This is the final piece to the puzzle; the final session of the Entrepreneur Architect Academy. For the past twelve weeks, we’ve explored every element required for a successful architecture firm. We started with your Personal Productivity and we’ll wrap it up here with Project Management. You will find all 12 sessions of the Academy by clicking the link in the header menu above or by visiting EntreArchitect.com/Academy. Be sure to bookmark that page, so you will have it for reference in the future.
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One of the most important of all the tasks we perform as architects is Project Management. The success of each project sits squarely in our hands. If managed poorly, a single project may set our progress back years. If managed well, it can take us to great heights.
I’ve been continuously improving my firm’s project management system since we launched in 1999. With each new project, I learn more and modify the systems we follow. Here are my ten rules to better Project Management;
Create systems for success.
Systems are the sound structure of a successful architectural firm. They establish the discipline required for financial success and the freedom to develop a portfolio of highly developed architecture. We create systems by breaking down our projects into many separate processes. Every firm, with any experience, has many of these processes already in place. They may be documented as formal systems or they may just be a general understanding of “how we do it here”. When a process is fully developed into a system with supporting documents of forms and checklists, it allows us to focus more on the details and development of a successful design. Systems allow us to be better architects.
Know what they want, as well as what they don’t.
When we receive a contract for a new project, we all want to jump right into designing. It’s our nature as architects to want to solve the problems before us. The most successful projects though are the ones where we fully understand the people living and working within the architecture we design. Before we grab the roll of trace and start sketching with the Sharpie, we gather as much information about the users of our buildings as possible. We learn about not only what they expect from us (which may be very different from what they should expect), but we also learn about who they are as people. What are their personal tastes and style? What are their passions and hobbies? Where do they go for vacation? Where are their favorite places? What do they like… and more importantly, what don’t they like? With a full understanding of the people using our buildings, we can better manage the process and develop a project that exceeds their expectations.
I tell clients that we could design a successful project with nothing more than a scope of work and site plan. This is true, but it is only after listening to our clients hopes, needs and dreams that we can take each project to its pinnacle. When we listen carefully throughout the project, our clients and contractors will guide us to success. The problems that may derail a project and possibly become a liability nightmare will come to light way before they become a problem. When we are listening carefully, people will tell us what we need to know.
The quickest way to an unhappy client is to design a project beyond their budget. Although our agreement requires the project budget be the responsibility of the client, we assist our clients and manage their budget throughout the entire process. I begin by asking them for their expected budget at our very first meeting. This allows me to discuss the realities of what projects cost and give them some “rules of thumb” numbers to help them adjust their budget or their expectations accordingly. I ask them again to state their expected budget as part of my Pre-Design Client Questionnaire to confirm their expectations in writing. We then prepare Schematic Designs based on those expectations. When we present our Schematic Designs we prepare rough, cost per square foot, cost estimates attached to each scheme. After a few tweaks and revisions, they pick a scheme and we recommend that a general contractor prepare an independent third-party cost estimate, which is typically based on market prices and is more accurate than our rough numbers. With a signed authorization form, approving the Schematic Design and its associated cost, we proceed with the remaining phases. We revisit the cost with any changes in scope and again following Design Development Phase. This continuous reminder of the project cost keeps expectations clear and clients happy.
Don’t give your services away.
Before we start any project at Fivecat Studio, we spend a day documenting the existing conditions of the project site. Most of our projects are additions and alterations and we need a very accurate set of documents with which to base our designs. Most of the municipalities require a complete floor plan be submitted for a building permit in order to confirm that the project is in full compliance with town zoning and building codes. Don’t give your services away. Be clear with the scope of work included in your base services and more importantly, what is not included. Provide a list of additional services offered and a clear description of how you will get paid for these services. Many firms, in order to keep clients happy, will provide additional services for free. With clear boundaries set and an expectation that additional services are in fact “additional”, clients will be happy to pay you for the services you provide. When you are paid adequately for your services, your business will become healthier and your clients will be happier.
