Professional Development: Reduce Change Orders To Add Resources

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By R. Don Hensley, AIA
Published in the April 2006 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

The lack of quality control in the architectural engineering industry today is reaching epidemic proportions. As project schedules grow shorter and construction budgets tighten, many professional service firms struggle to provide well coordinated and accurate contract documents. And when contract documents are not up to par, change orders occur during construction, which can place a tremendous strain on a client’s thin resources.

To prevent the disasters associated with construction project delays and cost overruns, facility professionals should review the decision making process for projects. The later decisions are made during a project, the less valuable those decisions are and the greater their costs. Cost overruns on projects are most often the function of decisions deferred to construction.

So what’s the solution? Implementation of a sound Quality Management Plan (QMP) can help architects, engineers, facility managers, and user groups make proper decisions as early as possible in the project.

It is equally important to identify mistakes in the contract documents in the early planning stages. An errant dimension corrected during the design phase has great value and no cost impact on the project. That same problem identified in the field will almost certainly cause a change order. Recognizing where the problems that result in changes occur is critical to eliminating them.

In general, change orders can be categorized into five areas:

  1. Code changes. These are changes that do not involve errors or omissions. In other words, the architect did not make a mistake in the construction documents. Instead, code changes can be a result of one building official who interprets the drawings one way and an inspector who understands the code another way. In addition, there are conflicts that arise when codes are written in a vague manner, which leaves local authorities room to interpret codes differently.
  2. Hidden condition changes. These changes occur as a result of unknown or unforeseen conditions and are more prevalent on renovation projects. These changes are the result of conditions neither the contractor nor the design professional could have reasonably foreseen.
  3. Program changes. These changes are due to the owner making alterations during construction that modify the scope of the project. They are usually based on the owner’s wishes for specific items not included in the final design and contract documents.
  4. Miscellaneous changes. These changes do not fall into any other category and are ones usually beyond the contractor’s control. For example, weather related problems or perhaps the lack of availability of specific material can push out the target project completion date.
  5. Errors and omissions. These are a function of conflicts or oversights within the architectural drawings or the contract documents, civil drawings, mechanical drawings, etc. Knowing where these changes occur is a reminder to firms and facility managers to focus on this critical area.

One way to reduce the number of change orders is to investigate the architect’s quality control and assurance program in advance. There are several components to look for in a quality management program, including:

  • Top down policy. The CEO, COO, or some other principal from the firm should be involved in this plan. For example, the CEO can perform quality assurance checks by occasionally reviewing how clients feel about the quality of the firm’s work.
  • Internal project team review. This review evaluates the technical correctness and totality of the work based on internal checklists for the designers and architects to complete. These reports should be readily available for facility managers to inspect.
  • Project management review. This review by the project manager is the interdisciplinary coordination required to identify challenges, problems, miscommunication, and coordination amongst various professionals and their drawings. The latest CAD software allows all key professionals to work on the same computer model in cyberspace to improve coordination.
  • Independent quality control review. This review should be conducted by a project manager or firm principal not directly involved in the project. Internally, firms may assign principals from other projects or offices to be responsible for this review. An outside plan check firm may also be employed to conduct this review. The goal is to uncover errors the team directly involved in the project is too close to see.
  • Constructability review. This review is conducted from the eyes of a contractor to ensure cost effective construction concepts are being used in the documents. The objective is to identify construction related errors that may cost money and/or result in change orders later on. Or, the reviewer might know of a particular material that is available today to substitute for one that isn’t available or one that is more expensive. Design recommendations also can be made. If the firm does not have access to construction management or in-house construction services, ask the firm to hire someone to perform this function. This step of the plan is especially crucial, particularly in a volatile market where construction costs and materials are fluctuating from month to month.
  • Quality assurance. At different points in the planning and drawing stage, the CEO or COO, along with firm principals, ensures all reviews have been completed and documented. In addition, informal surveys are conducted with the client to ensure the QMP is effective. Quality control is “checking the doing,” and quality assurance is “checking the checking.” Many QMPs fail because most firms do not provide quality assurance.

A simple approach to allowing all team members to make proper decisions early in the project is to create multiple design options and analyze the strengths and weakness of each before moving into the development of the design. Sometimes the architectural firm moves quickly through the design phase without giving a facility manager time to absorb the design possibilities. It may not be until days, weeks, or even months before a manager realizes that he or she needs to make a design program change. If this change is delayed into construction, it will take up to 400% more time and resources to fix.

To prevent this, the client should seek out architectural firms that provide multiple design options and a “value analysis” of each one. A value analysis is the service of providing multiple design options and then analyzing each for the strengths and weaknesses in terms of function, aesthetic, quality, cost, and schedule. The A/E should provide the facility professional with a written and graphic analysis; then the in-house team selects a design concept and authorizes the architect to develop the design in more detail.

The facility manager should ask the firm to present several different design options along with pros and cons. Additionally, the firm should give the facility manager time to analyze the options fully. Taking more time in the planning phase saves time in the construction stage.

When hiring a firm, the in-house team should find out if the company tracks the number of change orders it is responsible for and what its errors and omissions rate is. Since the average mistake results in additional time and resources to any construction project, the team should focus on where the majority of construction coordination problems occur to eliminate them beforehand.

Facility managers should ask the architectural and design firms under consideration for the job what process and plans they have in place to control and reduce these errors. Do they have an adequate quality control management plan? Do they offer design options? How do they handle any expertise deficiencies, such as constructability review, within their QMP? How involved are principals in the firm in the plan?

It is important for facility professionals to become well versed in avoiding the common change order problems. After all, quality control and quality assurance can be used to the company’s advantage. In the end, an ounce of prevention prevents wasted project resources.

Hensley, AIA is senior vice president with SHW Group of Dallas, TX and serves as the director of higher education for the firm. For further information, e-mail the author at rdhensley@shwgroup.com.

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