Understanding effective project management helps many big and small firms to carry out large-scale projects on time and on budget.
Tips to Master Your Project Life Cycle
Steven Burns FAIA discusses the top tips for a strong project life cycle from building a perfect checklist to monitoring and controlling your project.
As we all know, the life cycle of an architectural project can be as short as a few months but typically (due primarily to the time required for construction), could extend from 18 months to multiple years.
In an effort to manage the duration, our industry has wisely standardized the notion of phases. Phases are useful with regard to our contracts, as a means to describe the specific scope of work that will occur and the compensation we are to receive. In addition, the beauty of phased projects is that they enable the architect to make a successful meal of the proverbial elephant: one bite at a time.
I like to think of architectural projects in a fashion similar to how I handle endurance athletic events. Having spent a decade competing in non-stop ultra-cycling events, I have completed over 50 200-mile races, a few 400-mile races, a handful of 500-mile races, and one race that went 3,070 miles! Like completing an architectural project, they all require endurance, but more importantly, if you expect to cross the finish line, they require careful planning and real-time feedback as to where you are with regard to your plan.
Success in any (endurance) endeavor requires your ability to visualize every step of the way. This is often why most architects don’t reach their peak until much later in their careers: when they have learned the lessons and bear the scars from their losses as well as their triumphs.
Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that 10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve mastery in any field. After a four-decade career in the architectural profession, and having personally engaged with over 1,300 architects, this rule of thumb is insufficient. The practice of architecture is far more complex than learning a musical instrument or perfecting a sport.
Your ability to “master” the project life cycle doesn’t simply happen after spending approximately 5 years working as an architect. Having a great coach (or teacher), who can provide you with guidance, motivation, techniques, tools, and analysis that keeps you on the correct path is the key to achieving mastery.
The Most Important Tool in Your Processes and Procedures Arsenal
The most important tool in any architectural firm is, surprisingly, the least technological. It is unheroic and undervalued but provides the greatest benefit. I am speaking of the simple checklist.
If there is only one piece of advice you take away from this article, if you don’t currently use checklists throughout every phase of your project life cycle, you are going to battle without the most fundamental weapon.
Checklists are an incredibly versatile and powerful tool that can be used at all stages of the architectural project lifecycle. By using checklists, architects can improve their efficiency, productivity, and quality of work. They can also help to avoid errors, save time, and improve communication. They are highly adaptable and can be deployed with or without the use of technology.
For example, you can use software to monitor your checklist system, remind you when items are being neglected, and monitor who is responsible for completing these items.
However, you can also be a Luddite who prints out a piece of paper with the checklist items on it and takes personal responsibility to ensure they are being followed.
For decades, pilots have used old-fashioned paper checklists to ensure the safety of their craft and mitigate risk for their passengers. Not a single airplane takes off without the pilot reviewing a good old-fashioned checklist.
Here are the benefits of a checklist:
Simple and easy to use
Checklists can also be specifically helpful for architects at different stages of the project life cycle. Checklists can be used to:
Assess the feasibility of a project
Develop a project plan
Manage the project budget
Communicate with clients and contractor
Manage change orders
Close out the project
Mastering Initiation in Your Project Life Cycle
Just like in an endurance event, if you get off to a bad start, you will have a very difficult time recovering. You will spend too much effort and lose focus on the goal simply because you got off on the proverbial “wrong foot”. Therefore, your firm needs to think deeply about your approach to the initial phase of every project.
You start by defining its purpose, scope, objectives, and deliverables. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of setting clear and realistic goals. Your checklist system will provide the guidance to ensure you get to the starting line with the highest potential to win.
Careful communication with the stakeholders will mitigate risk and misunderstandings and enable you and your client to operate as a team with the common goal of crossing the finish line together rather than contestants vying to cross the finish line ahead of the other.
SUCCESS: An example of a successful initiation phase is the construction of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, designed by architect Frank Gehry. The clear definition of the project’s objectives, the involvement of major stakeholders (including the Basque government), and a thorough feasibility study were all crucial factors in the successful initiation of this project. The museum, which aimed to serve as a catalyst for the economic regeneration of the Basque Country, has succeeded in its goal and has even sparked what is known as the "Bilbao Effect" - the concept of how investing in high-profile architecture can regenerate cities.
FAILURE: One of the most famous examples of a project that struggled during the initiation phase (and beyond) is the Sydney Opera House. The project's initial cost and timeline estimates were drastically underestimated. Originally projected to be completed in 1963 with a budget of $7 million AUD, the Opera House was finally completed in 1973 at a cost of $102 million AUD.
