Accelerating Decisions

It can be a real challenge to execute work well given the often-frenetic pace and topsy-turvy nature (a non-technical term) of project delivery.

It has been noted previously and can be said again that the primary goal of design firms is to obtain work and then progress it forward. This movement is the mechanism for billing clients and decisions are the primary means allowing projects to advance.

Twenty-five years ago, many firms minimized their effort during design, instead staffing up during the construction documents phase where the greatest fees were. Today, the trend can be just the opposite with significant effort spent during design phases to the detriment of the construction documents.

The result is often the same where decisions made later in the project can require re-work. I refer to this as "allowing problems to accumulate through design" and it can be a fee killer.

It is a worthwhile effort to study how to accelerate decision making and develop methods that enhance this effort. Here are two examples.

Image by Kaley Dykstra via

Image by Kaley Dykstra via


Henry Ford is often credited with inventing the assembly line in the early 1900's. Prior to that, automobiles were put together in a room with parts and assemblies stacked around the workers. It was terribly inefficient even for the simple cars of the day. The assembly line changed that and Instead of bringing everything to one location, the car, starting with the chassis pulled by a rope, slowly traveled to where the parts were.

The rope transitioned to become a chain, the speed of which, governed the output of automobiles and the plants earning potential.

Building projects have at least one chain which runs through them, significantly affecting the projects rate of progress. If we are not aware of this, we may find ourselves out of sync with it or worse yet, fighting the chains pull.

Example 1:

The client for a multi-story office building had (great) difficulty delegating the most minor decisions. Design and project progress were hindered until one of the team members began creating PowerPoint matrices that summarized design issues and building systems, such as Interiors, allowing for easy comparison and decisions. The client was the chain.

Example 2:

A fast track hospital in the Midwest forced the AE team to work out of the normal sequence. With Structural and Civil packages issuing first, the architects stopped producing documents and instead focused on working through the design details to achieve full dimensional control, both horizontally and vertically. MEP systems were designed and coordinated enough to determine equipment sizes and loads; the locations of required openings such as shafts and chases. This entire effort changed to get the Civil and Structural engineers the information they needed first. Interestingly, the subsequent drawing packages required little or no change to the early ones and were relatively quick to produce. The chain regulating the project was the contractor's delivery methodology.

Don't fight the chain, exploit it.

Image by Drew Graham via

Image by Drew Graham via


Midway through the Schematic Design phase of an 11-story building, our associate architect conducted a Building Systems Review. This was a scripted 2-day meeting with the owner, construction manager (CM), architects, engineers and minor consultants. The task was to discuss design parameters and make decisions on all building systems from foundations, waterproofing and superstructure; mechanical and electrical systems, the elevators, building skin and roof, as well as interior materials and even how we would construct cabinetry.

And it worked exceedingly well. The AE team provided recommendations with the CM addressing cost, constructability and schedule, i.e, we were value engineering. The owner shared their experience and preferences as to what worked and what didn’t along with building standards and their expectations. They also bought into what became the final recommendations.

The volume and depth of information and the decisions obtained over two 8-hour meetings contrasted greatly with my experience beforehand on projects where the same material trickled in slowly over many months. More often than not, this depth of information was not known until well into the construction documents phase.

A summary report of the meeting was sent to all participants and the final project specifications, issued about a year later, deviated in minor respects only from what had been determined in Schematic Design.

A Building Systems Review can scale with the project. More recently I was involved with one for a Design-Build medical office building. It entailed a 3-hour meeting during Schematic Design with the D-B contractor, who was the primary decision maker, and myself. One by one we brought the engineers in to review their systems in detail. The result was the same, most building parameters were sufficiently determined within a cost framework to let the design team rapidly move forward.

Necessary ingredients: A detailed agenda that is pre-loaded with the AE Team's recommendations with participation by project stakeholders and decision makers.

Best time: The Schematic Design Phase.

I'm not trying to sell a particular recipe with step by step instructions for the best steak marinade. I am suggesting that steak tastes better with a good marinade and here are a few recipes I've tried.


The decision-making processes (or lack thereof), have a significant effect on a project's ability to move forward. There is a tactical advantage to understanding what information is needed for others to make decisions and perform their work. Whether it is the client, the contractor or our consultants - seeing them all as "clients", we can order our efforts to get the necessary information in a timely manner - a benefit to everyone.

We can also call this Knowledge Management.