An Architect's Guide to Project Management

This guide will walk you through how architectural project managers integrate design and management skills in order to deliver thoughtful solutions that are on time and on budget.
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As architects, we’ve spent hours scouring the web and reading articles looking for the best tips on project management, but typically found information that is too generalized to be of much help. Below is a guide compiled from our own personal experiences, tips from old colleagues, and relevant snippets of information from our research. Welcome to “Project Management for Architects”!

Table of Contents

  1. How Can Pre-Design Help with Project Management?
  2. Use Effective Work Plans for Scheduling and Staffing
  3. Facilitating Project Progress - Tips for Meetings and Agendas
  4. Supervising Project Progress - Track Services and Manage Budget
  5. What Happens When a Project is Complete?
  6. Closeout
  7. Archiving Projects
  8. A Great Project for Your Portfolio

How Can Pre-Design Help with Project Management?

There are many phases of an architecture project, and frequently a firm is only contracted to perform a select number. In order to determine the best project management process, you must understand these phases and the needs of each.

Pre-design is especially pertinent to overall project management by merit of the discoveries made. Depending on the size and sophistication of a project, the architect might be engaged in pre-design. As Jorge Fontan AIA explains it: …the owner and architect establish and analyze a set of conditions and research that will establish the framework and requirements for the building development. This includes site analysis, zoning, budgeting, and programming use requirements.

In a way, pre-design lays a lot of the groundwork that comprises the crux of this article. Setting up an agreed-upon, legally binding framework and requirements allows you to make educated predictions about how to budget time, money, staffing, and ensure that the project will be run through to completion while meeting the goals of the full team.

Use Effective Work Plans for Scheduling and Staffing

Not all projects will have pre-design done by the architect, possibly because the client has completed much of the work themselves. While it’s great that the client may come to you with documents of site analysis, zoning and code analysis, programming, etc., you will likely end up vetting some of their work.

Regardless if you are assisting in pre-design or not, you should create a work plan, often referred to as the roadmap of a project. This document helps outline a smooth path to complete an architecture project. Development of a work plan for the project begins with consideration of schedules, ways to organize relationships between the parties, the firm's available resources, and perhaps fees. In addition, how the leadership for the project will be organized and what experience and specialty levels will be required are identified.

A work plan should include:

  1. Project description
  2. Statement of deliverables
  3. Team Org Chart
  4. Responsibility Matrix
  5. Preliminary Project Schedule
  6. Preliminary Staffing needs
  7. Project directory
  8. Internal project budget and profit plan
  9. Code information (optional).

A good work plan will help define an accurate project schedule. You will have to use your experience to create the timeline of design phases based on size of the project, services requested, and staffing availability.

Often times for commercial interior projects, the client might approach a firm with a hard deadline like their lease ending in nine months. Sometimes it is possible to rush design and construction to have this client moved into a new space on time, but it frequently causes pain for everyone.

In cases like that, you may be desperate for revenue and accept the project, but when possible, learn to say “no” to projects that will set you up for failure. It won’t benefit you in the long term to have a bad project with unhappy clients, staff, and partners.

If a client approaches who is pushing an unrealistic deadline simply to save money, past experience is a powerful tool for adding more time. If you can prove the added costs and mistakes made during a rushed schedule, and the successes of a project with proper time, the client should come to agree with your professional advice.

The work plan also helps with project staffing, the difficult task of balancing the availability of staff that might be working on multiple projects that are in different phases. The more your work plan is broken down, the better you are set to find the right people for the right task.

If you’re a sole proprietor, it’s always good to take your estimated time and multiply by 1.5 or even 2. If the client is accepting, you’ve given yourself leeway for surprises that will inevitably pop up and decrease late nights.

Facilitating Project Progress - Tips for Meetings and Agendas

The New York Times has a list of general tips that should be part of any meeting: Have a clear agenda, stick to the scheduled time, and ensure that everyone leaves the room knowing their next tasks. Those are valuable ideas, but given the complexity of architecture projects, the number of parties, and the software involved, here are some specific tips.

Let’s think of meetings in two ways:

1. Setting up meetings

You’ve likely had projects with too many meetings, meetings that ran too long, involved too many players (wasting their time), and didn’t have the right technology. When it’s your turn to organize meetings, avoid the pitfalls by determining the necessary parties and realistic time required and then reserve a space that will provide all the amenities to suit your needs.

