Cost Planning For Projects

Every architectural project requires absolute cohesion of two things:Every project requires absolute cohesion of two things:

  1. The client’s budget
  2. The ability of the architect to work within the budget.

If these two things are out of alignment, a project will simply not succeed; in fact it will probably never begin. In my experience it is best to set a clear cost for the works at the beginning of the design process. This may seem optimistic – often because it is. It is very rare for the project budget to be resolved so early on; however, in an effort to build momentum and get the project off the ground, the client and the architect must at least discuss the parameters within which they are to work.

The truth is, without these discussions it has become far too common for architects to assimilate an extensive and ever-growing brief, grossly undermined by dwindling funds. For the architect, but worse so the client, to be caught off guard and left ‘out of pocket’ is obviously not ideal, and more often than not results in a job half done, with the client’s ‘must haves’ reserved for ‘when we have the money’.

So let’s talk about successful cost planning and budgeting for architectural projects.

As I mentioned, it is nearly unheard of for a client to have aligned their brief and their budget by the time of the first meeting. For those of you looking to build or renovate and who are unfamiliar with the process of design, construction and cost planning, this is totally understandable, as you have simply never been exposed to this area of expertise. How could you project the likely cost of your new home and its finishes without having understood the landscape in which it is to be built, or the structural limitations of the storage and lighting of your garage-turned-gymnasium?

You have probably been guided by the advice of your colleagues, or a ‘handy man’, not to mention what you have seen in the media. These avenues often give a very distorted view of ‘how easy’ your bathroom reno may be, and how Grand-Designs-ish your completed project will look. Typically, your aspirations will exceed what you’d like to spend on the project.

Thirty years of experience tells me that relevant and accurate information about the cost of building in the current landscape is limited, if existent at all. Generally, any building and renovation information refers to the cost of building per square metre – a poor and inaccurate measure of building costs when considering the uniqueness of each and every client and the needs of their project.

All projects will, at some point, need to be priced in detail, considering the specificity of the structure, its location, the quality of the desired finishes and even its accessibility throughout the building process. Great care must be taken when first considering the potential requirements of a project, and any additional costs or constraints that may arise. Much like the home that is to be built, the financial success and feasibility of a project require a strong foundation upon which the architect can build a unique home for the client.

Before any costs or pricing can even be discussed, however, it is important to note that the responsibility falls on the architect to understand exactly what the client aspires to create, and to help them appreciate the scale and complexity of their vision. Only then can both parties enter discussions around cost and budget ‘on the same page’, or at least somewhere within the same chapter. Once the parameters of the project have been broadly defined it’s time for a cost planner (or sometimes a builder) to get involved. Using their cost estimations, the project can be evaluated objectively, with both the client and the architect aware of just how much they’re up for; and so deciding to revisit drafting stages or move forward to refining and building stages.

The expertise of a cost planner (aka quantity surveyor) in dissecting a project is particularly valuable. They can break down the project into its components and attribute the market value to each part. The final cost plan will then be a document upon which the architect can measure and adjust the cost of the final design (usually at Schematic Design stage), offering a far more accurate price than any per-square-metre ‘guesstimate’. And yes, while it is common for the brief to change to accommodate the budget, the same can be said of the opposite: the budget may need to be a bit pliable to help achieve the brief.

At the end of the day, this is all just common sense, is it not? It is far better to understand the costs of a project early, so as to avoid confusion, conflict and an empty piggy bank later in the construction process. And while the early stages of a build can be hectic, with all kinds of other dealings and discussions going on, the budget is a discussion seriously worth having, for your sake and for the sake of your bank account.