Making Smart Building Decisions

College and university administrators often see the down side of adding a new building to campus: delays, change orders, going over budget, and poor or nonexistent decision making from others involved in the project. Some of these issues are bound to occur, even in the best situations. However, it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom, says Joseph Chronister, an associate prinicpal in charge of higher education at the Chicago-based architectural firm Perkins & Will. We put him to the test -- asking how to prevent change orders, what red flags to look for in a building project and more.

cpm: How can an administrator make smart building decisions when he or she may not have design and construction experience?

Chronister: That’s a good question. In most college and university situations, there are people on the campus who are somewhat knowledgeable - sometimes very knowledgeable - about the building proc-ess. The important thing is bringing them into the process early so that they see the development of the documents and program.

Sometimes there are maintenance personnel as well, who need to think about the project in terms of "How do we maintain this building?" For example, "How easily maintainable is the flooring system that is being selected?" Architects and engineers make their best professional judgment on many things, but each institution is unique; the only way we can really determine their needs is to work with them. We can’t design the building alone: We need their help.

cpm: Do you think that most administrators are aware of the importance of bringing maintenance personnel in from the beginning? Or is it something that’s not yet being done?

Chronister: It varies. We always ask that they be brought into the process. Quite frequently, however, the maintenance people are surprised that they have been asked to join the process. Some of the large, public universities are more likely to have a wider representation of expertise from different areas of the university involved in a project than are smaller institutions.

cpm: What leads to change orders?

Chronister: I think most change orders can be traced to a breakdown in the communication within the project team - like between the architects and the engineers or between the architect and the owner.

cpm: What kinds of smart decisions help to prevent change orders?

Chronister: There are a couple of things. First, there are now better ways to communicate electronically with project teams, not only the architects and engineers, but also the owner. For example, we are setting up Intranet sites for our projects where all the correspondence is posted. All the drawings, as they’re developed, are posted here.

It allows every member of the team to go to this common area and verify the status of the drawings. It allows the owner to see the drawings as they’re being developed. What they can see now is a more gradual development of the drawings, which means you can catch problems earlier. Owners can see things that they don’t understand, that they did not expect, or don’t think are meeting their needs earlier in the process, and a change can be efficiently made.

Another smart decision resolves cost-estimating problems or jobs being over budget. The traditional way that architects have done cost-estimating is that, at the end of the phase, the drawings are sent to a cost-estimator. Quite often, the result of this is that the project is over budget, and you then go into a value-engineering process. Unfortunately, a lot of decisions made during value-engineering are made with an eye on the construction schedule - you don’t really focus on the best list of changes to get the job back in budget.

On recent projects, we’ve been doing cost estimating along the way. The first thing we do when we start a project is to establish a cost-model based on past experience with that type of building.

As we’re developing our drawings, we issue packages to the cost-estimator every two weeks. Normally we do a few different options for each building system. One example would be it’s a brick building with a block back-up; it’s a brick building with a metal-stud backup; it’s a precast concrete building. The estimator comes back with the cost information, and we check that against the cost-model. The owner gets to make the decision most appropriate for the institution and doesn’t get a big surprise at the end of the phase.

cpm: What are some examples of costly design errors?

Chronister: Sometimes there are dimensional issues where what an architect is showing on his drawings does not match what is shown on an engineering drawing. Since the structural (engineer’s) portion of the building is put up first, the architect is forced to make changes when the error is found because the engineer’s portion is already, quite literally, cast in stone.

There are also changes as a result of decision making that has been postponed too long. As architects and engineers develop their documents, there are a series of increasingly detailed phases that we go through. More and more detail is added to the documents as we go forward, finally resulting in construction documents that the contractor uses to build the facility. Unfortunately, sometimes decisions are not made at the right time during the project. They come along later, forcing change in a certain area of the building. Since every building contains a multitude of complex, interrelated systems, a seemingly simple change can have an unintended effect elsewhere.

cpm: Do most projects run into change orders at the last minute? Or is that the exception rather than the rule?

Chronister: I think that every project, if people are honest, has some sort of change order. There are guidelines to what is an acceptable amount of change orders. Sometimes these are in writing. For example, the Capital Development Board for the State of Illinois has guidelines that say, "Here are the acceptable amounts of change orders based on the percentage of construction cost."

Other institutions don’t have hard-and-fast guidelines, but there is a general sense that a certain number of what you could call errors or omissions will occur, as well as a certain number of value-added changes that will be made by the owner during construction.

cpm: Is it ever too late to make a change?

Chronister: Theoretically, change orders can occur until the last day prior to occupancy. Most owners realize that, the further along you are in the process, the more costly changes become. Changes at the programming and schematic design level are minor. Even if an owner completely changes his or her mind about the design and wants to throw out what’s been done halfway through schematic design and start over again, it’s a minor cost.

On the other hand, if you make changes during the construction phase without the benefit of any sort of competitive bidding, the costs are significantly increased. A change done during construction can have a 20 percent to 30 percent premium cost associated with it.

cpm: What red flags should administrators look for to alert them to the fact that the project is going badly and something needs to be done?

Chronister: I would be concerned if a project is constantly over-budget throughout the design phases. If that pattern develops, there is probably a problem between the budget for the building and the program -- that there is too much building for the budget. Even if you can, on paper, get the building back on budget, you may still have a significant problem when you bid the job.

Another red flag occurs with the development of the architect’s documents: Are there any holes in it; are there any systems that are not specified or worked out?

Yet another red flag is when a specific discipline is falling behind. For example, it may look like the architectural is far along and the electrical is showing everything you would expect, but you see that mechanical is not quite there. That would point out to me that something is going wrong and, when they finally do catch up with the other disciplines, there might be a problem.

cpm: What should the administrator expect from the architect in terms of making the project work smoothly?

Chronister: The architect is responsible for, most of all, clearly communicating the design of the project. Architects must explain to the owners, through the graphic representation, what the building is going to look like, how it’s going to function and how the systems in it are going to fit together.

It means taking the time to explain how to read a set of drawings and to go through the specifications. You help the owners do the review that is going to allow them to have the confidence to say, "Yes, I’m getting the building I want. This building is being designed to my requirements." You educate the owners through each step of the process so that they are comfortable and familiar with the design documents.

cpm: What should the architect expect from the client?

Chronister: The architect needs a commitment on the part of the client to collaborate with you. The client must realize that the architect can’t design the building alone.

Also, the architect needs the client to bring the right personnel into the process. This does not mean that 50 people are needed in every meeting. It does mean that there is a core group assigned to the project from the client’s side that the architect will work with, and that expertise and advice from other quarters will be brought in as needed.

Finally, the architect needs decision making. As I mentioned earlier, problems are created when decisions are not made in a timely manner. For example, if the decision cannot be made about the type of heating system to use in a building, there’s a gap in the process. As everything else is developed, that gap remains. When the decision is finally made, it may have an unfortunate effect on the other building systems.

Janet Coburn is managing editor of College Planning & Management magazine.

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