Although there will always be some changes to projects as they progress, there are a number of steps architects can take to make sure that alterations do not derail the scheme

Steve Burns

“Scope creep” is a frightening idea to architects, but it’s simply growth in project requirements that happens at any point after the project begins. It’s a common problem for project managers in a range of businesses, from consulting to architecture as well as other professional services. For an architecture firm, the scope creep phenomenon is exceedingly common.

Every architect is acutely aware of this phenomenon since, by its very nature, architecture is a process of discovery, and the journey is filled with unknowns that necessitate change. Even after a project is designed and construction has begun, the process will inevitably invite change whether due to an alteration prompted by the owner, or a condition on the site, or a requirement not previously known regarding a building code or regulation.

While these requirements for changes to the work are commonplace, architects, engineers, and construction teams need to make sure such project changes do not result in scope creep and negatively impact profit margins. Scope creep grows like a weed, so if “small” changes are accepted, that seed is planted, and new changes will grow and grow.

Thankfully, professional services firms can take some steps to protect profitability and prevent creep.

Manage start and end times

The end deadline for a project is likely ingrained in the architects’ and principals’ minds. It’s a crucial date that must be met. Finishing the project on time is largely dependent on starting it on time. If an architect has a late start on a project, then they might not be able to accept a later change order. They must judge if they can reasonably reach the client’s deadline if the changes go through.

Architects need to understand their own ability to address change

Using a task management solution that is tied to timekeeping is a useful way to stay on track and to properly manage scope creep. As deadlines approach, the impacts of changes are exponential. Architects must actively keep track of their tasks, and the time planned and used to accomplish them in order to stay on budget. They need to understand their own ability to address changes, whether or not they require a movement to the associated fees or schedule.

Introduce structure to change requests

Architects and their clients should agree on predefined steps to take in response to change orders. By establishing such guidelines in the planning stage, both sides save time and money. The worst situation is for the firm to accept changes without clearly understanding the client’s intent. When that happens, the architects get to work making edits to the plans, but they have to redo much of the work due to miscommunication. They then have to absorb some of the costs, which cuts into the overall profitability of the project. Introducing structure lets the client know that changes cannot be submitted on a whim; that they require thought and costs.

Watch the time budget

A foreboding time report is often an architect’s first sign of trouble on a project. Unfortunately, many time recording systems rely on manual processes and outdated Excel files. Consider using a more advanced cloud-based solution that automates timekeeping processes and ties in project management.

Another aspect of communication involves training clients on how to engage in interaction

Analysis of time spent helps architects to proactively address problems, so they have the context on how to handle any change requests. Create a budget and monitor it daily by assigning a time budget to an entire project or to important activities that are crucial for the completion of the whole project.

Communicate transparently

Architects and designers can prevent some scope creep by clearly explaining their services at the outset of a project. They should detail what services are and are not included in the agreement, so there are less likely to be change requests later. For example, architects should outline what interactions (if any) they will have with the construction team, and that they are not to be held liable for damages that might arise after their design is constructed. Communication can stop the seeds of scope creep from growing.

Another aspect of communication involves training clients on how to engage in interaction. For example, if a client sends documents late, does not provide timely responses to questions, or asks too many redundant questions, then the communication cycle has broken down.

Some firms have taken to clauses in their contract that directly relate to additional hourly charges for client meetings within the firm. These meetings often require many members of the design team to be in attendance and some clients enjoy participating in the design process so much they overstay their welcome. Whenever the architect loses control over how their time is spent, their budget and performance are at risk. Having the penalty of additional hourly charges is a disincentive to the client from abusing the team’s time. Bringing this problem to the attention of the client during contract negotiations not only prepares them for invoices when these fees occur, but also reminds them to be respectful of your time.

Architects and designers that employ these strategies can proactively set up their projects to avoid (or smoothly integrate) changes in project scope. By increasing the connection between timekeeping and project management, improving communication, and budgeting expenses, professional services firms can satisfy client needs without destroying their profit margins.

Steve Burns is chief creative officer at BQE Software