One key issue was the approval of design drawings that were not fully developed during the initiation phase. The iconic shell design of the roof, although stunning, was not fully figured out when construction began. This led to significant delays and cost overruns as engineers struggled to find a way to build the architect's vision.
Mastering Project Planning
Having a detailed project plan, illuminated through the use of a checklist, should include scheduling, budgeting, setting performance objectives, and outlining the resources needed.
SUCCESS: The Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest structure and building in the world, is an example of successful project planning. It was meticulously planned to accommodate a mix of commercial, residential, and hospitality spaces. Extensive planning was needed not only for the construction itself but also for dealing with the extreme heights involved, including how to pump concrete to such an extreme height. The project's timeline and budget were carefully managed, with planning to address multiple factors, such as labor management, material sourcing, and risk mitigation for potential challenges like weather conditions. In fact, during construction, there were few significant delays or cost overruns, and it was largely considered a project management success.
FAILURE: The Montreal Olympic Stadium, constructed for the 1976 Summer Olympics, is an example of poor project planning. The ambitious design featuring a retractable roof was technologically unprecedented at the time and caused significant problems. The project suffered from numerous changes in plans, underestimation of complexity, and lack of risk assessment. The roof and tower, in particular, caused many issues, including significant delays and cost overruns. Originally expected to cost around $134 million, the final cost was over $1.6 billion, and it was not fully paid off until 2006, 30 years after the event it was built for. The retractable roof, a key feature of the original design, was not completed until 1987, and it has been replaced multiple times due to ongoing issues. This project exemplifies the importance of accurate planning, particularly regarding the technological feasibility of innovative designs, and the potential consequences of getting it wrong.
Mastering Project Execution
Once again, the humble checklist should be deployed to help you execute your plans effectively, staying true to your design vision while managing materials, labor, and budget constraints.
Firms that utilize software tools to enable effective project management see the highest efficiencies and success rates. Endurance athletes with advanced technological tools (real-time health and GPS monitoring) are consistent winners. Your firm should likewise take advantage of technologies like BQE CORE to ensure your firm reaches the finish line as planned.
SUCCESS: The High Line is an elevated park in New York City that was built on a former freight rail line. Its execution phase is an excellent example of success, as the project was able to combine urban design, landscape architecture, and ecology. The execution involved collaboration between construction workers, gardeners, and artists. Despite the challenges of constructing a park several feet above the ground and needing to work around the existing rail line, the project was successful due to the effective management and coordination of these various elements.
FAILURE: The Millennium Bridge in London is an example of an unsuccessful execution phase, despite good planning and a successful initiation phase. The bridge, a pedestrian-only steel suspension bridge, opened to the public in June 2000 and was nicknamed the "Wobbly Bridge" after pedestrians felt an unexpected (and unsettling) swaying motion.
This problem was due to an underestimation of the lateral torsional buckling caused by the synchronized footfall of pedestrians (a phenomenon where the footsteps of pedestrians walking on the bridge matched the natural frequency of the bridge, causing it to vibrate). The bridge was closed two days after opening for modifications to eliminate the wobble, and it did not fully reopen until February 2002. The issue could have been mitigated with more thorough execution and testing procedures during the project's execution phase.
Monitoring and Controls
Having a checklist system and developing a well-conceived, realistic project plan is essential, but consistent monitoring of your performance and comparing this to your planned progress is also incredibly important. This is another reason why the proper selection of technology is so vital.
For example, using BQE CORE, your firm can schedule regular reports to monitor the budget versus the actual and distribute these to the appropriate people at regular intervals. These reports can highlight discrepancies making your path to resolution easier.
Hold a Project Review
Every firm should have a process of finalizing all project activities, including delivering the final product to the client, releasing project resources, and conducting post-project evaluation.
It is not only important but useful to conduct a project review or "lessons learned" meeting to discuss what went well and what could be improved for future projects.
Continuing Education and Skill Development
A checklist system and proper technology are the two essential ingredients for achieving mastery of the project life cycle. For those of you looking for technology, there are a small number of solutions purpose-built for the A/E industry. I always encourage my clients to evaluate each before deciding which makes sense for their particular needs, budget, and culture. If your firm is looking for help and advice, I encourage you to also reach out to me directly via thewelldesignedfirm.com.
As architectural trends and technologies evolve, so should your skills. Stay informed about the latest industry trends and project management techniques so you can not only provide greater services to your clients but provide greater value to your firm.
Ready to continue your education? At BQE University you’ll find webinars on firm management topics where you can earn CEU.