Managing Uncertainty
Illustration: Michael Glenwood

A recent industry study supported by the AIA shows how architects can provide greater leadership in their client relationships and projects. This research about uncertainty, expectations, and project performance defines significant opportunities for practicing architects. Architects can take the lead in applying the study’s findings, demonstrating innovation in the delivery process as well as in design.

Although it’s generally agreed that the design and construction process isn’t an exact science, this can still be a source of frustration for even the best owners and project teams. Traditionally, we have often talked about this uncertainty after a project is completed, rather than upstream.

Until now there has been little data to share about actual expectations and experiences with uncertainty in design and construction. The AIA and the AIA Large Firm Roundtable cosponsored a study, “Managing Uncertainty and Expectations in Building Design and Construction,” to provide guidance for owners, architects, and other project-team members.

The study is based on interviews with 150 owners, 50 architects, and 50 contractors— plus personal insights from leaders at the General Services Administration and the University of Chicago, as well as at companies like Crate & Barrel, Disney, Hines, Sutter Health, Whirlpool, and others. In addition, an online background survey yielded more than 2,500 responses from members of the AIA and other industry organizations.

Improving Project Performance

According to the research, owners, architects, and construction contractors believe the most valuable strategies to reduce project uncertainty include earlier integration and better communication among team members; stronger project leadership and engagement by owners; use of alternatives to traditional design/bid/build delivery; appropriate project contingencies; and shared use of BIM technologies across the team.

These conclusions are reinforced in another new study, “Examining the Role of Integration in the Success of Building Construction Projects,” sponsored by the Charles Pankow Foundation and the Construction Industry Institute. This group created an owner’s guide titled “Maximizing Success in Integrated Projects,” available at It identifies three critical factors in project performance: early involvement of all key team members; qualifications-based rather than low-bid selection of key team members; and cost transparency to support trust and collaboration within the project team.

Leadership Opportunities for Architects

Architects can use both studies to help establish reasonable expectations, budgets, and delivery approaches for projects—all at the right points in the process—by employing progressive project-delivery strategies, early engagement of construction team members, more thorough definition of project requirements, realistic budget contingencies, open-book cost management, and shared technology applications.

Research Findings

“Managing Uncertainty” revealed that project owners are generally less satisfied with project outcomes than their architects and contractors believe. While 86 percent of owners report a high level of satisfaction with the quality of their built projects, fewer are highly satisfied with the cost (63 percent) and schedule (64 percent). Owners, architects, and contractors were also found to have different perceptions about the primary causes of uncertainty in building projects.

When the frequency and cost impact of common problems are factored together, according to the study, seven leading causes of uncertainty surfaced; in order of concern, they are owner-driven program or design changes, accelerated schedules, design errors, design omissions, construction coordination issues, contractor-caused delays, and unforeseen site or construction issues. Unsurprisingly, design omissions and design errors are identified as factors for uncertainty—and architects and engineers are viewed as responsible. However, almost 90 percent of owners, architects, and builders believe it is impossible to achieve a “perfect” set of construction documents. Most owners (80 percent) expect to incur some cost from design errors and omissions in future projects. As an average, they believe that 3 to 4 percent is a reasonable range for the cost of these non-negligent design mistakes, with projects varying based on size and complexity. These issues generally fall well within the standard of care for architects, engineers, consultants, and contractors.

Project Budgets and Contingencies

More effective budget planning is a specific opportunity for architects and owners to minimize uncertainty. Most owners (81 percent) indicate that they always include contingencies in project budgets, but nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of owners have no standard risk-assessment process to determine the appropriate contingency amount. The study reveals that most owners do not share their contingency amounts with other team members.

We believe that project contingencies should be developed as a team, considering potential risks and the probabilities that they may be encountered on a particular job. Allowances can be made for program changes, design and technical complications, unforeseen conditions, permitting and regulatory changes, design imperfections, construction market conditions, and other issues. The architect should take the lead in this process, and owners will value this guidance.

Clark S. Davis, FAIA, led the Managing Uncertainty research project for the AIA Large Firm Roundtable, AIA, and other industry sponsors. He is principal consultant with Cameron MacAllister Group and former vice chairman of HOK. He is a past president of AIA St. Louis and AIA Missouri. R. Craig Williams, AIA, Esq., is principal and chief legal officer of HKS. He helped to initiate the Managing Uncertainty research project as a leader in the AIA Large Firm Roundtable’s Legal Committee. He is a nationally recognized author and speaker on design and construction law.