I've long appeciated the advantages of design/build. This
approach to construction removes you from the rat race of
competitive bidding. It enables you to get reimbursed for the
many hours typically spent on the design phase of a project.
Most important, it ensures that even as you provide clients
with the best possible job for their money, you make an honest
Despite the greater control you gain with design/build, though,
keeping the design phase on track can be a real
If your designer is able to come up with a successful plan with
only a few iterations; if the client makes decisions quickly
and can hold to them; if your initial guess at the budget turns
out to have been a good one; and if you have a crew available
to build the project when all the design and documentation is
complete, then everything marches right along and design flows
smoothly into construction.
But projects don't always follow this textbook scenario. More
often, the process gets hung up on something: Your initial
budget guess turns out to have been too low by 50 percent and
you have to make some depressing scope reductions. The clients
keep asking for things that just don't make sense and you spin
your wheels explaining what you think should be obvious. You
have a hard time finding time to move the project along because
it's a job you probably should have said no to in the first
place and now it's hard to find the energy for it.
These and any number of other pitfalls can derail a project and
transform it from an asset into a grating liability.
Having learned all this the hard way over a number of years,
our company now uses a worksheet (see checklist) to help keep
design jobs on track. This form forces us to ask the right
questions — and get useful answers — frequently
enough that we're less at risk of losing momentum or
This worksheet forces the author's team to ask key questions at
In this article I'll go over the questions on the survey and
the reasons it's so important to ask them.
1) Should We Be Doing This
Obvious questions don't always get asked; that's just human
nature. Our checklist prompts us to ask the most important one
in a timely enough fashion that we can act on the answer.
As I am both the company owner and the salesperson, it's all
too easy for me to say yes to projects I have no business
accepting — jobs we don't have time for, that others
could do better, that aren't worth the energy required to get
them going. Having this question on the list is akin to having
someone looking over my shoulder and checking my work.
If it's the architect's or estimator's opinion that, for
whatever reason, I've made a mistake in pursuing a job, we get
that opinion on the table early enough in the process that I
have two choices: We can either back out relatively gracefully
then and there, or I can come up with any number of reasons why
I'm right and we should in fact do the job. Often the latter
option involves struggling along for a few months and
then backing out, after a lot of wasted time and hard
feelings. (At which point I typically comment on what a
surprise it is that the whole thing turned out so badly.)
These questions are included because about 10 percent to 20
percent of our work isn't design/build. It takes a lot of
vigilance and energy to make sure outside design professionals
meet our standards of accuracy and completeness of information
(it's taken a lot of vigilance and energy for us to meet those
standards). We need to make sure we've been clear about what
our expectations are, and this question lets us know
whether we have been.
3) Bailout Questions
About one in 12 of our design jobs does not become a
construction job. Sometimes this is the client's choice;
sometimes it's ours. The sooner we can recognize that "Mission
control, we've got a problem," the sooner we can make a
graceful retreat — or at least mitigate the awkwardness.
It never gets easier to say no by waiting a little longer. No
amount of wishful thinking will get rid of the problem. I know:
I am a Zen master of wishful thinking.
Having this question on the list forces us to think the hard
thought and, if necessary, take the hard action before doing so
gets even more difficult.
4) Budget Questions
Budget overruns derail more design projects than any other
problem. It's amazingly easy for design work to outrun your
ability to provide budget feedback, and if you've given an
unrealistically low budget to begin with, delayed budget
feedback can quickly turn into lost credibility and unpaid
The first three questions in this category are pretty
self-evident, both in intention and importance. The fourth
— "What's the budget amount shown on the design-fee
billing statement?" — refers to our standard
We bill hourly for design work and tell people to expect that
design fees will be 10 percent to 20 percent of construction
costs (while making it clear this is not a binding ratio). Our
design-fee statements show clients how much they've paid to
date, and what percentage of the currently anticipated project
cost that amount represents (see statement). This helps manage
expectations. But we have to be very careful to make sure that
the correct anticipated construction budget shows up on that
statement, and this questions helps us remember.
The design statement shows design fees as a percentage of the
entire job, thereby keeping total anticipated costs in front of
The fifth and sixth questions in the budget category measure
whether we're filling out important job-tracking forms in a
timely fashion. The job-cost tracking grid, which I described
in a previous article (see "Preventing Remodeling Sticker
Shock," Business, 7/05), is a quick and easy way to
monitor whether key cost drivers are moving up or down, so that
we can rapidly provide broad feedback on design decisions and
head off major cost surprises.
For instance, the job-cost tracking grid may show that the
remodeled square footage has gone up 25 percent from one design
iteration to the next, so we'd be able to warn the client about
a significant increase without having to get a lot of repricing
from subs and suppliers.
