July 18, 2018

There are two kinds of surprises in life: Good surprises that bring a smile to one’s face and those of the opposite variety—life’s unwanted surprises that have the power to throw a proverbial monkey wrench into the works, disrupting one’s best-laid plans. And when it comes to doing business, nobody wants to experience the latter.

Architectural/Engineering (A/E) firms provide professional design services that define the client’s project for the contractor. However, clients who have never worked with an A/E firm are naturally unfamiliar with the standard business processes that optimize our ability to produce quality deliverables that are on time and on budget.

In an effort to circumvent unwanted surprises, here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind when working with an A/E firm to deliver a capital project.

Purpose-Driven Documentation

If 35 years in the industry has taught me anything, it is the importance of a client knowing what to expect when embarking on a project with an A/E firm. Being knowledgeable of an A/E firm’s business process is key and involves the client having a clear understanding of what we do and what we don’t do, which is imperative when it comes to documentation. Similarly, the A/E strives to understand the client’s business and processes.

A new client is often unaware that when an A/E firm produces construction documents, those documents serve one purpose only, and that is to facilitate construction—whether it’s the construction of infrastructure, facilities or processes. They are not meant to serve as maintenance documents or design standards. And they are specific to one location for one distinct purpose.

In terms of client expectations, I also believe it’s important they are aware that delivering a project is not an exact science. Throughout the life cycle of a project, there are a myriad of judgement calls and decisions to be made by many people. And there is almost always more than one way to accomplish something. If that approach happens to be different from someone else’s methodology, it doesn’t mean that they’re wrong or we’re wrong—it simply means it is a different approach.

Plan and Execute

Well-planned projects are always more successful than unplanned projects, and investment in a detailed project plan at the beginning will pay dividends throughout a project’s life cycle.

The Project Management Institute suggests that projects are 2.5 times more successful when using proven project management practices. However, even a well-planned project can fail if the project plan is not fully implemented and maintained throughout the project. Therefore, it is necessary to insert project team review periods along the way to make sure there is full alignment between ourselves and the client.

We count on our clients to thoroughly review, question and confirm that we are on track with the previously defined project scope. Failure to conduct thorough reviews can result in extra work to correct something that could have been addressed earlier in the process.

Projects that have intermediate Stage Gate reviews provide those breakpoints to check alignment. These Stage Gates are often referred to as Conceptual, Schematic, Development, Construction Document and Construction. Other times, percentages of design completion are assigned for these reviews.


Change Happens

One of the most important things we try to impart to our clients is that change occurs as a normal part of a project. And you can’t manage change unless you plan for it. At our project kick-off meetings, we discuss how to handle potential change with our clients—whether it be big or small.

We also outline the types of changes that can arise. This includes changes in scope/client requirements, schedule, deliverables, field conditions, staffing, fees, codes, standards and regulations, value engineering, design innovation and more.

To plan for change, my recommendation to clients is to budget a contingency amount and to build time into the project schedule. When we recognize change, we talk about it with our clients and develop a response to that change. Sometimes that change is within our control and the ball is in our court in terms of expending extra money or time. Other times it is out of our hands, and that is when we discuss with our client how we are going to manage that change with the goal of staying within the parameters of the budgeted funds and time.


We Rely on Our Clients

Correct information from our clients is critical. For example, if an owner provides us with shop drawings for an existing building that we are making an addition to, we rely on that information as being accurate. If the information turns out to be incorrect, our design will be impacted. An alternative approach is to have the A/E build in time and fee into their budget to verify the existing building information.

Another example of reliance is on design decisions. Designs are developed in a sequential manner. Once a decision is made, that decision is documented and the design proceeds on that basis. If that decision is subsequently changed, the impact could be significant depending on how much design work has progressed since the original decision was made. The curve below illustrates how decisions made early in the project can have a major influence on successful outcomes with low impact, while decisions made out of sequence or changed later in the project have a major cost and schedule impact.


Risk Management

In most cases, the client will ask the A/E to help them identify and manage risk. Risks can come from many sources, including site conditions, building conditions, operational continuity, equipment supply, market forces, material supply and labor availability, just to name a few.

Most of the risk factors are out of the control of the A/E, and many are partially or completely out of the control of the client. Therefore, it is important for the entire project team to have a proactive approach to both identifying risks and planning how to minimize the likelihood or impact of the risk. This proactive approach generally reduces the incidence of changes later on in the project, saving both time and money.

At the end of the day, a client’s understanding of an A/E firm’s business process will allow a project to run smoother, be more efficient, foster better communication, and perhaps most importantly, avoid those unwanted surprises!