Minimizing Costs and Risks in a Building Project

Sam Frank headshotby Sam Frank, Principal, Synthesis Partnership

New facilities, while exciting, are an extraordinarily expensive commitment, with a variety of hidden costs, and budgets that can easily balloon out of control. If you need to build—or think you might—there are ways to reduce your costs, your risks and your stress, while increasing control over the project and enhancing the benefits you will derive from your new or renovated facility. Many of these actions are not things that you’d know to consider if you don’t build regularly:

  • Making sure your strategic, program and business plans are current.
    Facilities are long-term investments. Before deciding whether and how to proceed, you should make sure you’ve done your best thinking about needs, resources and alternatives.
  • Articulating the requirements in a detailed architectural program.
    Enormous benefits can be derived from describing a prospective facility in great detail very early in the process. You will be faced with a broad range of decisions that you hadn’t thought about, and you’ll be able to think them through and develop consensus as needed, without urgent time pressure. If you wait until design is under way, you risk delay, hasty decisions, extra costs for change orders, and maybe a design that does not fit your real needs.
  • Using the architectural program to develop a firm project budget.
    A detailed architectural program provides a reliable basis for accurate budgeting of the project, so your board can know the full financial implications before incurring the costs of engaging an architect to create the conceptual and schematic design. And you won’t have to come back to them later for more money.
  • Projecting and evaluating the full impact of the new facility on the operating budget.
    New buildings bring various kinds of new costs and (sometimes) cost-savings. To avoid surprises later, it is important to identify them from the start and factor them into decision-making.
  • Making sure that there is the appropriate expertise on staff to maintain control of the project.
    Someone must direct the project (focusing on fiduciary and programmatic decision making, and communications) and someone must manage it (working with and overseeing the contractor or construction manager, and evaluating requests for payment). Given the quite different skill sets required, these roles normally require two different people, though for smaller projects neither may need to be full time jobs.
  • Putting in place unambiguous decision-making processes for the project.
    You will need to establish clear decision-making and communications protocols to avoid added costs, stress, and delays.
  • Developing a contract that fully protects the client’s interests.
    Most often nonprofits use a contract developed by the American Institute of Architects. Unless it is heavily edited by an attorney experienced in construction, this contract will add significant costs and risks to your project. Handled properly, a customized and well-negotiated contract better serves the best interests of both the nonprofit and the architect.
  • Following a thorough and methodical process in selecting an architect and negotiating contract details.
    A well-crafted process will result in a more suitable fit between the architect and client, a more successful design process, and a better building.

These steps will enable an organization to evaluate the feasibility of a project before committing to major expenses, and avoid pitfalls that could damage the finances not only of the project, but of the organization as a whole.

For more information on the facility planning process, see “Before you Hire an Architect” (, or contact Sam Frank at or 617 969 1881.