Successful construction projects rely on complete, accurate, timely, and understandable communication; maximizing all of these reduces the likelihood for disputes to arise. Unfortunately, many project teams fall short of proper communication, and that’s why projects are often plagued with problems. There are multiple opportunities at almost every stage of a project for communication to be less than ideal, but fortunately there are also strategies and tools that teams can employ to improve project communication.
First, and most critically, all team members must familiarize themselves with the owner’s project requirements (OPR). For an architect to begin designing a facility without a thorough understanding of the requirements would seem to be impossible, yet it happens all too frequently, mainly because they haven’t documented the OPR properly. Proper OPR contain much more than a design intent, which is where most architects focus their efforts. Instead they contain virtually all the data that project teams need before starting design: regulatory issues (site conditions, zoning, and codes), functional requirements (initial and future program), operational requirements (energy use and controls, and maintenance), budget and schedule requirements, FF&E requirements, and more. This information must inform every design decision throughout the project yet is frequently incomplete or not distributed.
An outstanding tool already exists for project teams to document OPR: Uniformat.*
Normally used for preliminary project descriptions, Uniformat encompasses far more. It can describe a project holistically in a way that everyone can comprehend, and includes the information the design team, contracting team, and user team need to design, build, and operate a facility. It can be used as a repository for documenting each decision as it is made. As the project moves through design, the Uniformat project description serves as a fabulous checklist to verify each decision conforms to the OPR. Finally, since Uniformat was primarily developed for use by estimators, OPR written and maintained in Uniformat may be used to continuously validate the likely construction cost against the budget, preventing surprises and reducing the necessity of value engineering.
Owners’ project requirements form the basis of the information used to develop the design documents, but are only a small part of the overall project documentation. Construction drawings and specifications are voluminous by comparison, and are opaque in that they almost always contain decisions for which no provenance can be discerned. If mystery decisions do not conform to the OPR, an owner is entitled to be concerned that the project as a whole will not comply in critical ways, and may increase project costs and long-term risk.
Drawings and specs are opaque in another way, in that they contain highly technical language, and references to standards or other documents, making them ideal for construction but hard to read for everyone else. Owners rely on design professionals to understand and communicate the pertinent information in two ways: in technical language to contractors to allow them to meet the requirements, and to owners in language at their level of comprehension. Doctors do this constantly: describe a patient’s ailment using both technical terms and lay terms. The technical terms are provided to allow the patient to take precise information to other health professionals, and the lay terms allow them to understand what’s going on. Describing technical items in lay terms allows the principal (patient or owner) to understand them at sufficient detail to make informed choices.
When information is understandable to one party but not another (referred to as asymmetric information), it’s almost inevitable decisions will be made that don’t meet the OPR, simply because owners are unable to understand the questions. Owners are entitled to assume that architects will protect their interests, design to meet their requirements, and translate technical information into understandable terms. However, owners have a powerful tool in Unformat project descriptions they’re not fully taking advantage of. Until more owners use it, project designs that fail to meet their needs will remain common.
* UniFormat™ is a publication of the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) and Construction Specifications Canada (CSC). A competing document is published as ASTM E1557-09 (2015) Standard Classification for Building Elements and Related Sitework – UNIFORMAT II. Both standards function roughly equally; this article is not recommending one over the other and simply uses “Uniformat” to refer to either classification system.