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4 Problems with a Short Design Timeline

May 16th, 2024 | 8 min. read

4 Problems with a Short Design Timeline

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On a typical building project, a design team needs several months to develop a concept, select materials, and produce contract documents. For some owners, shortening this process may seem appealing. 

A shorter timeline can allow developers to start construction and reach occupancy faster, minimizing the financial impact of high-interest loans. In other cases, it can reduce operational impacts. 

Although a shorter design timeline may offer some benefits, it comes with drawbacks. Shortening the process can lead to quality assurance issues, a lack of vision, and even higher design fees. Owners considering this approach should carefully weigh the pros and cons. 

This article will discuss the problems an owner may encounter on a shorter design timeline, helping you understand the implications of going down this route.   

Problems with a Short Design Timeline 

1. Quality Assurance 

Whether a new building or renovation, a short design timeline can pose quality assurance issues. Design teams need time to coordinate with consultants—including civil, mechanical, plumbing, and electrical engineers—and produce a thorough set of contract documents for construction. 

If the schedule does not allow time for coordination and quality assurance reviews, you increase the risk of errors, omissions, and change orders. Such issues can lengthen the construction schedule and potentially increase costs. 

At the same time, contractors use contract documents to produce bids. While a detailed, quality document set leads to accurate bids and cost savings, a less detailed set can inflate costs. 

Contractors may cushion their bid with higher costs to cover unknowns. Ultimately, you may pay more for construction than you would with a longer design timeline. 

2. Lack of Vision 

The early stages of the design process are an opportunity to form a project vision. Pre-design activities like benchmarking tours, visioning workshops, and user surveys can help you set overarching goals and imagine different ways of approaching your project. 

Although these activities can lengthen the design process, they are vital for the project’s success. With clear goals, your team can better vet decisions and maximize construction dollars.

a design team and client exploring design options

Pre-design activities can help form a comprehensive project vision. 

The design is at its most malleable in the earliest stages of the project, allowing you to explore ideas and test different approaches with minimal budget impacts. As the design process progresses, changes become increasingly time-consuming and costly. A longer design process sets you up for success and allows you to start construction with confidence.   

3. Regulatory Setbacks 

To protect the public’s safety, building projects face a lot of red tape. Even if your design team can complete work within your timeline, you may face regulatory setbacks. 

Code reviews can take months, depending on your project’s size and scope. Typically, the process starts with a preliminary review during schematic design, with the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) providing feedback. A formal review occurs before construction. 

The length and complexity of these reviews depend on your project and location—and they cannot be fast-tracked. When planning your design timeline, consider the code review’s impact.   

4. Higher Design Fees 

A shorter design timeline can also lead to a higher architectural fee. Building projects rest on a three-legged stool: time, budget, and quality. 

Depending on your goals, the stool can be balanced in different ways. A quality project is possible on a low budget if your timeline allows for research, iteration, and coordination. Similarly, a shorter timeline requires a larger budget to achieve quality. 

Design fees equate to the time and resources the project requires. To complete a quality project on a short schedule, your architect may need to devote more staff to the project, resulting in a higher cost. Depending on their current workload, they may not have the capacity to complete the project within the desired schedule. 

At the same time, a shorter timeline can limit your consultant options. Like your design team, consultants need the staff and resources to complete the work quickly. Ideally, your design team will assemble a team specializing in your needs and project type, but under a shorter time constraint, they may have to partner with a less experienced option. 

For some, higher design fees are a non-issue. The cost of design fees, for example, may be lower than interest rates, incentivizing a faster design process. 

Regardless, owners should understand the cost implications of shortening the design process. A short timeline and a small budget rarely result in a high-quality outcome.   

When Does a Shorter Design Timeline Make Sense? 

Generally, we recommend owners avoid a short design timeline. With many potential issues, it’s best to allow time for exploration, quality assurance reviews, and coordination. 

However, a shorter timeline may work in some cases. Prototype projects for corporations and franchises, for example, can operate on a tighter schedule once the initial design is developed. While the exact specifications must be adjusted to the site, most decisions are set in stone, with problems already discovered. 

Enablement projects may also involve a shorter design process. These projects are part of a larger master plan and must occur before other design phases can begin. 

For example, you may need to remove a portion of the building or upgrade existing systems before renovating your facility. Such projects involve less design work than larger-scale projects, making a shorter timeline possible. 

While we would not recommend a shortened design process for a new building or large-scale renovation, it may be possible on smaller projects with minimal complexity.   

Learn More About Design Timelines 

While the length of the design process varies from project to project, it generally takes several months for the design team to complete the work. Taking your time during the design process is the best way to form a clear project vision, minimize errors, and ensure coordination between all parties. 

Although we wouldn’t recommend a shorter design schedule, it may work for smaller projects with less complexity, including prototype and enablement projects. When shortening the design process on a larger scale project, owners should understand the likelihood of increased architectural fees and construction costs. 

When planning to fast-track the design process, you need a solid understanding of your project’s budget, program, and scope. Understanding these components will minimize disruptions and keep the process moving. Learn more by reading about the factors that slow the design process.