An Architect's Balancing Act: Balancing Program with Budget / by Sarah Callahan

There is a balancing act an architect experiences from the Design Development (DD) phase through the Construction Documentation (CD) phase that those outside of our profession may not see.  We’re walking a tight wire - determined to reach solid ground with our client – as we balance our client’s budget and their desired program. Sometimes it can seem daunting, but it doesn’t need to be.

How do we reach the comfort of solid ground? We advocate for our client’s full program while also meeting their budget restraints or expectations. We do this through a  process of clear and transparent communication. It is our responsibility to design within our client’s budget, and we achieve this by coordinating steps in design and construction documentation alongside a cost estimate. With the cost estimate in-hand, we work collaboratively with our client to adjust project and/or program attributes to stay within budget. 

This teamwork approach works very well…. however there are frequent challenges encountered along the way. These challenges might create the feeling we are, or perhaps are not, inching forward on that tight rope. Considering each project’s unique context, sometimes the typical approach falls short of reaching the solid ground we seek. There are numerous factors outside our control - there could be volatility in the construction market or broader economic pressures that are driving costs. One of the greatest challenges I find is when the issue is not due to outside forces, but rather helping the client negotiate a compromise in their expectations on the aspects of the project’s design or on program attributes. This can feel like a roadblock; but, there are options. In fact, it is an opportunity to build a stronger professional relationship with our clients. Open communication is the pertinent ingredient to finding our stability through this juncture, and becoming a trusted advisor.

When there is a misalignment between the client’s program and their budget, the architect needs to alert the client as soon as it becomes apparent, and they need to start reviewing options.  Knowing and communicating the budget constraints from the start, we proceed by designing economically, while preserving elements of the design or program the client requires in order for them to achieve their project vision. With a comprehensive understanding of vision and objectives, there are options to resolve budget issues.

 

One approach may be to phase a project’s implementation. In some cases, by proceeding through Design Development (and sometimes through Construction Documentation) a tighter cost estimate may be generated. Proceeding to DD drawings with a corresponding cost estimate can also be a beneficial planning approach. 

In special circumstances, a client may be able to phase portions of a project that can either generate extra revenue or perhaps opportunities for naming, fundraising or alternative financing. Proceeding with phasing itself calls for its own type of engagement. While there may be no redesign services from the architect overall, project construction cost may increase due to inefficiencies with multiple contractor mobilization, multiple periods of management overhead, and escalations of fee due to inflation. If a client has a schedule to create an occupied space by a certain date, then phasing may not be viable. Again, one of the key factors is to keep communication open between all parties and to look at all available opportunities.

Another option is for the client to ask the architect for value engineering suggestions that may resolve their budget crises. It is key in any exercise like this to maintain aesthetic integrity, balance of program needs and character. It is our practice to vet with the client their priorities, look for solutions and test possible scenarios. As with any process where you subtract or modify, it’s important to review design to ensure the project meets basic criteria. Redesign is time consuming, and in this situation, the design professional is likely justified to seek reimbursement accordingly. 

 

Above are common options, but many more are discovered when meeting with clients about their specific circumstance.  In all options of value engineering, phasing, or placing a project on hold, the need for initial frank conversation and continued assistance to navigate clients through the pros and cons is necessary. What initially may appear as an obstacle, can conclude with both Client and Architect reaching the stable ground of enhanced professional relationship, and stronger project results that will exceed client expectations. 

Fawn Walton Pellegrini, RA, LEED AP, CDT

Associate