Who's Your Audience

Specifications, like all construction documentation, involve communication between at least two parties. The two primary parties can be described as the "speaker" and the "audience" or the "writer" and the "reader." The two parties usually also have a direct contractual relationship but in some cases one party is preparing documentation for the other party to use in communication with a third party.

Before preparing any specifications, be sure the speaker/audience and contractual relationships are well understood. For instance, typical construction specifications are usually prepared by a design professional, but the true "speaker" is the Owner. The audience is the Contractor, usually a single "General Contractor" but actually every prime contractor the Owner has a contract with for the relevant specifications. The work may actually be done by a subcontractor, but he is not the audience until the prime contractor passes the Owner's original requirements on to him. Even then, from the Owner's point of view, the Contractor, not the subcontractor, is the audience. Being clear on the speaker/audience relationship not only helps you prepare correct specifications but will make that process easier by eliminating irrelevant concerns — you only have to address the specifications to one audience.

Although there are a great variety of design and construction entities, all are made up of people and firms performing a limited number of roles. The three main roles are the owner, the designer, and the constructor. In the traditional design-bid-build arrangement, the three roles are performed by independent people or firms. In design-build, there are only two contractual entities - the owner and the design-builder. The three roles are the same but the organization varies due to the different contractual relationship. Besides these two common situations, other contractual relationships are developed to suit particular project conditions.

If you are uncertain about the speaker/audience roles for your project, start by finding out what the contractual relationships are. Who is going to have a contract with whom? "Follow the money" is another way to figure it out — who is paying whom for what work? The charts below describe the full range of contractual relationships for which some type of written documentation is commonly prepared. Remember that specifications sometimes are called something else, especially at different stages in the design process.

Roles and Relationships


Owner → Designer

This relationship describes the situation when an owner or prospective owner hires a design professional as a consultant or employee to design the project and prepare bidding and construction documents . If the design professional is an employee, the owner role may be formalized in a project manager or may be less clearly defined. The design professional has no contractual relationship with the constructor .


Owner → Constructor

This relationship describes the situation when an owner or prospective owner contracts with a construction entity to build a project designed by another entity. The constructor may be a single prime contractor (usually referred to as a General Contractor) who may or may not hire other constructor entities to perform part or all of the actual construction. The owner may also contract directly with multiple constructor entities (multiple prime contracts).


Owner → Design-Builder

This relationship describes the situation when an owner or prospective owner contracts with a single entity to perform both design and construction of the project.


Designer → Owner

This relationship describes the situation when an owner or prospective owner hires a design professional as a consultant or employee to design the project and prepare bidding and construction documents.

  • During the design phase, the owner wants to review and approve the design.
  • Once the design is complete, construction documents are prepared.
  • Before the start of construction, building permits must be obtained by either the owner.

Designer → Design-Builder

This relationship describes the situation when a design-builder has a contract with an owner for a project and now must perform the design. The design-builder hires design professionals as consultants or employees to design the project and prepare bidding and construction documents. If the design professional is an employee, the design-builder role may be formalized in a project manager or may be less clearly defined.


Design-Builder → Owner

This relationship describes the situation when an owner or prospective owner contracts with a single entity to perform both design and construction. A design-builder may be a construction management entity, a conventional general contractor, a design professional, or any other entity the owner is willing to enter into a contract with.

  • Proposal stage: The type of documentation and degree of detail varies widely but ultimately must be acceptable to the owner. If the cost is not fixed in advance (i.e. cost-plus-a-fee) fewer details are essential at the proposal stage and the documentation requirements are consequently reduced.
  • Design stage: The owner usually must approve the design and often requires formal substantiation that the construction will comply with the design criteria.
  • Before the start of construction, building permits must be obtained by either the owner or the design-builder.
  • During the construction stage, the owner may require substantiation that the construction is being performed as promised.
  • Upon completion, owners usually require submission of documents that will enable them to maintain the facility.

Design-Builder → Designer

This relationship describes the situation when a design-builder has a contract with an owner for a project and now must perform the design and obtain the owner's approval. The design professional may be employed by the design-builder or may be an outside consultant.


Design-Builder → Constructor

This relationship describes the situation when a design-builder has completed the design and now must perform the construction. The design-builder may contract with a single prime contractor or with multiple constructor entities (subcontractors). In both cases, the design-builder may also perform part of the work with his own forces. The design-builder will usually have already performed cost estimating to determine feasibility of the design.


Constructor → Owner or Design-Builder

This relationship describes the situation when an owner or design-builder contracts with a construction entity to build all or part of a project already designed. The constructor may hire other constructor entities to perform part or all of his contracted work.

  • If competitive bids are required by the owner, at the bidding stage the constructor must submit his time and cost proposal (his "bid" or "tender").
  • During the construction stage, owners usually require substantiation that the project is constructed as promised.
  • Upon completion, owners usually require submission of documentation that will help them maintain the facility.

Constructor → Subcontractor

This relationship describes the situation when a constructor entity (prime, sub, or any level) contracts with another constructor entity to perform part or all of the work the original constructor has already contracted to do. This relationship can exist in both design-bid-build and design-build.