Solutions for the Design-Versus-Budget Challenge

“There are lots of ways to build a building, with lots of options,” said Martin Sharpless, AIA, vice president with Providence, RI-based Gilbane Building Co. “Some are cost effective and some are costly.” With so many decisions to make, how do administrators pare down their options to ultimately produce a high-quality building that meets both program and budget requirements?

The answer comes from the experts who are in the trenches daily. They’ve seen technology and space requirements increase and budgets decrease, and they have at their ready an arsenal of tools to assist administrators.

Decisions Have Implications
Let’s start with Sharpless, who defines his role as working with the design team and helping the owner understand the implications of each design decision. “For example,” he said, “Does it make sense? How easy is it to install? How much does it cost? Do you have local contractors who can do the work? You’re better off knowing in advance.”

Similarly, Sharpless cautions against a low-bid approach. “Recognize that you might get it cheap on first cost,” he said, “but you’ll pay for it as you operate the building in the next 50 to 100 years.” To be sure that you understand the implications of your decisions, he recommends using an advocate during the design process.

Plan Early and Thoroughly
At Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington, Assistant Vice President and University Architect Robert E. Meadows plans early and thoroughly to understand the implications of each design decision. “It allows us to make sure the project budget matches the shopping list from the outset,” he pointed out. Specifically, he and his team do their own programming, often working with the client for a year in advance of hiring a consultant. When a consultant is hired, he or she is handed a complete program.

Meadows noted that, having worked this way for so long, they have a good idea of what they can expect to pay per square foot. They work with the client to pare a facility down “to something that’s realistic in terms of a budget,” he said. “If there’s not enough money when we get to schematic design, we have a prioritized list of what can be taken out. It’s painful, and yet it isn’t.”

If Planning Is a Challenge
If your team is having a difficult time reaching consensus and determining priorities, or even if they’re having a difficult time verbalizing what’s important, there are a number of methodologies that can be employed to discover what the team is thinking and where their preferences lie.

Jack Bullo, AIA, principal designer with Harley Ellis Devereaux in Southfield, MI, offers two suggestions for moving forward. The first is hosting interactive group sessions where everyone hears what everyone else is asking for. “It’s deadly to meet individually and get wish lists as a way of starting the project,” he said. “When everyone is hearing the rationale behind everyone else’s requests, there is a lot of real-time editing.” For example, someone may say, “I need that, too.” Someone else may say, “I am asking for that, too, but I won’t use it 100 percent of the time, so why don’t we share it?”

Bullo’s second suggestion is a gaming technique. Label bags with different priorities, such as “exterior appearance” and “interior finishes.” Hand the team even amounts of play money and ask them to distribute it in the bags they feel are most important. Count the money and use the distribution of it as a rating of what the team believes is important.

Stick to Your Standards
As questions of what is important are raised, remember to stick to your standards, as they were created to help achieve high-quality facilities in the first place. Cutting back on standards undermines your mission.

At IU, there are two standards critical to new facilities. The first is classroom standards, which are adhered to regardless of the type of facility or who will be using the classrooms. In addition, an active classroom standards committee, made up of representatives from many departments, visits classrooms on other campuses. Based on what they see, they make recommendations for updates.

A second standard is that every new building must have a Silver LEED rating at minimum. “There are costs associated with this standard,” said Meadows. “At times, the faculty asks us to give up that standard, so they can have other things. The answer is always ‘No.’ If we don’t think about what we’re building today, we’re just saddling our successors with problems.”

Create a Cost Model
While sticking to your standards in the design process, also use cost modeling to ensure that program and budget needs are being met. “In cost modeling, we build an estimate on a programmatic basis,” explained Sharpless. “Because of our experience, we can build the cost model without much information about what the design looks like. It helps the owner look at the program clearly and think about the implications, such as the expense of having six classrooms when four will do, even before the designer draws anything.”

As the project progresses with design and material changes, the cost model is updated. “We tune the cost and keep the design team and owner aware of the cost as the decisions are being made,” Sharpless said. “The premise is that, as the design progresses from idea to finished product, it represents the best value.”

Bullo, too, is a strong proponent of cost modeling. “We don’t want to get too far into design and find out we can’t afford a third of what we have,” he said. “It’s more difficult to tear out in terms of design, and emotionally, because people have seen the design and are attached to it.”

Separate Needs Versus Wants
In the design-versus-budget challenge, needs and wants must be separated. “Generally, there are more wants than needs, and more of both than budget,” Sharpless said. Common sense may dictate the distinction but, if it doesn’t, your architect or construction manager can help. Specifically, he proposes considering what must be completed now and what can be added later.

Bullo agrees, pointing out that interior finishes, technology, and landscaping are often put on an “upgrade later” list in order to execute the project’s mission. “Our landscapers hate it when landscaping has to be added later,” he admitted. “But, in these challenging financial times, it’s often a necessary strategy.”

Phase the Project
Similar to separating needs from wants is project phasing. Perhaps it’s best to complete two-thirds of the facility now and plan to build the other one-third a few years down the road. It allows you to have an operational facility that meets more needs than not. If appropriately designed, an additional phase (or even more) will seamlessly fit into the existing construction. “Certain elements need to be figured out as part of the design process,” cautioned Sharpless, “to allow you to buy incrementally and not force you to spend a lot of money later.”

Go Multifunctional
Another way to come out ahead on the design-versus-budget challenge is to consider the potential of multifunctional space, which is a common practice today. This option requires some strategizing. For example, for a lobby to also serve as a student lounge requires consideration of glare and access to technology. A dining hall that also functions as a presentation room requires consideration of noise and technology. Still, it’s clear that spending a little more for one space to serve two purposes may be a better option than spending double for two separate spaces.

Many administrators will only complete one new building in their professional lifetimes. This factor, coupled with the enormous number of decisions that must be made, make it even more difficult to come out ahead in the design-versus-budget challenge. In closing, Meadows returns to the plan-early-and-thoroughly approach that his team uses: “We know what we want when we come to the table. We’re not a leaf in the wind. If you’re not clear on what you want, the consultant will drive the situation and make the decisions for you. That’s not where you want to be.”


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