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Budget, Schedule or Quality?

I believe I have heard it said that in a construction project the owner has three objectives:

  • Complete the project within budget.

  • Complete the project on time.

  • Obtain a building that meets the owner’s expectations

The adage then goes on to state that an owner can have two out of three of these, but not all three.

I am still idealistic (naïve?) enough to believe that it is possible for an owner to achieve all three objectives if the schedule, budget, and expectations are reasonable and in line with each other. However, it is important that all three objectives be given equal attention throughout the design and construction process.

The standard design and construction process has included checkpoints for confirming that the project is on budget. Cost estimates are performed two to three times during design. In addition, the contractors’ bids are a major milestone to verifying that the project is on track financially. If the bids are too high the owner can choose to stop the process and literally go back to the drawing board. Once the project is under construction there are monthly (at least) checks on the project’s cost through the application for payment and change order processes.

The schedule is similarly under frequent scrutiny during both design and construction. There are standard design phase milestones such as schematic design, design development, and construction documents. The designers are expected to achieve certain levels of completeness at each of these steps. During construction the contractors are typically required to maintain a master construction schedule and keep it updated with actual progress.

What about the owner’s expectations? If the owner’s expectations are met, I call it a high quality project. If the owner’s expectations are not achieved, I call it a low quality project. In evaluating the business-as-usual design and construction process, it seems that there is very little formal “checking” of the progress towards achieving a quality project.

Peer design reviews, especially with particularly complex or specialized designs, are one step towards this end. Also, in all projects, the equipment and system submittal review process during construction is another small nod to the issue of quality control. Finally, very large projects often require the general contractor and/or construction manager to have a Quality Control Plan. This type of plan, however, is usually about making sure the project is built as designed in the construction documents and does not delve much into how the built systems actually operate or whether they are what the owner expects.

There are at least two reasons why this approach does not necessarily result in quality projects. First of all is the fundamental issue of having owners define their expectations. Other than an architectural Program that deals primarily with space allocations and adjacencies, owners have not communicated well with their designers regarding how the support systems serving the building (e.g., HVAC, plumbing, electrical, life safety, etc.) are expected to function.

Designers make assumptions about what each owner wants, often based on what a previous owner wanted. In this situation peer design reviewers will review the documents in light of the reviewers’ assumptions about what the owner wants and not in light of what the owner has actually gone on record as needing. The bottom line here is that if the design and construction team doesn’t know what the owner’s expectations are, there is little chance that those expectations will be met.

Second, the division of labor on traditional construction projects is fragmented. Division 15 is Mechanical and Division 16 is Electrical and never the twain shall meet. Even within Division 15, for example, the plumbing contractors only concern themselves with certain sections, the pipe fitters look at other sections, etc. This used to be fine 40 years ago when building systems stood on their own. However, in today’s world diverse building systems need to interact with each other. No one in the standard construction process has stepped forward and accepted responsibility for making sure that these interfaces are coordinated and functioning properly.

Commissioning is a process that addresses these “holes” in the industry. Starting with the owner’s Design Intent Document and extending through testing and training, the quality of a project is Commissioning’s only concern. Commissioning does not guarantee that everything an owner wants will be achieved (refer back to the earlier paragraph about “reasonable” expectations), but it does present a method by which the project’s quality can be given as much consideration as the budget and schedule. After all, what good is a project within budget and on schedule if it doesn’t work?



Engineered Systems, November, 2000

Rebecca Ellis, PE, LEED AP, CCP, CxA
Questions & Solutions Engineering
1079 Falls Curve
Chaska, MN  55318