Architectural/engineering (A/E) firms provide professional services that define the client’s project for the contractor. However, clients who have never worked with this type of firm are often unfamiliar with the standard business processes that optimize their ability to produce quality construction documents on time and on budget. In an effort to circumvent unwanted surprises, here are some things a client can expect when working with an A/E firm.
Not an Exact Science
Thirty-five years in the industry has taught me 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 involves the client having a clear understanding of what we do and what we don’t do. This is especially 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 only one purpose — and that is to facilitate construction, whether it’s the construction of infrastructure, facilities, or processes. Construction documents are not meant to serve as maintenance documents or design standards, and they are specific to one location for one express purpose.
When it comes to setting expectations, I believe it’s important that clients 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.
The Importance of Planning
Of course, there are no guarantees on any project, but well-planned projects are always more successful than unplanned projects. Therefore, investment in a detailed project plan at the beginning of a project will pay dividends throughout its 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 the A/E and the client for the defined project scope.
Frequent reviews provide the ability to confirm projects are on track as the project progresses. And we rely on our clients to thoroughly review, question, and confirm that we are on track with the previously defined 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, design development, construction documents, and construction, which serve as go/no-go decision points. Other times, percentages of design completion are assigned for these Stage Gates at 15-, 30-, 60-, and 100-percent design.
One of the most important things we try to impart to our clients is that change should be expected. In fact, it is 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, product selection and availability, schedule, deliverables, field conditions, staffing, fees, codes, standards and regulations, value engineering, design innovation, and more. To plan for change, clients should budget contingencies for both design and construction and also 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. In cases where time and money must be increased, the client’s contingency is already in place to address the change.
Getting the Correct Information
Correct information from our clients is critical. For example, if a client provides us with drawings for an existing building or infrastructure item, we rely on that information as being accurate. If the information turns out to be incorrect, our design will be impacted. When the client is not confident in the accuracy of existing documentation, an alternative approach is to have the A/E build in time and fee into their budget to verify the existing 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. Decisions made early in the project can have a major influence on successful outcomes with lesser cost and schedule impact, while decisions made out of sequence or changed later in the project have a major cost and schedule impact.
Of course, there are no guarantees on any project, but well-planned projects are always more successful than unplanned projects. Therefore, investment in a detailed project plan at the beginning of a project will pay dividends throughout its life cycle. Risk Management Is a Team Event
In most cases, the client will ask the A/E to help them identify and manage project 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 identifying risks and planning how to minimize the likelihood or impact of the risk. This proactive approach generally involves the creation and maintenance of a risk register at the beginning of the project that identifies the potential risks and their potential impact, along with a plan for what to do if that risk is realized. This early, overt attention to risk management reduces the incidence of changes later on in the project, saving both time and money, and helping to preserve the team relationships.
Value Engineering and Substitutions – Tread Carefully
At various points in the life cycle of a project, there will be a “value engineering” discussion that explores ideas to improve the project’s overall value. These ideas may involve cost saving, schedule improvement, improved performance, or enhanced aesthetics. Ideally, value engineering discussions happen at each early Stage Gate. When value engineering is performed throughout the project, the impact to the A/E’s project execution can be minimized, and the value to the client is maximized.
Unfortunately, there are many examples where early Stage Gates do not include a thorough assessment of the project cost and schedule, which may result in an unexpected variance between the client’s expectations of cost and schedule and the construction bids. To avoid this situation, the client should agree to let the A/E prepare an opinion of probable cost and schedule at each stage. Significant variances can be addressed by the client and A/E with scope adjustments and value engineering changes before the design has been advanced too far. The client should also engage a construction contractor or construction manager early in the project to obtain an additional opinion on cost, schedule, and sequencing, as well as their ideas for value engineering improvements.
It is important for clients to know that value engineering ideas occurring late in the design — and sometimes after design is complete — typically result in the A/E spending considerable time evaluating the ideas and making changes to the project design across all architecture and engineering disciplines to make sure the project is technically correct, well-coordinated, and still meets the original project criteria. Due to the significance and complications of making such changes late in the process, the A/E will typically require additional design funds for the purpose of saving substantial construction funds for the client.
Likewise, the construction contractor may make a request to substitute materials or equipment after the construction contract has been awarded. These substitution requests may have a similar impact as late-project value engineering ideas. The A/E may need to devote substantial time evaluating and modifying the design, and then reissuing construction documents that maintain the design intent. For this reason, clients should only entertain substitutions that result in substantial benefits to them — net of the extra effort by the A/E.
Ultimately, 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 unwanted surprises!