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The Cost of Perfection

Nobody’s perfect, yet perfection is always desirable, especially on a design project. Just for a second, let’s imagine that perfect world:

Deadlines met. Costs at or under budget. Environmentally-friendly materials preferred by all parties. Nobody injured, no property damaged. Zero miscommunication.

Sounds, well, perfect, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, there is a downside to trying to attain a perfect project. As it turns out, perfection is unrealistic enough to guarantee disappointment, which will almost inevitably cause rifts between members of the design team. An architect or engineer can better prepare to avoid this scenario by managing the project owner’s expectations early on, refocusing the energy of the team on achieving success rather than perfection.

The following is an excerpt from our ProNet Practice Note entitled The Cost of Perfection: A Design Professional’s Perspective:

Owners that involve themselves in a collaborative and cooperative team approach with the design professional (and construction contractors when identified) are most likely to accomplish successful projects. This team approach involves the honest exchange of ideas, information and problem solving efforts that minimize costs and improve results. However, there is a trend with some owners to define a successful project as one without any risk to the owner. This “risk free” approach is anything but risk free; in fact it may be just the opposite.

Each project is different, but the experienced design professionals on a given project have been through the basic process many times. The architect knows her role as designer. The engineer understands which skill set he brings to the table. This is not necessarily true of the project owner; he or she may come to the same table with some weighty misconceptions. Ironically, these misconceptions may be fueled by the owner’s knowledge that the design professionals have successfully completed so many projects before.

The nature of the design process is such that each project is unique – the first and only one exactly like it. This can be contrasted to a manufactured product that is perfected over time. Consumers buy products expecting perfection or make a trade-off to a lower priced option. Take, for example, a new car, which will be reproduced thousands of times. If you find a defect, you take it back to be corrected under warranty. This is because a manufactured product can be “perfected” through product testing, design improvements and manufacturing process improvements during the life of the production line for that particular model and its predecessors. While the engineering, design and construction community continues to improve its methodologies and learn from the past each project is different with its own unique challenges.

This Practice Note goes on to point out that thinking of the engineering and design process as a product has lead to some common misconceptions:

  • Contract documents are 100% complete, free of any defects and contain everything needed for the construction contractor to do the job.
  • No change orders are to be expected.
  • No contingency budgets are necessary.
  • Any construction change order probably stems from a design fault.
  • Once there is a construction contract, the owner only has to pay for changes in the work that the owner initiates.
  • All extra costs are damages regardless of their origin (e.g. project improvements or changes at the request of the owner should be borne by the owner).
  • Design professionals are responsible to see that the construction contractor builds it right.
  • Professional liability insurance is a no-fault policy.
  • Design documents or construction contract documents are “guaranteed” or come with a “warranty” to be free from defects and fit for the intended use.

To read more and pick up some real-life risk management strategies to aid in this tricky process, please visit our website. The free, full-length PDF version of this Practice Note is available.