A journey of one thousand miles begins with the first step. However, any journey carries with it some element of risk and possible pitfalls along the way. To better your chances of reaching your desired destination, it is important that the first step be a step in the right direction. Design is often the first major step in executing any project. As that ‘first step’, design is a key component of a project’s overall risk potential. Following is a discussion of some risk elements in the design process.
We are all aware of the risk in design as it relates to the owner or client. “Errors & Omissions” and the “standard of care” are common concerns and considerations when an owner thinks about ‘design risk’. Poor scope definition, inaccurate or incomplete drawings and ‘over design’ with respect to budget are routine issues which arise on projects. The impact to the project because of a failure to meet the “standard of care” by design professionals has been established in a number of case histories and is well documented from both a legal and design practice perspective. Many programs and policies have been developed to mitigate Errors & Omissions risk. Quality Control/Quality Assurance programs, design check lists and project postmortem ‘lessons learned’ reviews have greatly aided design firms in managing the design process and mitigating these risks. However, in today’s ‘time to market’ crunch environment the design process can introduce several new areas of potential risk which must be managed or mitigated to protect both the owner and the designer.
The introduction of new tools and technologies into the design process such as Building Information Modeling (BIM), ‘smart drawings’ and 4D CAD can impose risk in unexpected ways. The need for speed in the adoption of new tools and components may have designers using them before they have completely grasped the tool’s intricacies. Simply loading new software does not make one competent in its use. In other instances, there may be embedded information in the software which is not compatible with other design tools or data previously used and relied upon by the design team.
Risk can also be introduced into projects when new or developing construction technologies or materials are being employed on a project. The cautious designer would typically lean toward technologies he or she knows well or have been in the marketplace for some time. However, the marketplace pushes change in systems, equipment, materials and methodologies in the industry and these changes can be a good thing. If you are not staying ahead of those changes you will likely be run over by them. The wave of exterior finish issues in construction today serve to illustrate how a new product or technique can change the industry landscape and have major impacts, some of which are not felt until years later. I would hazard to guess that most designers believe that issues associated with the interface of new and old construction materials are addressed by the manufacturers before a product enters the market. Designers must be careful when employing new construction technologies, techniques, systems and materials on projects.
While the owner can expect and demand that the design firm be responsible for its work; the upgrade/replacement cycle is so accelerated that often times the designer does not have enough time to fully research, test and integrate new components into his work.
Another area of design risk involves new technologies to be employed by the owner as a key part of the ‘program’. This type of risk is more commonly found in high-tech industries or process-based projects. In many high-tech industries and projects the functionality of the building is very difficult to separate from the functionality of the process systems within it. In these projects the process and the facility which houses it are very closely integrated. You cannot simply switch ‘tenants’ like you might an office building without considerable and expensive retrofit work. Many of these projects are very time-to-market sensitive and often the manufacturing process or product itself are brand new. Design and construction schedules often overlap such that facility designs are being finalized while integral process equipment and technologies are still being determined. Where does responsibility (and liability) lie for a feature or facility which does something that has never been done before?
When the need for rapid delivery meets with brand new technologies the potential for problems is further multiplied. The use of fast track and hyper fast track execution strategies can create circumstances where designs seem to be completed ‘on the fly’ and errors or omissions can more easily occur. The design must be flexible enough to accommodate the eventual project or process requirements, but firm enough to adequately control construction scope and cost.
In today’s accelerated construction climate, a wise owner wants his designer to demonstrate appropriate design risk management skills as well as design expertise. These skills include early and clear scope definition, schedule development and budget definition and control. Proper design management and performance are the first and largest steps a design firm can make towards successful risk management for the benefit of the designer and owner.
A key element in managing risk is communication. The quality and timeliness of early communication can help to greatly reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings and potential disputes. This communication ‘philosophy’ can be translated into tangible activities which should be discussed and agreed upon by all concerned (including design subconsultants) as the project progresses. Clear definition of client expectations, designer’s intent of acceptable performance, and the identification of potential ‘gaps’ where all of these items met can ensure that all parties are viewing the project from a similar frame of reference.
In the current dynamic environment of new project delivery and completion methods project risk is present in new and more subtle forms and must be recognized and minimized by the project participants as part of their normal activities in order to deliver high quality, timely and successful projects.