Lemons to Lemonade: Benefiting from Mistakes Part II

by James B. Atkins, FAIA, and Grant A. Simpson, FAIA

The best way to describe how to make lemonade out of your lemons is to examine what has been experienced in the past by others. The following case studies illustrate how problems and mistakes can be incorporated into the delivery of future projects.

No substitute for experience
A small architecture firm designed several medical clinics for a repeat client. The client is a developer who is also an architect. All of the projects were fast tracked, with construction beginning before all construction documents were completed. As with most fast track projects, there were some coordination problems, and changes were required in previously issued drawings as new drawings were issued. The client was experienced in these matters and understood the sometimes arduous nature of the fast track process. The client budgeted for these predictable difficulties and, consequently, made no claims against the architect.

The architecture firm was interviewed by another medical group for a similarly sized project and was awarded the commission. The new project was also fast tracked, and the predictable difficulties occurred once again as the sequence of issuing partially complete documents unfolded. Unfortunately, this new client was not experienced in the rigors of fast track. They did not budget for the anticipated problems and demanded that the architect pay for what they perceive to be errors and omissions.

After the issues were resolved, the firm conducted an internal post-project review session. The firm had delivered two very similar projects with similar construction challenges, costs, and schedules, but with very different outcomes. One project was successful with a satisfied client, and the other was mired in claims with an unhappy client. The firm focused on the idea that the major difference between the two projects was that one had an informed client and the other did not. The firm resolved that they would make efforts to inform future clients interested in fast track regarding the challenges that can be expected on fast track projects, and present generic descriptions of past experiences in the form of case studies.

In addition, the architects initiated the following procedures for the delivery of all future fast tracked projects:

  • They will openly discuss with the client both the advantages and disadvantages of the fast track process.
  • They will send a letter to clients confirming those fast track discussions.
  • When changes are required to previously issued construction documents, the necessary changes will be reviewed with the owner and contractor in advance.

This firm took the initiative and analyzed project challenges to develop a process for avoiding those problems in the future.

The Construction Specifications Institute addresses project review and feedback in The Project Resource Manual—CSI Manual of Practice in Section 7.6.15, Review, Analysis, and Evaluation, on page 7.94. An example of CSI Form 16.0A, Feedback, is provided on page 7.95.

For more information on fast track projects, you may wish to consult The Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice, Update 2006, “Managing Risk in Fast-Track Projects,” by Grant Armann Simpson, FAIA, and James B. Atkins, FAIA, KIA, scheduled for publication in the spring of 2006.

Invoice solutions
An architect was having trouble getting a client to pay invoices promptly. After an internal review of overdue invoices related to several clients, the architect discovered that the most common reason for non-payment was that the client was objecting to minor issues involving the architect’s reimbursable expenses. In one extreme instance, a large invoice for professional services was held up for several months because of a dispute over a $13 long-distance telephone call, and in another instance payment was delayed while the architect justified a meal for employees working overtime.

In an effort to avoid these delays with future payments, the architect decided to submit professional services and expenses on separate invoices, thus avoiding withheld payments on services. The architect also contacted the client’s accounting manager to determine particular preferences for invoice format. This enabled the client to have a higher comfort level and decreased the amount of time required for review and approval.

Similarly, another architect had trouble getting paid when a phase of service was billed at 100 percent. Some clients felt that the phase had minor work remaining, as is often the case, and they were reluctant to pay in full. As a result, the architect changed billing procedures to bill only 95 percent of a pre-construction phase until the following phase was started. For example schematic design was not invoiced past 95 percent, until the construction documents phase had commenced.

By making these minor adjustments based on feedback from clients, these two firms were able to improve their billing-to-payment aging cycle. Their positive actions not only increased their efficiency and profits, but it also improved client relationships.

Problems are a two-way street
An architecture firm worked for several developer clients who routinely kept score of their view of the architect’s performance. At the completion of each project, these clients would ask for a portion of the architect’s fee to be discounted to account for costs the clients believed were incurred as a result of the architect’s errors. The sums of money were small, and they were more of a frustrating nuisance than a threat to profits. The architects reviewed the situation and concluded that the claims made by these clients did not warrant an internal change in their delivery process. The claims were minor and clearly designed to obtain a discount in the architect’s fee. Instead, the architect initiated non-invasive countermeasures designed to inform yet not provoke the client.

On future projects, the architects began keeping a contemporaneous timesheet record of extra services provided to the client for small scope changes and assistance for which the architect did not normally invoice. The architects considered these services to be their way of providing a little “extra value” to clients. These “qualified” services were added value that clients had begun to take for granted because they were given away without fanfare during the course of the project. Examples of these services include making design presentations to an owner’s prospective tenants or making design changes or otherwise helping a contractor determine a solution to a construction error of a scope too small to be worth the effort and expense of billing. However, the total of these unbilled services was a more significant number.

When the client demanded a fee discount on the next project, the architect’s qualified service records were presented to the client as “offset” to the client’s minor claims asserted at the conclusion of the project. The architect explained that, if the owner wished to “count the marbles,” then everyone’s should be counted. These actions enabled the client to realize better the overall value of the firm’s services, and, as a result, the fee disputes ended.

Cultivate the citrus crop
The endeavor to make lemonade out of lemons will not be adequately successful unless the participants gain something from the process. Learning from mistakes is not easy and it is not glamorous. It takes courage to face shortcomings, and it takes more courage to realize improvement. To benefit fully from these efforts, the following are suggested.

