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Last edited 22 Sep 2020
Decision making on building design and construction projects
It is vitally important that the way decisions are made on projects is structured, ordered and controlled.
The decisions made at any particular stage should reflect the activities that are being undertaken at that stage. They should not backtrack, as this will involve abortive costs and the repetition of tasks that have already been undertaken, and they should not leap ahead as this will prejudice activities that have not been undertaken and may produce to inappropriate outcomes.
- Deciding that another light socket is required when the electrical drawings have already been prepared means that those drawings must be re-done. Deciding this after the wall has been constructed means that holes have to be chased into the already completed wall and then repaired.
- Deciding a list of accommodation that a building should provide before any design studies have been carried out will close down the options that designers consider. It is better in the early stages to define the functional outputs that are required, and then to assess all the available options. For example, a functional outcome might be to educate 30 children. This is different from prescribing that a classroom is built for 30 children. Under the particular circumstances of a project this might not be the best solution.
A simple way to avoid making the wrong decisions at the wrong time is by establishing a series of project gateways at which the project team compile information describing the project as it stands, the client assesses that information and either asks for changes or approves it and gives instructions to progress to the next stage.
At each of these stages, certain aspects of the project may be ‘frozen’ and change control procedures introduced for those aspects. For example, at the end of the concept design stage, the project brief may be ‘frozen’. Freezing the project brief means that it can only be changed with the explicit agreement of the client, and then only when the cost implications and the disruption of the change have been evaluated and accepted, and the change recorded.
By adopting a process of progressively reviewing and approving aspects of the project, it moves forward in a controlled way. If this strategy is not adopted, the client and project team can lose focus, uncertain of what has been decided and what has not and unable to make progress. There can also be ‘scope creep’ where instructions are given without a proper assessment of whether the instructed work is included in existing fees, whether it has been authorised, or whether it is a sensible use of the clients funds.
The completed development belongs to the client, and so it is important that they are the ultimate decision maker and that they are comfortable with the direction the project is taking. Consultants and contractors can give advice and make proposals, but the client should decide.
It is not always clear however who the client is. Even on small projects, more than one person will normally be affected by the project, and they should all have a say in how it develops. If they do not, there is a risk that they will become detached critics of the project rather than advocates for it. It is important that they feel involved in the project, and feel ownership of it, and that it does not just become one person’s vision.
This can be achieved by appointing project champions, responsible for different aspects of the project, and creating user panels who are consulted about proposals. This should be genuine involvement, not just a pretence of influence.
 Other stakeholders and third parties
Decision making is not always in the hands of the client organisation. Other stakeholders, such as customers, neighbors, investors and shareholders may need to be consulted. In addition, there may be third parties, who, whilst they have no particular interest in the success of the project, do have an influence over the outcome, such as utilities companies, local authorities and so on.
Managing these groups and allowing them to have an input whilst still driving the project forwards can be very challenging and time consuming, particularly as they may not all have the same objectives. It is important therefore to identify areas of commonality and areas of difference between them and to manage individuals whose expectations are unlikely to be met. A first step in this process can be the preparation of a stakeholder map or stakeholder matrix. This allows a plan to be developed for how to manage the involvement of different groups.
 Making changes
Building design and construction is a very complex process, and even with careful control it is inevitable that changes will be made and decisions revisited. However, these changes should be kept to an absolute minimum as they disrupt the project and have impacts on time, cost and quality. Broadly, the later in the development of the project that changes occur, the greater those impacts are likely to be.
The need for changes can be minimised by:
- Undertaking thorough site investigations and condition surveys.
- Ensuring that the project brief is comprehensive and is supported by stakeholders.
- Ensuring that legislative requirements are properly integrated into the project.
- Ensuring that risks are properly identified.
- Ensuring that designs are properly co-ordinated before tender.
A change control procedure should clearly define the process by which changes are requested and approved and who is responsible for those processes. There should then be an evaluation of whether the impact of the change is acceptable and whether the proposal provides value for money.
Changes are particularly expensive and disruptive once contracts have already been awarded, as there is no longer any competition to help keep costs low. This applies in particular to design changes made once the construction contract has been awarded. Unless there is a very good reason for late design changes or late design decisions, the right time to make them is during the design process, not during construction. Contracts can however allow for the possibility of changes by including rates that will be charged for work not included in the contract.
- Building design and construction can be assessed at key points in their development to test whether they satisfy the employer’s business objectives.
- Building projects can be designed and constructed efficiently.
- Built assets can be operated efficiently when they are completed.
A key part of this process is defining the decisions that the client will have to make during the design, construction and operation of the built asset, then identifying the information that will need to make those decisions. This underpins the whole structure of the project, determining what appointments are necessary and when, the scope of services for those appointments, and defining the information that needs produced at key points in the project so that its progress is controlled.
This requires a great deal of planning by the client during the early stages of the project, but should ultimately mean that decision making is more effective and the completed project is better suited to the client’s needs.
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