The document-tracking grid ensures that subcontractors and
suppliers are working from the same page — literally
— that we and the clients are. It monitors who has what
set of drawings and specifications, so that we can see at a
glance (provided we've kept the grid up-to-date) who's got
outdated documents and, consequently, whether we're relying on
pricing that may no longer be current.
5) Schedule Questions
If budget surprises are responsible for the most project
derailments, schedule surprises rank right behind.
I get a lot of calls from prospects who say they were all ready
to go but their contractor just told them he has to back out
because he's overcommitted. Often, it's easy to turn these
leads into jobs just by being honest: "We can't start your job
for at least eight months and maybe 10, because the crew that
would be best for your project has two four-month jobs to
finish up beforehand." A surprising number of times the
response has been something like, "I'll take it. I'd rather
wait and know it's going to get done than wait without ever
knowing for sure."
The schedule questions force us to think ahead. Since we know
the approximate timespan between milestones for different types
of projects, we can anticipate when we might be ready to start
construction according to what our current milestone is. If
this is at odds with what we've communicated, we know that it's
time to update the client.
Again, the sooner you deliver bad news, the less difficult it
is to deal with it.
6) What Are the Next Three Meetings We
Need to Have?
This question was inspired by my Boy Scout days. If a scout got
lost in the woods (which in my troop happened often), he was
supposed to identify three trees some distance apart that
created roughly a straight line. He was supposed to walk to the
first tree and then locate a fourth tree that continued the
straight line defined by trees 2 and 3. Continuing this
strategy, he'd be fairly sure he was walking in a straight line
and not just going around in circles.
Forget for the moment that by using this technique we sometimes
ended up in some pretty stupid places — so stupid that
walking around in circles would have been preferable. In the
design process, laying out the next three meetings provides us
with several benefits.
First, it fosters a sense of direction (and, if you ask the
other questions on the worksheet reliably and answer them
honestly, you won't be heading for a stupid place).
Second, it focuses and forces effort. If you have a meeting
scheduled, chances are good you'll do the work required to be
ready for the meeting. If you don't have a meeting scheduled,
you might lose any sense of urgency or momentum.
Third, prescheduling these meetings gives us a clear sense of
sequence. For instance: We really need to meet with the zoning
official before pursuing this particular design option, so the
zoning meeting needs to be first and the budget meeting
Finally, this strategy provides us with a clearer sense of
where we are in the process and what the primary issues and
tasks we're facing are. For example, we can't meet with the
subs yet for pricing if we don't have an agreed-on floor
7) Do We Need to Reprice?
Sooner or later in design/build, you are bound to encounter a
situation in which the clients are sold on the plan but the
budget has grown just beyond their ability to swing it. In such
cases, the project may need to be postponed several months so
that finances can catch up.
The hazard here is that prices will jump while you're waiting.
So when things get rolling again, your first step should be to
throw away the previous quote and have everything repriced.
This also gives you a chance to verify where you were in the
estimating phase when things got put on hold (you might not
have been as far along as you thought).
Asking the repricing question reminds us of the risks of
recommencing a design job after a break in the action.
8) What Are the Next Drawings the
Architect Will Deliver and When?
Every design meeting should generate a list of clear, tangible
action items. An architect who's balancing multiple projects
needs to understand exactly what's expected of him or her and
when it's expected (this applies to everyone else, too, for
that matter). This question gives us a chance to review and
clarify the most needed documents, and consequently forces the
question about what sort of delivery dates are realistic
— which, in turn, feeds back into the schedule questions
Asking about the drawings helps us in two ways: We can pace the
project in a more realistic fashion and we can better manage
How We Use the Worksheet
My estimate coordinator and I meet with each architect or
designer at least every other week. At these meetings we run
through the worksheet for each design project. I keep a
separate worksheet file for every project. Nothing but the
worksheet is in this file; other project information and
paperwork are kept in a different project file.
The files are color-coded based on the architect or designer
— blue for Anita, red for Doug, yellow for Jeff. This
makes it easy to pull all the right files for a particular
designer meeting. We go through the files one by one, reviewing
past worksheets for each project and filling in a new one for
that meeting. I keep my laptop out and type action items into
an e-mail as the meeting proceeds. This, I've found, is more
reliable than waiting until after the meeting to write up the
In this manner, we've learned to track design projects in a
much more organized and proactive way. I can't say we're 100
percent reliable about every step in the process, but we're
getting better. And if things fall apart on a project, we're
able to quickly identify why the breakdown occurred, so we
stand a better chance of avoiding the same problem in the
future. The net result is that we're able to handle more jobs
in a less stressed, more controlled fashion — and that,
of course, is to everyone's benefit.
Paul Eldrenkampowns Byggmeister
in Newton, Mass.