The Key to Quality in A/E Designs: It’s not what you think.


In the A/E design services industry, poor design quality is a growing problem often resulting in costly change orders and significant schedule delays. Even with the aid of advanced 3D Computer Aided Design programs such as AutoCAD and REVIT, and committing internal resources to address quality concerns head-on, firms are still struggling to meet minimum standards for quality and completeness of designs. With project design schedules and budgets shrinking by the minute, a viable solution seems out of reach. Or is it?  

Ask any design team member, regardless of discipline, what he/she sees as the underlying problem and the answer will mostly likely echo sentiments of the majority of his/her peers–“No time for QA/QC review” or “Schedules are too tight.” No doubt, many an architect and engineer have had conversation(s) about this hot button topic, often ending in mutual agreement that ultimately construction schedule and owner demands are the underlying cause. But is that really the case? Einstein said it well, “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” So with that in mind, consider the following assertion: Poor quality in A/E design is a direct result of confusing ‘Phase’ with ‘Process; the two are not the same.

The word “Phase” is used to describe a period of time. It’s something architects, engineers, and designers throughout the A/E community are intimately familiar with. It is the common language we use to coordinate with owners, our clients and each other. It is how we qualitatively and quantitatively describe schedule, how we segregate key milestones, establish deliverables and define when they are to be delivered. Yet, while this is true, it may fall short. To accurately define a phase, we must first understand the processes within.

A ‘process’ is a series of steps, tasks, or events that must be completed to successfully meet an established goal. Therefore, a ‘phase’ is nothing more than a description of specific portions in an overall larger process. More importantly, establishing non-process-driven phases, is paramount to handing everyone a check, a notice to proceed, and the same deliverable date.

So, in order to truly address quality issues in A/E design services, we must first correct one simple misunderstanding. “Processes define phase. Phase doesn’t define processes.” Let that sink in for a second.

When we think strictly in terms of phase duration when negotiating a schedule with clients, we create potential risk when we don’t allot enough time to complete the actual design process. Every project is unique, despite common similarities with other projects. Likewise, the processes for every project are unique to that project, despite those same commonalities. The key to delivering the highest quality A/E designs is understanding the required processes, what it takes to complete them in terms of required information, effort, and time, and conveying those requirements clearly when discussing schedule, establishing phase milestones and setting deliverables.

In contrast, contractors seem to do this very well. They understand the processes of constructing a building from permitting to occupancy. Given their final product is a finished, tangible item, they are forced to think in terms of sequential processes, not phases. This mindset is the underlying reason why they seem, at least to the A/E design world, to always be pushing to shorten the schedule, increasing the speed at which architectural and engineering designs are deliverabled. After all, the construction process has this little, unyielding, thing called a critical path, which defines the minimum amount of time in which a construction project can be completed. (Spoiler Alert!!! The design process has one too!)

Tasks within the project are often dependent upon another task’s completion. For example, wall structures must be erected before electrical rough-in can be completed; core structure and floors must be in place before wall structures can be erected, etc. In construction, many tasks must be performed sequentially and co-dependently.. Understanding this process, and the relationships/dependencies among the various sub-tasks, enables the Construction Manager to clearly define the minimum phase durations required to complete the overall project. In reality, producing A/E designs is not that much different. For example, Mechanical and Plumbing equipment selections must be made before Electrical can define the necessary circuits. Architectural spaces must be defined within the BIM models before model-based engineering calculations can be made accurately based on space envelope. Just to list a few.

So, how do we employ a simple understanding of phase vs process to address issues with poor quality in the designs we deliver? The answer is pretty straight forward…

Communication, Coordination, and Definition.

On any given project, the first and most important step is to clearly and accurately define the project scope. In the Lean Six Sigma world, every project begins with a Charter–a document clearly defining the intents and purposes of the project, identifying stakeholders, and champions of the project. In the A/E world, this is typically in the form of a contract. But in both cases, without proper scope definition, the true goal of the project can never fully be achieved without having to make some mid-course correction along the way (translation: increased project costs and lengthened schedule). So, taking time on the front end to fully understand the defined scope through a series of question and answer sessions with the owner and the design team is invaluable.

Organized Communication is Vital.

On larger projects, it is important to avoid the pitfall of scheduling coordination meetings with every team member and every discipline at the table. While sidebar conversations can be productive, this environment actually promotes confusion and prohibits effective use of time. As humans, we may have two ears, but rarely are we able to carry on multiple conversations at once. Like the projects we deliver, focused Q&A sessions, when well-structured and process-driven, can prove invaluable to project success.

Make time for Cross-Functional Coordination Early On.

Another way to help drive clarity and cohesion in scope is to allow the other consultants the opportunity to review and submit comments, concerns, and make recommendations regarding preliminary conceptual plans, which ultimately define the scope of the project. For example, allowing the Mechanical Engineer to review and comment on a proposed floor plan change prior to final acceptance, ensures that considerations for space allocation can be provided up front, working to ensure that major programmatic changes aren’t necessary once the scope has been defined. The same can be said for electrical, plumbing, and technology. Understanding the design process and allowing time for consultant review and comment is effectively defining the necessary order to achieve an acceptable clarity of scope, moving forward with the project. This is an example of how process definition early in the project ultimately helps to define phase, enabling reliable quality.

Another great example is in the internal processes employed by the MEP/T Engineering design teams. During project “kick-off” when the scope is established, time is of the essence for the engineering team to perform required due diligence, codes review, and develop the design. Often, electrical is the last to finish, tying in all the power requirements from other disciplines and consultants. The bulk of detailed electrical design occurs well after the point of the other consultants’ substantial completion. . Changes to design at this point can have dramatic consequences. Sometimes the impact of these changes are minimal and can easily be overcome, but other times the impact is enormous, requiring a substantial level of effort for the engineering team to react while maintaining schedule.

So it is fairly easy to see the further we fall behind in communication, coordination, and definition as a whole, the more we sacrifice on quality. In a manner of speaking, a project is only as successful, as the plan that defines it.

Going back to the contractor comparison, sub-contractors typically well understand the impact of their respective schedules on other trades. Knowing where their pieces of the overall puzzle fit, arms them with the ability to manage their work more effectively, to coordinate with other trades, and complete the established timeline effectively. There will always be hiccups and unforeseen circumstances, but having a well thought out process helps to contain the impact of such challenges.

NOTE: The benefit of having a well-defined process cannot be understated. Mapping out the processes involved in every project, even from a conceptual perspective, ensures that consideration is given to the actual time required to perform the tasks to be completed by the project. The more definition you provide to the process, the more precise the phasing plan becomes, thereby, lessening the degree to which unknown/unforeseen circumstances affect schedule and budget.

Falling prey to phase discussions and scheduling is easy to do. But doing so without first framing them in the context of the processes involved in each can translate into huge risks. In a sense, it’s like hiring a nonchalant baker to be the construction manager for your new high-rise project. A dash here, a pinch there, and there is a good chance somewhere along the way you’ll be stuck holding a stack of RFIs and Change Orders.

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