Manage expectations and keep them informed.
Clients have a story in their minds, written by HGTV reality television and often inaccurate anecdotes from friends and relatives. From our very first meeting, we need to start rewriting that story. We provide each client with a complete written description of each phase and an estimated timeline for when each will occur. Every meeting is followed up with written minutes. We describe what was discussed and inform them of what should next be expected. When clients know what to expect, they are better clients and projects are more successful.
Build rapport with the contractor.
During the Bidding Phase, I meet with each contractor at the job site and review the project in detail. When I meet a new contractor, most speak with authority and position themselves in a defensive stance. Most will tell me how long they’ve been in business and how many happy clients they have. “I’ve been doin’ this for 25 years.” This is the phrase, or one similar, that immediately tells me that I am not working with a team player. It’s usually followed with, “I know what I’m doin’.” The truth is, I’ve been doing this for much longer than that. I’ve grown up on construction sites, worked with contractors before and during architecture school and I’m currently celebrating my 20th year in the architectural profession (my first internship started in 1993). So, “I know what I’m doin’ too.” But I don’t say that. What I do is give the contractor lots of respect and listen carefully to what he or she is saying. I quickly build a rapport with them. From the many years of living and working with contractors, I know well of how they think and their opinions of architects. I defer to their “experience” and show them my respect. Most contractors do, in fact, have lots to teach us about construction and I let them know that I value their opinions. They quickly learn that I am not an obstacle to overcome, but a teammate with whom to align.
Always provide Construction Administration.
The most crucial phase of an architectural project is construction. Much of the earlier phases are built upon the excitement of what can be. When things get real, all that you worked for can be wasted. Architects must provide Construction Administration services. This is not an optional phase. It is during Construction Administration when we confirm that our designs are executed as per our intention and as per our clients’ expectations. If we are not actively involved during construction, we become an easy target when unexpected and unforeseen conditions arise. Rather than managing the process and quickly resolving the issues and reinforcing our value, we become the scapegoat for the contractor. Every issue becomes the fault of the architect and we lose the relationship, authority and credibility we so arduously earned during the earlier phases. Always provide Construction Administration.
Have the courage to act.
Most problems during a project can be solved before they become crises. If we’ve been involved in the process and listening well, the problems will announce themselves. We must act upon them early, bring them to light as soon as they appear and work as a team to resolve them quickly. Most problems will not resolve themselves. Ignoring them, in order to avoid the conflict, will only allow the problems to grow and become much more difficult issues to manage. Anticipate the problems. Seek them out and solve them. Have the courage to act and your projects will proceed with success.
Follow up with clients… and bring a gift.
Its important to follow up after the project is complete and confirm that our client is happy. Our success is based on their satisfaction and their willingness to spread the word about our fantastic project management skills. When the project is complete and they’ve been living in the space for a few weeks, we schedule a visit. We make it quick, bring a thoughtful gift and have them show us around. We let them point out all the great things that we’ve designed and how these spaces will change their lives. We enjoy that moment. That is what we are working for; a happy client, proud of the space we designed. This visit reinforces our relationship with the client, is a great final impression and provides a story to tell their friends when showing off their new space. It also gives us an opportunity to address any unresolved issues with the project, with the contractor or with us and our firm. I always ask for feedback. How did we do and how may we improve? This is how we continuously improve our systems.
Photograph your work.
A few months after completion, when the leaves are green and the spaces are furnished, we schedule a day to visit with our photographer. Shooting professional photos shows our clients that we are proud of their project and want to show it off to the world. The photos are great for our portfolio and for sharing on social media. We often send these photos along with a great story about the project to our local magazine and newspaper editors. Editors are always looking for inspiring stories and the photos are incentive for them to proceed with publication.
Let’s talk… Let me know YOUR favorite rules of project management. The more we all share, the more we will all learn and the stronger our profession will become.