From The Architect:
Overcoming the Fear of Contingencies


I learned the hard way, over many years working as an architect, that being silent with my clients about what I don’t know, can and will come back to bite me. I also learned along the way that brutal honesty with my clients, as scary as this is, promotes trust, and yields better project results.

Most architects and our clients do not begin projects dwelling on things that can go wrong. Instead, we bask in the glory of what is possible, and throw ourselves into a design process we hope will yield glorious results. For clients this means their project will look and feel great, meet current and future needs, augment value, allow for easy maintenance and longevity, and create pride and promise. Good architects are aligned with these goals and naturally embrace them.

Contingency planning starts at the drawing board.

Where architects and clients are often out of sync is with project budgets and schedules. As architects, we fear being honest and open about what we don’t know, or what we cannot anticipate or control. Fear often leads to silence, and the suppression of important truths. We fear addressing budget and schedule questions with our clients because we fear losing a project before it even begins, having a fully designed project cancelled before it is built, disappointing our clients, disappointing our teams, and disappointing ourselves.

Fear is a powerful force that masked hard truths I needed to see for my own sake and that of my clients.

Like it or not, the truth always reveals itself, and what we may not know early in a project becomes known as the project evolves. When the truth is bad news, it hurts. I find delivering bad news to my clients in the middle of a project, when they are not prepared for such news, is especially painful. Not long ago, a client of mine was so shocked by their construction bid pricing that they cancelled their project. I kicked myself for not communicating more with the client as their project scope increased and decisions were made that I knew may increase cost. It is difficult to tell a client their decisions may increase cost, but this is no excuse. I failed by being silent. I failed to do my job as an architect. Would my client have built their project had I emphasized the implications of scope creep? Maybe not, but their experience would have been better, and they would surely have more respect for me. Instead, they are disgruntled. I would be too, if I were in their shoes.

Construction projects often include surprises. Contingency planning is key.

In recent years, I have employed brutal honesty about budgets and schedules with my clients. I readily convey what I don’t know, and I strongly encourage the inclusion of contingencies in project budgets and schedules from the initial stages of projects through the end of construction. This sounds simple, but it took me a long time and many missteps before coming to the conclusion that this approach is best. Fear is a powerful force that masked hard truths I needed to see for my own sake and that of my clients.

Good contingency planning leaves headroom for inevitable on-site changes.

By actively including contingencies in my project estimations, and engaging consistent dialog about project scope and ambitions in relation to budget and schedule, I have seen a profound increase in awareness and accountability for me and for our clients, resulting in more trust, more enjoyment of the process and better project results.

Project contingencies allow for:

- Increasing the scope or quality of the project if needed

- Providing a buffer between project scope and budget, thereby reducing the need for late-stage cost-cutting that may devalue the project

- Resolving unforeseen conditions, and allowing for associated design work and scope that may be needed later in the process

- Resolving errors or omissions by consultants, contractors or client, and allowing for associated design work and scope that may be needed later in the process

- Resolving unforeseen market conditions that result in increased cost

Google SheetFind a sample project budget template here.

This article was written by Drew Lang, Principal at Lang Studio and Founder at Brick & Wonder.