Project Plans and Specifications Guidance

In most instances, governmental entities in Iowa that intend to construct a public improvement must have a licensed architect or engineer prepare project plans and specifications as well as calculate the estimated total cost for the proposed public improvement project. Section 26.3 of the Code of Iowa provides that governmental entities that are required to competitively bid the construction of a public improvement must advertise for sealed bids and must provide project plans and specifications to any prospective bidder who requests them.

If prospective bidders request paper copies of those contract documents, the governmental entity must have sufficient copies available for distribution at no charge. Governmental entities may collect a deposit of not more than $250 from bidders who request paper copies of the project documents, but such deposit is refundable if documents are returned to the governmental entity in a reusable condition within 14 days after award of the project.

Electronic Copies

Many governmental entities have opted to make copies of the contract documents available to prospective bidders in electronic format at no charge and without a deposit. The law allows this option as long as paper copies of the plans, specifications and cost estimate are made available to prospective bidders who would rather have paper copies. The advantages of providing electronic copies of the contract documents are obvious for both the governmental entity and prospective bidders.

From the governmental entity’s perspective, paper copies of contract documents are very expensive to produce and to handle compared to the cost of obtaining those documents in electronic format. The cost to the governmental entity of obtaining a set of paper plans and specifications from a design firm, print shop or plan room can range from $20 for a small project to thousands of dollars for a large project. A set of electronic documents for such projects can be obtained in electronic format at virtually no cost, except for the designer’s cost of creating the plans and specifications in electronic format, which is a cost the governmental entity would incur in any event.

In addition, when utilizing paper plans and specs, the governmental entity must have sufficient personnel available to:

  • Provide paper copies of contract documents to prospective bidders who request them.
  • Collect and account for the deposits made by prospective bidders, subcontractors and suppliers.
  • Accept returned contract documents and determine if they are in reusable condition.
  • Make and account for the required refunds.

The governmental entity must also have sufficient space available to store paper copies of the contract documents, perhaps for many projects that are currently underway.

Plan Rooms

In many instances, a project owner provides electronic copies of plans and specs to the plan room, and the plan room in turn provides electronic copies to contractors, subcontractors and suppliers. If this is the case, the project owner incurs no costs from the plan room since the costs of running the plan room are recovered from the contractors, subcontractors and suppliers who subscribe to the plan room.

From a bidder’s perspective, paper copies of plans and specifications are heavy and bulky and can only be viewed and reviewed by those contractor design professionals, estimators and supervisory employees who can crowd around a plan table to view them. Contractors who are equipped to handle contract documents in electronic format can simultaneously share those documents with their design professionals, estimators and supervisory employees in many offices within the contractor’s organization, thus saving time and aiding in the preparation of the bid.

The most effective way for governmental entities to make the contract documents available to prospective bidders in electronic format is through plan room service providers. A number of organizations and companies offer plan room services to both public and private project owners and to subscribing contractors in Iowa. Governmental entities can electronically disperse electronic copies of contract documents to perhaps several plan rooms, depending on the type of project being bid, making those documents available to all contractors who subscribe to those plan rooms.

Plan rooms function as clearing houses for both project owners and for prospective bidders, allowing subscribing bidders to review plans and specifications for both public and private projects that are available for bidding. Indeed, the advent of plan rooms has fundamentally changed how contractors become aware of public improvement projects that are available for bidding. Many contractors now rely on plan rooms, rather than newspaper publications, to find public improvement projects to bid on, because plan rooms can more quickly provide more comprehensive information about prospective projects than can be gleaned from newspaper publications.

Some plan rooms offer additional services to project owners and to prospective bidders, including:

  • Providing a list of plan holders (prospective bidders, subcontractors and suppliers) who have obtained plans for a particular project.
  • Receiving addenda for a project, providing notification of the availability of such addenda and making them available to all plan holders for that project.
  • Receiving notifications of pre-bid meetings being held for plan holders by the project owner or by its design professional and advising plan holders of those meetings.

In addition, some plan rooms offer electronic bidding services to project owners, allowing prospective bidders to submit their bids electronically to the project owner through the plan room service.Effective July 1, 2016 cities are no longer required to publish the notice to bidders. Instead, governmental entities are required to post notice in three separate places (as detailed below) no less than 13 and no more than 45 days before the bid filing deadline. The notice must be posted in the following places:

  • A relevant contractor plan room service with statewide circulation
  • A relevant construction lead generating service with statewide circulation
  • An Internet site sponsored by either a governmental entity or a statewide association that represents the governmental entity

To satisfy the first two components, cities may work with a plan room service to ensure required bid information is properly posted. To satisfy the third component, cities may either use their city website or the Iowa League of Cities online bid notice system (or both). Please view our Changes to Notice to Bidders video for additional guidance and do not hesitate to contact us with any questions.

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