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Expectations to Set at the Start of a Building Project

May 9th, 2024 | 9 min. read

Expectations to Set at the Start of a Building Project

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The design and construction process can be long and complex. Without clear expectations between all parties, projects can go awry, impacting your budget and schedule. Before starting design work, we recommend meeting with your design team, discussing the project’s scope, and creating a plan for the work ahead. 

We have worked with clients of all experience levels—from universities overseeing hundreds of buildings to non-profits starting a first project. No matter the size or complexity, a successful project requires clear expectations. 

This article will outline the expectations you should set at a building’s project’s onset, organizing them into two phases: pre-contract and post-contract. After reading, you will understand the information your architect will discuss in early meetings and the expectations you will set during the project’s kick-off. 

Pre-Contract Expectations 

Before signing a contract with an architect, establish the project’s scope and any work done to date. This information will give your architect an idea of the time and effort your project requires, helping them determine a fee and contractual agreement. 

In an initial meeting, they may ask questions like: 

  • Do you have a site? 
  • Do you have existing building documentation (if renovating)? 
  • Have you completed any site work, like a geotechnical survey? 
  • Do you have a program (a list of necessary spaces and their sizing)? 
  • Do you have a master plan? 
  • What is your budget? 
  • What is your ideal timeline? 

Depending on your answers, they may recommend supplemental pre-design services before entering a standard basic services contract. These services are charged separately from the basic services fee—usually at an hourly or fixed rate.   

For example, they may recommend a programming study to help you determine your spatial needs. Similarly, they may recommend a site selection study to help you find a location. 

Pre-contract discussions are also a good time to set expectations about budget, timeline, and quality. In the design world, these concepts are known as the “three-legged stool.” 

While the most successful projects prioritize all three, the stool can balance in different ways. If scheduling is your top priority, you may need a larger budget to achieve a quality project. Similarly, a smaller budget can lead to a quality project if the schedule allows for research, iteration, and coordination. 

Setting expectations around budget, schedule, and quality helps your architect understand your goals and what will drive the design process. From there, they can explain how one priority may impact other project areas.   

Post-Contract Expectations 

Once you’ve signed a contract, it’s time to set expectations about responsibilities, communication, and the project’s vision. Typically, these discussions will occur during a kickoff meeting involving the design team and your organization’s primary decision-makers. 

Contractual Responsibilities 

One of the first expectations to set is the contractual responsibilities of the design team and the owner. Your architect should break down the contract details and their scope of services. 

For example, an architect will usually hold contracts with the Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing (MEP) engineers, but other required services, like geotechnical surveys, are the owner’s responsibility. An owner should be prepared to acquire and pay for this service before starting construction. 

Contracts differ across projects. While most projects use an American Institute of Architects (AIA) agreement, some institutions, like universities, have customized legal documents. 


Secondly, it’s important to establish expectations around communication. With long timelines and many moving parts, successful projects rely on a thorough communication plan with clearly defined roles. 

Throughout the project, your project manager will be your main contact, relaying messages between your project stakeholders and the design team. At your end, you will need to establish a primary point of contact. This person will act as your internal project manager, sending messages from the architectural project manager to your organization’s stakeholders.   

This person should also convey final decisions. Even if they are not responsible for decision-making, they should be prepared to relay the message.

a client meeting with an architect

Establish an internal project manager to communicate with the design team. 

During the kickoff meeting, it helps to discuss your organizational structure and your decision-making process. This information will help establish a meeting cadence and an overall timeline for each design phase. 

Likewise, your design team should set expectations around feedback. Successful projects rely on frequent and specific client input. A structured feedback process helps ensure your design team keeps moving in the right direction. 

At the project’s onset, we always explain that we are open to critique and want to hear from everyone during the design process. Giving feedback can feel uncomfortable for some, and we want everyone to feel confident in voicing opinions. 

Communication is more than in-person discussions, and your design teams should also set communication around digital communication and file-sharing, asking which platforms your organization prefers. Getting these logistical questions out of the way will minimize headaches once design work begins. 

Visioning and Strategic Intent 

Before starting design work, your design team must understand your vision and goals. They should know what you hope to accomplish and how the project will impact your organization. 

Project goals can range from tangible to experiential. For example, you may want to lower operating costs or cultivate a more productive work environment. At the same time, you may want to create an inspiring environment that reflects your organization’s values. 

Establishing these goals early will help vet decisions later in the design process. When budgets and schedules come into play, you can return to your project goals and determine the best course. 

While you may discuss these goals during a kickoff meeting, we recommend a formal goal-setting process. A visioning workshop, for example, gathers input from your team and helps establish an overall strategic intent for the project. Other activities, like benchmarking tours, can help you discover different approaches and refine your goals.

a visioning workshop on a building project

Visioning workshops gather input and create a shared project vision. 

Ideally, your architect will set expectations about these exercises and their importance. They should discuss the types of activities they recommend and when they will occur. 

Prepare for the Architectural Process 

An efficient and impactful design process starts with defining expectations and responsibilities. Before signing a contract, set expectations about the project’s scope and the work done to date. This information will help your architect determine a basic services fee and the supplemental services your project requires. 

After signing a contract, set expectations about responsibilities, communication, and the project’s vision. Early discussions about logistics and the project’s strategic intent will aid decision-making and minimize headaches later in the design process. 

After the kickoff meeting, the design process will begin. Most projects involve seven phases, each gradually bringing your vision to life. To prepare, read about the seven steps of the architectural process