March 28, 2002

Scope creep and other scary things

  • How to establish project scope and control creep

    On any building project the owners, designers and ultimately the contractors all have a vested interest in establishing an accurate project scope understanding at the outset of the project.


    What do we mean when we speak of “scope?” Simply said we are talking about the parameters of the project.

    Parameters include the square footage of the building, acreage of the site, total budget for the facility, capacities of rooms, beds, seats, gates, parking spaces or other metrics that may drive the pro forma that sets the project’s feasibility.

    We also mean important specifics such as the furniture and equipment to be included, special communication systems, and other key components of the building.

    Finally, we are addressing the scope of services to be provided by the design team such as architectural design, engineering (structural, civil, mechanical, plumbing, electrical, fire protection), landscape design, interior design, graphics and signage, and so on. The required services are in direct response to the project parameters noted above.


    Determining the “scope of work” begins with the owner, who might commission a financial feasibility study or capital improvement program appropriation, and outline the work to be done in order to determine the project’s overall needs and design criteria.

    The owner would then use this information to guide the selection of an appropriate size design and construction team with the expertise to handle the project. This can be a difficult process for the owners to do on their own, because factors such as a changing economy, a highly dynamic business, the owner’s lack of capability to determine project needs accurately — or all of the above — can put the owners in the position of gathering imprecise or outdated information. Many owners now bring in outside design and construction expertise to help them adequately define the scope, which can help prevent both surprises and difficulties as the project takes shape.

    After all this preparation, which can take years in some cases, owners are usually ready to move forward quickly once they select the design team, and the design team is equally eager to accommodate the owner and make immediate progress.

    But this is the very point at which a thorough conversation between owner and design team is critical.

    The design team must confirm they have an accurate and detailed understanding of the owner’s needs and expectations — and it is this detailed outline of needs and expectations that leads directly to the scope of work. Here is the clear starting point on which to base services, fees, budgets and schedules.

    These understandings pay off in clarity, the possibility of greater efficiency in the delivery process, and an increased ability for the design team to be responsive to the owner’s needs and expectations.

    The design team always faces a dilemma revolving around how they can come to know enough about the owner and the project (especially if they haven’t had an ongoing relationship) to assemble the right team. They must also respond to the obvious question that comes up immediately during contract negotiation: “How much will your fees be?”

    Many times the best solution is for the team to perform a feasibility or programming effort with the owner’s organization to create a comprehensive scope of project and determine required design services, before trying to set a fee.

    By the time construction begins, especially in lump-sum-bid public work and projects where budgets are rigidly fixed by the funding source, the scope needs to be firm and fully delineated in the contract documents. A failure here will involve many companies and many workers. The result could delay or cause significant change or rework and can create a major financial problem, which rarely has a simple solution that is acceptable to all parties.

    Scope creep

    But even if we have been successful from the very start at achieving a good scope definition, there is one more issue waiting quietly to cause problems once the project is being designed and built — scope creep.

    Scope creep is the term that architects and engineers use for the inevitable tendency of projects to grow, expand or swell beyond the original intent.

    Everyone working on a project wants to enhance the quality of the project and buy the most for the money available. So someone may decide to add updated technology, another person wants to upgrade the building finishes, refine the design of a key space or focal point, or add other features that would be nice to have if the budget permits.

    All too often, these enhancements are rooted in the failure to realistically set an accurate scope in the beginning, or alternately, in either the owner’s or the designer’s desire to “gold plate” the project — to add something to distinguish it even more.

    The impact of this scope creep on successful project delivery can be exponentially greater than anyone understands at the time the ideas are flowing — a hundred seemingly small upgrades can add up to a huge dollar cost when the bill comes due.

    For this reason it is essential that an understanding about how these changes will be handled be determined at the project’s beginning. How are changes documented? Who needs to give the final approval to make a change? Who examines the cost versus benefit impact of a change to facilitate the decision? If a package or phase of work has been approved, what magnitude of change can be tolerated and for what cause?

    The answers to these questions may lead to more time being taken during the early design stages to look at various options and evaluate them. By doing this, we may realize, for instance, that a special set of equipment needs detailed information gathered in advance, right down to the voltage, wattage and type of connection.

    Using a scope creep management system, we can head off major additions or redesign, and achieve the smooth delivery that everyone involved in a project is striving for.

    Design and construction professionals understand that some change is inevitable as we all live in the real world. But we also know that if scope is defined at the outset through a collaborative effort, that the certainty of on-time and on-budget delivery combined with a quality result is greatly enhanced.

    We also know that managing a scope-of-work is not a one-time effort, but goes on continuously during the entire design and construction process — and will be most successful if a thorough scope definition effort is made an integral part of the project kick-off work.

    Roy W. Johnson, AIA, teaches the Advanced Management Institute for Architecture and Engineering’s Project Management program. He designs and leads in-firm training programs and corporate universities, and consults with design firms on a range of firm management and leadership issues. He is currently the president of AIA North Carolina and is a licensed architect in 19 states.

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