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Perfection: Is it possible in design and construction?

Perfection: Is it possible in design and construction?

80% of projects owners say, "No." (So, 1 in 5 actually think it is!)


We’d all like the design and construction process to be flawless. In the real world, most agree that our industry is not perfect – that unforeseen conditions, human error, and coordination issues will add some effort and cost to the process. This is usually a very small percentage of the work, but even high-performing project teams often end up arguing about the unexpected. Who’s responsible, and who should pay for the imperfection that’s part of the process?

As an industry, we’re better at arguing about this uncertainty than planning for it, managing it, and improving the design and delivery process. Much has been said and written about the principles involved, but there has been very little data about actual experience with uncertainty and its associated cost.

I’ve been privileged to lead a research project about this subject for the AIA Large Firm Roundtable and co-sponsors including the Associated General Contractors, American Institute of Architects, Design-Build Institute of America, the Lean Construction Institute, Autodesk, and Graphisoft. The study was completed and recently published by McGraw Hill Construction.

It’s called Managing Uncertainty and Expectations in Building Design and Construction. The report is free, and you can download it here,

Our research highlights a number of things we can do much better as owners, designers, and builders:

  • More than 75% of owners, architects, and contractors agree that earlier collaboration among design and construction team members reduces uncertainty and improves project performance;

  • More than 70% agree that clearer direction and more active leadership from owners will improve project outcomes;

  • Two-thirds agree that more time for coordination within design and construction teams – and clearer definition of design deliverables – will pay big dividends – especially for complex projects;

  • More than 60% agree that “best value” selection of team members – something other than low-bid competition – will yield better results;

  • About 50% say that smarter budgeting of project contingencies will reduce the impact of project uncertainty – and, surprisingly, only 37% of owners currently define contingencies based on specific project risks.

This study provides personal insights from respected owners including Crate & Barrel, GSA, Hines, Sutter Health, the University of Chicago, Walt Disney Imagineering, and Whirlpool Corporation.

Take a look at the report, and please send me your comments and suggestions about future work that can build on this new research to advance our industry’s performance. Contact me at:


Based in St. Louis, the author is a principal consultant with Cameron Macallister Group. Prior to 2014, he had served 12 years as Vice Chairman of HOK and was managing principal of its St. Louis headquarters. He is a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects and a Senior Fellow with the Design Futures Council.

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