documents that can define parts of the project predesign services. Many of these are listed in a matrix in B101–2017, Article 4 Supplemental and Additional Services. If predesign services are included with basic services, it is simple to describe them in Article 4. If predesign services are provided separately, the scope descriptions can be coupled with B102-2017 Standard Form of Agreement Between Owner and Architect without a Predefined Scope of Architect’s Services.

Defining deliverables of the predesign service is an important part of the agreement negotiation. The completed document may be in printed or electronic form. An executive summary, such as a written report with appropriate graphic support, could be the first part of a predesign study deliverable to help the client see the big picture quickly. The amount and type of material included will be tailored to the project requirements and reflect information the owner made available at the outset. Authorization to move into the next design phase should reference the approved predesign study.

Whatever form of agreement is used, predesign services can be a win-win for everyone. When the owner is a group, such as a board or committee, predesign deliverables can get everyone on the same page. The design team can begin basic services with confidence, knowing everyone has bought into the initial project description.

Sometimes the owner may not understand that initial information is lacking and how predesign services can enhance the project. Sometimes the architect gives away part of predesign services just to get the project moving. Identifying deficiencies in the project definition and forming a plan to establish a strong starting point benefits everyone. Predesign services are worth a focused conversation and appropriate compensation. The AIA Documents Program is ready to support you with agreements, scope descriptions, and educational material.

Forrest R. Lott, FAIA, is principal of Lott+Barber, an architecture and planning firm located in Savannah, Georgia. He has previously served for several years on the AIA Documents Committee and is now a member of the AIA Risk Management Committee.