It has been said that the only real building material is money.
For an architect, the three key components informing the design process from day one forward are: what is the client’s program, what is the schedule, and what is the budget.
Establishing and then tracking the project budget is often the most underrated of these three considerations, and yet it is equally if not more important than any of the others. For it is the most assured of follies to proceed down the design path without knowing how much money is available to the project, design the project, and only then come to terms with the actualities of construction cost. For this reason, including a construction estimator on the design team is essential to the success of the project.
This is not a hard and fast rule, of course. Surely for the average residential bathroom or kitchen remodel ball-parking the construction cost may not be so difficult. But it is the rare case where the residential client has the wherewithal or the luxury to dispense entirely with obtaining periodic and reasonably accurate estimations of the projected cost of construction along the way. The old saw, “a fool and his money are soon parted” pertains especially to construction, and it’s the height of foolishness to ignore the realities attending to any construction budget.
Our firm’s small business, corporate, and institutional clients know this, and so it is routine for our firm to refer our private and public sector clients to 2-3 professional estimators, knowing that they will select among them to find the one most qualified to manage their construction costs on their proposed project from the moment of inception of our design. In that manner, working with the estimator to run budget figures at each phase of the design process we can be relatively assured that when the design is completed and is let to bid – having done our homework along the way – there are unlikely to be any surprises on the day of bid opening.
The homeowner is in a more challenging position in this regard. Often, the margins of their budget are thin and so, to shave costs, they refrain from retaining an estimator, avoiding what they might perceive to be an unnecessary expense. Inevitably in these cases they ask the architect to ballpark the costs for them. Being eager to please, all too often the architect is all too willing to accommodate this request. But architects are eternal optimists, and this well-meaning optimism can undermine the objectivity necessary to the task. More importantly, we architects are not as acquainted with the vagaries of the marketplace nor do most have the resources necessary to produce an accurate estimation of cost.
What is the necessary resource? For most builders, this resource is their network of local subcontractors. These are the “antenna” of the contractor, the eyes and ears on the ground. By relying on his/her subcontractors the estimating contractor is in a position to obtain up-to-date information and then furnish an approximation of the construction cost likely to accrue to the latest iteration of the design.
By analogy, the estimator can be thought of as the navigator charting the fog-shrouded waters of the construction budget. And that being the case, who would ever leave the anchorage of a safe port towards the farther shore without having a navigator on board?