Track success. Keep records on what is being done within the firm or within your personal practice to realize improvement. Whether it is fewer claims, happier clients, better design execution, or faster payment, some notations on improving results is beneficial to all.

Measure results. When possible, measure the differences gained. Fewer RFIs, fewer change orders, and accolades from clients can serve to mark progress. Although project documentation is largely dependent on the contractor’s organized behavior and the client’s demands, make an attempt to measure the results of your and your firm’s accomplishments.

Recognize achievement. Finally, it is important to put the spotlight on those who make measurable progress, even if it is only attitudinal. Recognize those who go beyond and those who master the ethic. This is a difficult part of architecture, and it is not easy or fun; yet it is just as important as creating the design concept. Recognition of those who enter the arena day after day with resolve and determination should be viewed as the talents that they are. Shine a light upon them and tell them, “job well done.”

The sugar in the lemonade
During the past year, we have attempted to cover topics that are relevant to the practice of architecture and those that carry significant risk. We have chosen subjects that we feel have not been adequately addressed in the past, and we have tried to stir discussion and debate. We have received many responses from practitioners, some sweet and some not as sweet. We have called and talked to some respondents who had compelling supportive commentary both for and against our views. Some readers’ written responses, both supporting and critical, were published. The degree to which practitioners have been engaged by these articles has encouraged us to continue to write for another year.

“To Document, or Not to Document” was reprinted by a large local AIA component, and we understand that it has served as a guideline for setting up an effective documentation culture for several firms.

“Drawing the Line” got the most debated responses when, ironically, it was essentially a research article citing existing information from reputable sources. The issue of greatest debate was our use of the term “conceptual drawings” as expressed in the AIA documents. Our use of that term was not intended to convey that architects may do less than adequate work or should only be “sketch artists.” We used it, instead, to reflect the documentary point of view that architectural documents convey the concept of the finished work in its final form. The contractor must purchase and determine how the labor force will place the Work to complete the project. Our view is that architects must provide sufficient contract documents to allow the contractor to do its work. The article has been a topic in several message strings on the Vectorworks Web site. One contractor contacted us to obtain permission to provide copies of the article to field superintendents for enforcement of the Work Plan.

“Your Grandfather’s Working Drawings” drew mostly reminiscing accolades. Some younger folks took issue, arguing that mentoring and the transfer of knowledge is not relevant these days due to new technology. Some information technology folks thought we were criticizing software. We understand that this article and others from the series are being used as “required reading” at Yale School of Architecture. Many architects of the “gray generation” were grateful for the opportunity to identify with a look back at “their” good old days, in the context of today. We enjoyed that look back as well.

“Zen and the Art of Construction Administration” Part I and Part II got a supportive response across the board. One reader responded, “This Zen stuff is great!” But why would something that has worked for thousands of years not be so, Grasshopper?

All in all, we did what we set out to do; we got architects engaged in talking about architecture.

Lemonade futures (2006 articles)
Next year we will continue to write essays about project management and the risky side of architecture. We will begin with a look at the myriad critical implications of substantial completion and the importance of effective project close out. We will examine what is perhaps the greatest technical bane of architecture today—water and the building envelope—and explore ways to maintain shelter from the storms.

We will honor the aesthetic side of our business with an article on how to manage the design challenges that accompany unique designs.

The mythical belief that architects have a fiduciary responsibility to clients will be examined along with who actually does. And that old time bandit, the submittal process, will be aired out with suggestions on how to manage it better.

With great Zen discipline, we will examine construction observation and its pitfalls and promises. We will look at the errant communications often associated with the RFI game and how to play it wisely. We will poke the hornet’s nest by presenting an opinion or two about whose responsibility it is to discover non-conforming construction.

And we just can’t resist splashing in the shark tank once again with a look at the betterment doctrine and the widely misunderstood and misapplied attitudes on how the client is enriched. We will also examine drawing methodology as a cultural influence and a teaching and referencing tool by tracking subjects discussed in “Focus on Construction Documents,” the most popular seminar presented in Las Vegas at the National Convention.

We will address that rascal called the change process with an article on the challenges and threats of documentation, pricing, and review and approval. And, of course, we must provide you with the other half of “Drawing the Line,” where we will examine how the architect must “toe the line” in providing sufficiently complete drawings and scope identification.

We have planned some interesting and provocative topics as we move toward the 2007 sesquicentennial year. You may not agree with everything we espouse, but we guarantee to make you think about the challenging side of managing risks in architecture. And we hope to hear your thoughts along the way.

Meanwhile, may you have a great holiday season, and be careful out there.

Copyright 2005 The American Institute of Architects. All rights reserved. Home Page


“Lemons to Lemonade, Part I”

This series will continue next month in AIArchitect with “Substantial Completion, Where Art Thou?” We will explore the significance of substantial completion, the risk-related issues, and some important actions to take to manage them.

If you would like to ask Jim and Grant a risk or project-management question or request them to address a particular topic, contact the AIA general counsel’s office.

James B. Atkins, FAIA, is a principal with HKS Architects. He serves on the AIA Documents Committee and he is the 2006 chair of the AIA Risk Management Committee.

Grant A. Simpson, FAIA, manages project delivery for RTKL Associates. He is the 2006 chair of the AIA Practice Management Advisory Group.

This article is intended for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. The reader should consult with legal counsel to determine how laws, suggestions and illustrations apply to specific situations.

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