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design intent in construction

3 Strategies for Maintaining Design Intent Throughout Construction

What makes a building a hospital? What’s the difference between a facility for higher education versus one for K-12 learning? Why is one skyscraper considered a corporate office and a neighboring one used as an apartment complex? In short, because they were designed that way.

Design intent encompasses what a building is for, who is using it and how it should be used. For instance, what products will best bring this vision to light? What design elements are integral to a product’s design intent and is the building design valid? While an architect may answer many of these questions during the design phase, true intent can get lost as the general contractor and crew are concerned with tactile data and execution.

Nonetheless, the design intent is a commonly lost focus. As the intent gets less clear, it results in rework and change orders. Considering that 77% of large projects are coming in 40% late or greater, a loss of design intent is a common reason for schedule and budget overruns.

So, why and how should construction teams prioritize design intent throughout the building process? Below, we’ll discuss the importance of establishing and maintaining design intent. We’ll also discuss three strategies to maintain its focus in every build and why doing so is critical for your reputation, your bottom line and your revenue.

Why Design Intent Matters

Intuitively, you probably understand why design intent matters. When design intent is met, a construction project is likelier to proceed smoothly, with few objections from the owner and few frustrating change orders once the process is underway.

If, on the other hand, the design intent is not met, then owners may request changes. In addition to the cost burden, change orders and rework can demoralize workers who must backtrack to redo things to the new specifications. Schedule overruns can affect your commitment to other jobs. For instance, your drywall crew cannot move on to the next job until drywall is complete at the current job.

When design intent is maintained, the entire construction lifecycle is reduced, the cost of rework decreases and end-user satisfaction is higher. Most importantly, design intent ensures the long-term viability of a project. If the project is unfaithful to the design intent, it’s less likely to stand the test of time, as it becomes outdated faster. As a result, owners end up paying more to manage the facilities at a certain level.

Understanding Why Design Intent Is Often Not Met

Few project stakeholders enter a job with the intention of neglecting design intent, yet the hard truth is it’s often not prioritized on projects. To ensure you are meeting your commitment to the intended design, it’s helpful to understand the most common reasons design intent is not met, then remain vigilant for potential problems on every job.

One of the main reasons design intent is overlooked is a misalignment. A successful job requires many different professionals to work in harmony–but this level of cooperation is easier said than done. For instance, if the structural engineers do not fully understand the design intent of the architect, how can they deliver on it? On the other hand, if the designers aren’t listening to the contractor, how can they fulfill their role while remaining true to the client’s goals?

Architects and members of the design team are primarily visual thinkers. While the goal is to design the project according to intent, constructibility could be lost when bringing those exact designs to life. Alternatively, although some engineers and general contractors have an artistic eye, their job is mainly to ensure the project can and will be built physically. General contractors are tasked with paying attention to the budget and using sound construction techniques to bring the design to life.

Nonetheless, it takes both functionality and aesthetics to create a successful project, which means a union of visual thinking and construction quality–in addition to a willingness to understand the other perspective in order to satisfy the design intent. “When contractors work closely with architects during design, and architects work closely with contractors during construction, the design intent is more likely to be realized,” writes construction administrator Paul Potts.

Basically, meeting design intent is a two-way street. But how exactly is this coordination achieved? Let’s discuss three winning strategies for maintaining intent as one cohesive team.

3 Strategies to Maintain Design Intent Throughout the Construction Process

1. Develop Better Specifications

Specifications guide the construction process and physically carry out the intent of the design. Often developed sequentially, specifications can fail to capture an essential part of the design intent due to the fragmented process. If something is overlooked in developing specifications, then it’s almost certain to lead to a problem satisfying the intent of the design.

Failing to get specs right is a widespread issue in the industry. According to a new study from NBS, 94% of respondents experienced difficulties producing or using specifications.