If the teams’ office settings do not work, there are online services like Breather and Peerspace that list meeting rooms by location and include information about the number of seats, square footage, technology, and extra features. Ideally you won’t have to rely on this much as the reservations come at a cost.

Often there will be weekly meetings with the larger team to speed along the communication and get much needed face time. Great Business Schools put out a survey showing that 85% of people believe in-person meetings “build stronger, more meaningful business relationships” and a significant majority believe they benefit negotiations, interviews, and understanding.

2. Running the meeting

There should be a clear leader of any meeting, going through the agenda line by line and ensuring all parties have their questions, concerns, and answers added to the minutes. For those who attend in-person, make sure there are printed copies of the agenda for their own personal notes.

A master copy should be kept by the leader or notetaker, ideally displayed on a monitor so everyone is assured their responses are added. For remote attendees, screenshare software is an incredible tool for sharing notes and visually showing drawings or models to various consultants.

Screenshares are a major plus for remote clients when discussing design. If you or your team can make updates to a 3D model in real time for a client, they are often surprised and excited.

All agendas should include basic information like project title, meeting date, attendees, a list of topics with key info or questions, action items, and space for new items.

Agendas should be emailed ideally a day in advance to all attendees, printed for all parties physically attending, and signed off after a designated notetaker has added comments as topics are addressed. That copy serves as meeting minutes for future reference and potentially future agendas.

Given the drastic differences in process throughout the life of a project and various needs of each party, one style of agenda is usually not the best direction. At the least, consider templates for two different situations:

Meetings with Clients

For small projects, the client is likely not savvy about the design process, code and zoning concerns, and the jargon and minutiae of construction. It is important to not only avoid “archispeak” and take time to clearly explain various concepts, but to keep the agenda visually simple as well: a simple word processor document with bold headings and complete sentences in plain font.

Let’s consider a “kickoff” meeting as an example. Along with the general agenda information listed above, the first formal meeting between the client and design team might contain the following headers:

  • TEAM INTRODUCTIONS**
    There is no need for notes here unless the absence of any key players needs to be explained and how that person will interface with the group.
  • DISTRIBUTION LIST / COMMUNICATION
    This will explain how day-to-day communications should happen and who should be included. It might also stipulate the time and location of recurring in-person or remote full team meetings.
  • PROJECT GOALS
    While the stock AIA Contract B101 does specify the client should “set forth the Owner’s objectives”, this heading provides a more informal discussion in which goals can be discussed. We’ve found it’s more inclusive for the design team to list their goals as well; this serves as a document for everyone to go back and check the project is on track to meet everyone’s expectations.
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ITEMS
    These are critical to have clearly understood by all. The information, processes, or timelines for billing procedures, milestones, budget and pricing should be clarified.

Meetings with Consultants and/or Contractor

Unsophisticated clients might only attend a few of these technical meetings, so it’s not critical to keep everything in laymans’ terms. Given the numerous consultants and trades, a table format that is organized by company or category with columns for item #, date of addition and description, date of update and description, completion required by, and responsible party.

This is a great way for everyone to see the progress of everyone else and organize their own work accordingly. A method for good project management process is to grey out completed items, cross out items that are no longer correct, use red for overdue items, and keep open items in black. See a simple example below:

1. Brooklyn Architects (BA)

Item # Date/Description Date/Updates Due Date Responsible Party
1.01 3/14/19 Awaiting final colum sizes from SE 3/21/19 SE will provide by EOD tomorrow 9/03/19 SE

2. NYC Structural Engineers (SE)

Item # Date/Description Date/Updates Due Date Responsible Party
2.01 2/15/19 Awaiting backgrounds from architect 2/22/19 Client changes require more design time
3/15/19 Backgrounds sent yesterday. CLOSED
3/21/19 BA
2.02 4/01/19 Calculations for city review need to be adjusted 4/30/19 Adjustment of main duct thru shear wall requires more time. 4/15/19 SE, MEP

Supervising Project Progress - Track Services and Manage Budget

Keeping track of required services

Contracts are key to cementing services, and are typically only brought out when a disagreement of responsibility arises. There are many types of contracts, and it is wise to not begin work without the legal protection of an Architect-Prepared Contract or an AIA Contract Document.

It’s important to have a strong handle on the phases of an architecture project as well as the work they typically entail. For instance, the client might request that the schematic design phase have three iterations with a set number of plans, elevations, and 3D images.

