Designers Need to Know More About Costs

Jun 26, 2006

It’s no wonder that contractors are getting more and more control over the building process. Contractor-led design-build’s popularity compared to designer-led design-build is just one example. There are many reasons for the decline of the architect as “master builder” but foremost among them is a lack of cost knowledge. This lack of knowing what things cost to actually build is a bigger threat to design firms than cheap foreign labor ever was. It keeps us from being able to meet our clients’ expectations— we can’t design to their budget. We look bad, we lose the client’s confidence, we lose control, and we create a lot of disappointment. ALL of this could be eliminated by accurate, up-to-date knowledge of the costs of materials and labor in the location where the project is going to be built. How can we make things better? There are many options, some better than others: Make cost estimating a bigger part of architectural education. This is much easier to say than it is to accomplish. My experience with architectural schools is that change comes slowly— very slowly. Any new curriculum or new way of teaching is usually resisted. Doing things the way they have always been done is a big part of it. But as long as little or no time is spent figuring out what a design will cost to build while in school, where do you think our architects are going to get this knowledge? It’s a huge problem. Develop (and use) a firm-wide database on actual construction costs. It’s amazing to me that more design firms don’t do this. I don’t understand why this isn’t a bigger priority than it is. We need to be able to slice and dice and unitize these costs any way necessary so we can immediately talk cost-per-square-foot on anything, anywhere, that anyone wants to quickly ballpark. There are many different services that can give you a lot of this data, also. Find out which of these are any good and sign up for them. Use more than one source for cost data and continuously update in dynamic environments for things such as steel costs, lumber costs, etc. Specialize. The way to learn what a mid-line hotel costs to build is to do them every day. Even more specifically, the way to learn what different types of ceiling treatments in those hotels cost is to do them every day. The way to learn what venetino marble vs. four-inch ceramic tile costs to install in a hotel bathroom in Cleveland per square foot is to do these projects every day. Specialization is critical. And the people who actually know costs need to be accessible to the client and involved in the project early. Don’t keep them in the back room while your silver-tongued devils are out there over-promising and underdelivering. Get cost consultants involved early! There’s nothing like being able to do it all yourself, but not every company has every skill they need in-house. If this describes your firm, form a relationship with a capable cost consulting firm. Use them on every job, not just those where the client is mandating it. Get them involved early in the project, too, so it doesn’t go so far off-course that there’s no chance for recovery. This could be money that’s well-spent. Have a sufficient budget for cost review and preliminary construction cost estimating. If you don’t have enough time planned into the budget, this definitely will not happen. It still may not happen— design usually eats more than their share of the fee— but it may get someone thinking if the line item is there. And if it’s there but never used, this alone would tell top management something in the process is broken. There are many other suggestions I could make on how to improve the cost knowledge of design professionals, but I am out of space. Send your ideas on so we can share them with our readers! Originally published 6/26/2006

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