The golden rule of renovation: Expect the best, plan for the worst

By Patrick McGinley  

Renovation projects are notorious for unexpected complications. In some cases, those unanticipated challenges produce late night emergency planning sessions, missed deadlines and cost overruns. But on other projects, which may be plagued by the same kinds of problems, budgets, schedules and stress remain under control.

What’s the difference?

Especially in larger facilities or corporate environments, renovation projects can be as much about risk management as they are about good design. Facility executives, designers and architects should all realize from the beginning that certain compromises and changes to the original plans may be required because of issues like timing, budget, program adjustments, limitations of the existing space or the availability of certain materials. Ultimately, the facility executive needs to direct and coordinate these changes to ensure that the final project meets the needs of the organization.

Although it is impossible to know exactly which problems will arise, there are a few areas that generally produce the most difficulties. The facility executive should expect the architect or designer to start a project with several alternatives to address each potential issue, and each of those alternatives may have multiple parts with options to meet potential renovation surprises.

This sort of planning arises from what might be called the golden rule of renovation: expect the best but plan for the worst. To heed this advice, facility executives should have a good idea of where problems typically arise.

A good renovation is specifically designed for the opportunities and limitations of a space. Sometimes the design can be accomplished with prefabricated, standard materials, but it’s usually the customized finishes and one-of-a-kind construction or installation needs that make a design special.

This type of work requires more advance planning and presents more opportunities for problems, delays and mistakes. It is vital to identify the customized elements of any design first. That way, changes can be made based on careful review of the existing space, and planning and production can begin as soon as possible. This minimizes the risk that customized pieces will derail the project timeline, either because they’re not ready on time or because they don’t work in the space.

This upfront review is also a chance for a reality check on the cost of these elements. Fluctuations in material and labor costs, along with design refinements and final decisions on specifications, can alter the original renovation budget. Addressing budget concerns for these key elements early will help guide decisions about other project needs. The facility executive will also have flexibility to shift funds as needed and ensure that the budget is being used to meet key project goals.

Another issue that can slow down a renovation project before construction even begins is the failure to obtain design plan approval from important members of upper management. These individuals may or may not have a stake in the project, but they certainly have the power to influence or demand design changes. The later they become aware of the project, the more costly potential changes can be.

It is always a good idea to confirm that all the appropriate top executives have reviewed renovation designs before proceeding to the next phase. This includes ensuring that the space meets the requirements of the program for which the space was designed. Facility executives should not be shy about asking for or confirming these approvals more than once. What may appear to a senior executive to be a few small requests or minor changes to a design that was created six months earlier may have a major impact on renovations that are ready to begin. And if a senior executive decides to “adjust” more than half the design elements, it can easily take an additional four to six weeks to resolve issues created by the alterations, change the specifications and create new documents.

That type of delay is never good news. It is especially troublesome to a senior manager who is accustomed to making things happen quickly and may not understand or care about the complicated design and documentation process. With a few simple questions asked at the right times, a facility executive may be able to avoid financial and political setbacks.

It is also important to prepare business leaders for any delays that might happen. Many top managers are not willing to wait for specified materials if delivery is going to be delayed because the materials are out of stock or project management problems arise. This is very often the case with large corporations that need to complete a space quickly to increase productivity.

One option is to work with designers and contractors to coordinate the schedule around the delays. Another choice is to provide alternate solutions that may be less striking than the original, custom design, but are still consistent with the overall vision.

For example, designers for a recent renovation project called for the installation of custom carpeting throughout the space that required a six-week lead time to produce. The corporation was supposed to provide purchase orders directly to the manufacturer to pay for all materials. But two weeks before the carpet was scheduled for installation, the corporation still had not issued the purchase order. Rather than push the project timeline back four weeks, the corporation opted for an alternative quick ship solution. In the end, the need to make the space functional outweighed the desire for a more distinctively designed floor covering.

A similar situation occurred with the design for a custom conference table. In this case, the proper paperwork was generated and the order placed, but the mill eventually reported that there was a shortage of the specified veneer and the table could not be completed on time. After a quick search for additional sources, it was determined that the best solution was to adjust the design and continue production.

Another situation that can wreak havoc on a renovation project is when work begins before a tenant lease is signed. To meet deadlines or seal a deal, facility executives are often asked to begin work once a verbal agreement is reached. But because lease negotiations can take months, this is a dangerous and potentially expensive way to work. The end users’ needs may change during the course of negotiations or the deal may fall through.

If a renovation must be started under these circumstances, be sure to keep the design and construction team aware of the situation and work with professionals who are able to accommodate changing needs. The facility executive may also need to challenge certain decisions to minimize the risk for everyone involved.

Pressure of time

The cumulative effect of these potential renovation pitfalls can be significant, especially if the renovation is tied to a corporate brand or must reflect standards established in other portfolio spaces.

With proper planning, these issues can be resolved quickly or avoided completely. Unfortunately, in today’s fast-paced business environment multitasking is the norm and allowing adequate time for thorough planning can result in lost revenue. As a result, problems are arising more frequently during the construction phase rather than during review of plans.

For example, during the recent renovation of a space to accommodate a trading floor, ceilings became an issue. Designers were already contending with a low slab height. As the project progressed, the engineers found that they had to include larger ducts than originally anticipated to provide adequate heating and cooling. To resolve the issue, close coordination between the installers, mechanical engineers and designers was required so that various ceiling heights could be incorporated with the other design elements. Proper management of this process was vital to creating a cohesive space that did not feel “condensed” or disjointed and did not burden the budget with the cost of multiple revisions.

On Site, Top of Mind

Perhaps the best way to manage unexpected complications and ensure that they are being addressed properly is to have the facility executive or a representative visit the site every day. This is particularly vital for high-end design jobs that rely on customization. It allows the facility executive to see first-hand how the work is progressing and to address issues quickly — ideally within two days or less.

The presence of the facility executive may also help foster a more effective working relationship among architects, contractors and project managers who may be concentrating on two or three projects simultaneously. Facility executives who have first-hand knowledge of issues can address construction document concerns more easily, ask the right questions and make immediate contact with the appropriate people to avoid costly delays.

The key word to keep in mind throughout any renovation process is flexibility. For the good of the whole, certain parts of a design plan may have to be adjusted. That doesn’t mean settling for a series of less than ideal compromises. But when working with an existing space, there should be a certain degree of fluidity to the design, as well as the management approach. Without the leadership of the facility executive to maintain the vision and a creative team who can offer the flexibility to adapt their plans as needed, the facility executive might as well tear down the existing space and start from scratch.

Patrick McGinley, AIA, is a senior project manager with NELSON, an international integrated services firm providing strategic planning, interior design, architecture, engineering, workplace services and information services. He is a registered architect with more than 17 years experience in architectural and interior design as well as project and construction management.

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  posted on 9/1/2006   Article Use Policy

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