Since your entire team might not all be at meetings, i.e. interns not attending contract discussions, it’s important that at some point they do review and understand the agreed upon services. Imagine the situation a junior designer found herself in:

A client sent an email requesting a few design updates and a different view to the pantry. She wasted two hours working on this when the project manager had to correct her since an additional service had not yet been approved.

That brings me to my next point: Add services. Pretend a client isn’t happy with the third and final iteration of schematic design and would like to see more options or refinement. The original contract should have a section that stipulates the method for creating an Additional Service so the architect is paid for additional work.

Tracking and managing budgets

Whether your fee is hourly, percentage of cost, by phase, or a fixed fee, you will have several factors to consider to profitably manage a budget. There are countless software for managing revenue and expenses, so you’ll have to research what best matches the size of your firm, number and locations of projects, and various sources of income and loss.

If you have a budget from the prior year, this is a good starting point for predicting income and finding expenses that can be eliminated. Break down your totals for the upcoming months, track actual revenue and expenses next to predicted, and use that to adjust costs for the remainder of the year.

What Happens When a Project is Complete?

Post-construction evaluations

Construction Administration is usually a basic service of architects which involves site visits to ensure conformance with Construction Documents, and in some cases, inspections that must be submitted to various agencies.

Closeout

Since the duration of your liability exposure could be tied directly to the date of substantial completion a Certificate of Substantial Completion is great for establishing a hard stop point and for beginning the countdown for liability. Prior to punch list, have a conference call with client and contractor to review project closeout requirements and get everyone’s idea of what remains to be done (not a punch list), with verbal agreement. One of your closeout requirements could be Contractor’s final submittals. During the call, give your client and contractor a checklist that they both agree to. Be sure to memorialize all of this in formal minutes: reference to contract requirements, the agreed upon task list, submittals list and a restatement that everything was agreed upon.

Once the building has final completion signed off, there are other tasks that are considered post-construction services depending on how the contract was negotiated. This can include assisting with occupancy permits, review of warranties, and providing as-built drawings.

It’s important to discuss these topics at the outset of the project rather than have them come up as unwelcome add services. Surprises are unpleasant not only for the client, but for the carefully planned project staffing of a firm.

Archiving projects

Consider the value of your information - it can serve as a reference for future projects, but more importantly, protect you from liability if there is a building failure over its lifespan. All firms need an established process for closing out projects. Most states have a minimum time period during which project records must be stored. You may need to reference these records in future events such as when you need to provide facilities management information, providing information for future renovations, and at the worst case, documenting a defense in the event of a claim or lawsuit.

As your collection of projects grows, you will eventually have to find a way to archive projects in a manageable way. The vast amount of data that architecture projects require will take up valuable storage, so it’s wise to consider compression or cloud based storage.

  • Compression
    If you are hesitant about cloud based storage, you will likely have to increase the size of your server or invest in a type of portable drive. But to increase the value of storage space, files should be compressed - a ZIP file is a common format and can be accomplished with a variety of tools, usually included with your operating system.
  • Cloud based Storage
    Perhaps you don’t feel comfortable setting up a network in your tiny home office, or you’re worried about the loss of an external drive. You can invest in a third party cloud to store your files.

    Similar to buying more drives for more information, you will pay more for greater amounts of cloud storage. However, consider the advantages: you can connect to your information from any computer, collaboration is easier, you have less responsibility for maintenance, there are no capex investments just operational, and these large companies are paying a hefty sum to make sure your data is safe.

No matter your choice, properly archiving projects digitally is the best way protect yourself from future legal troubles.

A Great Project for Your Portfolio

Remember that pre-design is your friend at the outset of any project - it helps establish the goals of a project and outlines the overall requirements of a project. From there, you can create a work plan that will guide scheduling and staffing.

Once the ball is rolling, use our tips to help create and run meetings to effectively communicate with the larger team. Don’t forget to have an agenda ready in advance that is catered to the audience and issues at hand.

At the outset of a project, the contract should cement all of the services that a firm will be providing. Be sure to avoid surprise services with the client so that additional services don’t interfere with your project staffing.

Finally, bring your project to a close by ensuring your vision was correctly built and then archive your work. Project management for architects can feel like a daunting task, but by following this advice, you will have a happy client and a great addition to your portfolio!

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