When developing specifications, builders must ensure they really understand components in relation to not only the project build but the overall system performance. It’s often those small value, high relevance components that matter to the client and thus create a good build. As Brian Harrington, director of business development at Bellwether Design Technologies comments, ”That’s why it’s important at the specification stage to truly understand the value of the component as a percentage of the project build and its relevance to the system performance. Fixings are a good example of those small value/high relevance components that make the difference to a good build.”

In both specification and construction, products may be substituted, whether due to budget constraints or inability to source the originally requested material. Some substitutions may be fine, while others can affect the overall design or threaten the design intent. In fact, 57% of NBS survey respondents attributing a portion of their difficulties in using specifications to the need for substitutions for materials specified in the design.

While substituting cheaper products can reduce costs at the moment, this will backfire if the substituted material strays from the original intention for the build, negatively impact the durability and performance over time or increases operations costs when the client requests the originally requested materials be used.

To avoid making a decision they could regret, general contractors should always consider whether the product specified is the correct product, which gives the best performance and right application for the use case. It’s better to think through questions and dialogue at the moment than make a snap decision for expediency that could come back to haunt the build.

Finally, a successful submittals process is essential in ensuring the right specs are implemented on a project. Typically, submittals is a painstakingly long and manual process. If contractors and architects want to ensure the right materials and processes are in place for design intent, construction software like PlanGrid’s submittals products can significantly contribute to success.

2. Collaborate Earlier in the Process

Many problems can be avoided when collaboration is introduced earlier in the process because you can make sure the right team members are engaged with the project during the planning stages. Tools like BIM, for instance, allow everyone to look at the whole story, rather than get caught up in the details of their own job roles.

This goes beyond contractors and architects to encompass anyone who might have valuable input to add.

For instance, when designing a healthcare facility, it makes sense to have doctors and nurses weigh in on the design as end users. Since they will use the existing facility every day, they’ll be able to pinpoint exactly what works about the design and what’s not working. This sort of insider input can speed time to completion by helping you avoid mistakes in the design and construction process.

It’s also helpful to have subcontractors, such as plumbers or electricians, review the design in the early stages. You never know when a professional will spot something in the design that’s going to pose a problem in the construction phase because systems don’t align. Plumbers, electricians, roofing contractors and other professionals know the technical limitations of the materials they work with and have situation-specific experience that can be invaluable in these sorts of meetings.

It can be helpful to loop in the design team, architect, or plan owner on these discussions so that they can share their vision for the design with the larger group. When the design owner explains some of the narratives behind the idea, teams can take the side of the design intent when discussing the project. Talking things through together can also increase the design owner’s and the client’s confidence in the crew that will be bringing the design to life.

Rather than one and done, these meetings should be ongoing through the design process to deliver the most value. When you invest up front in coordinating between different stakeholders, you pave the way for a smooth project. If you don’t invest in coordination upfront, then change orders and conflict are inevitable.

If you’re wondering how to collaborate earlier in the process using technology, watch the following video:

3. Use Mobile and Cloud-Based Technology

While meeting in person is ideal, it’s not always convenient and possible in construction, especially given just how many people are involved in one project. Mobile and cloud-based construction software can fill a gap when it’s not possible to get all stakeholders together. This centralizes communication and bridges the office-field divide.

Using mobile apps can help you capture every piece of feedback for fast follow up on QC issues while streamlining project management and task completion, effectively ensuring nothing is overlooked. By being able to coordinate anywhere and at any time, mobile and cloud-based technology ensure all project stakeholders can be held accountable for meeting and maintaining design intent.

Prioritize Design Intent in Every Project

Each project is unique, and its design intent is a critical component of a successful build. By maintaining design intent in every job, you can decrease time spent on every build, boost client satisfaction and be more productive overall.

Grace Ellis

As a Content Marketing Manager at PlanGrid, Grace is the managing editor for the PlanGrid Construction Productivity Blog. With over eight years of experience in marketing, communications and PR for technology companies, she is specialized in high-quality content creation across both traditional and digital media platforms.

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