Begin with Intention
Effective project execution is associated with successful achievement of design intent, high-quality construction, profitability and efficiency. Effective management indeed rests in part with a project manager’s ability to deliver a quality project on time and within the approved fee. But profitability and efficiency of design and production are not the only markers of successful project completion.
Successful project delivery relies on the manager’s understanding of the constraints and goals of the project, both those of the firm and those of the client. At project kick-off, identify your client’s priorities. At periodic intervals and at the beginning of the next project phase, confirm whether these are being met or if their importance has changed.
We must understand the importance of clarity of intent with respect to project goals. The team benefits when this information is clearly communicated to the project team: upward, downward and laterally.
As designers and architects, we often place our focus on the details, looking inward at the fine grain of a project. We benefit if we develop the practice of looking outward, with the intention of gaining a better understanding of our clients and their needs. We can stretch beyond our zone of comfort, expressing our project objectives in jargon-free language. To address the need for clarity and brevity in a high-speed design and construction environment, I have developed the idea that “Every Project Has Four Corners”.
The Four Corners of Every Project
Let’s start by identifying the four corners of every project:
- The Scope of Work
- The Project Schedule
- Design Budget (expressed in either fee or hours)
- Estimated Cost of Construction
These are useful points of orientation.
Corner 1: The Scope of Work
Crafting a clear scope of work is a useful way to communicate to your client your ability to work collaboratively. Skillful communication early on can foster trust and a strong client-architect relationship.
Clearly identify the steps by which you will address the client’s challenges through design, production and construction.
- Is the project constrained by a cumbersome approval process?
- Is the project subject to an aggressive schedule?
- Is the client’s schedule “in synch” with the approvals schedule?
When developing the scope of work, break phases down into comprehensible elements and assign them to one of three “buckets”:
- Tasks (for example: design work, production, coordination, material selection)
- Meetings (develop a “unit cost” for meetings: consider the number of meetings, duration, number of attendees, travel time)
- Project administration (plotting, travel, distribution of meeting notes)
At beginning of a new project phase, review goals for the previous phase as well as those for the one on which you are about to embark. Review these points with your client and your project team. Make sure all parties are on the same page. Did you accomplish the goals set for that phase? What has to be carried forward into the new phase?
Conclude each project phase by requesting the client’s signed acknowledgement that the work is complete. Set the client’s expectation at the beginning of the project that a sign-off at the end of a phase is a condition of moving forward with subsequent phases. Sign-offs help to identify “scope creep” and can often help to manage changes to the work.
At phase-end sign-off:
- Is the client up to date with payment for services in this phase?
- Can we bill 100% for the phase just completed?
- Are our documents consistent with client (and our) expectations?
- Have we identified issues to be deferred to the next phase?
- Has the scope of work changed, such that we should request fee for additional services to realign the project?
Don’t do extra work before requesting fee for additional services. Doing so may erode your ability to effectively negotiate for extra fee.
Corner 2: The Project Schedule
Of all of the tools that define a project, perhaps the project schedule is the hardest to nail down. Strategic tracking and coordination of tasks and milestones results in a comprehensible work plan for all to share. However, given the number of parties on a project, the schedule is often an elusive design project in itself.
Often, clients are not aware of the detail or idiosyncrasies of the approvals process. Work with your clients to identify and establish key schedule milestones in each phase of the project. Coordinate the client’s milestones and those of the design team. Guide clients through their own process. Work collaboratively with the client to tailor your eventual work product to their expectations.
A simple strategy is to work backwards from the assumed completion date for each phase. Determine how much can realistically be accomplished in the allotted time.
Share the draft schedule with your project team and solicit their input. Review it frequently but decide strategically how frequently to publish it. If your project schedule is published frequently, it may cause more confusion than clarity among your team members. Publish the schedule so it coincides with key project milestone activities, such as at the end of a phase end or when the most current cost estimate is released.
Where the focus is on obtaining approvals, carefully coordinate the schedule with required deliverables. Identify all potential conflicts and work with the owner so that they clearly understand what will be delivered. Keep the design team in the loop, so that they are in agreement on what is to be submitted by what date.
Where the focus is on documentation for pricing, coordinate the effort required in each phase so that it meshes with the magnitude of the design contingency (if there is one). In fact, “bake in” a design contingency if you can. Work with your cost estimator to make this happen.
You might strategically defer project tasks or elements to the next design phase if you have to. Make it clear to the client and the cost estimator in advance that some areas will require development in subsequent phases. Doing so helps to defend the magnitude of the design contingency to permit detailed development of deferred project elements.
Corner 3: Design Budget
Manage the design fee with intention. Communicate your expectations on how the budget is allocated to the project team before work begins. This budget be conveyed to members of the team either in fee or in hours, depending on the level of staff experience: junior staff may perform better if the budget is expressed in the number of hours they are given to perform a given task. More senior staff may be more sensitive to project profitability if they are given a deign budget expressed in hours.
Corner 4: Estimated Cost of Construction
This “Corner” may not come into play at the very beginning of a project but its importance increases as the project develops. If the construction value is unknown at project start, establish a conceptual figure as a placeholder and reference point. Base it on precedent projects of similar scale and complexity.
How to use the Four Corners
The goal is to keep all Four Corners of the “Project Square” at right angles. So, imagine if the scope of work increases. Theoretically, the four corners no longer form a square. To regain the square, which of the other three corners has to be adjusted? Does the schedule have to increase or decrease? Do we have to increase our fee by asking for additional services? Has the construction cost changed? Identify what has to move in order to regain four right-angled corners.
Of course, projects have more than four corners. The idea here is to reduce the moving parts to a few high-priority elements that can be easily tracked and adjusted. Further, these are easily communicated to other members of the project team, including the client, the design team and the builder. Consider viewing your projects in the context of the Four Corners – and make the task of tracking project changes easier and more comprehensible for the project team.
Question: How do YOU manage and track the four corners of your architecture projects?
Michael S. Bernard, Architect, Founder of Virtual Practice Consulting, provides strategic advice to design and construction firms. Michael collaborates with firm leaders to assure effective growth: enrollment in a vision and mission; development of growth models; strategic business development; and mentoring staff to become effective project leaders. Michael’s clients include architects, builders, structural engineers, landscape architects, interior and lighting designers.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock / Master3D