Industry Watch – Design Errors – Why You Should Expect Them and How Owners Can Manage Imperfect Design.

I came across a study that was conducted by McGraw Hill back in April of 2014.  Ever since this study was published, it has been referenced by countless articles and organizations.  Most recently, the Law Firm of Vandeventer Black from Richmond Virginia republished conclusions from the study in an article they published in December of 2018.

The study itself is somewhat imperfect as it really is nothing more than a survey of a group of Architects, Owners, and Contractors on what they perceive to be the reason for uncertainty in construction.

Predictably, Owner’s don’t think it’s them.  Architects don’t think it’s them.  Contractor don’t think it’s them.

Despite it’s shortfalls, the content of the study does establish a foundation to explore a few basic principles worth reviewing.

There were two striking facts that caught my attention immediately.

The first is that 80% of Owners surveyed expect future projects to have change orders resulting from design mistakes.

That’s right my fellow Architects…80% of your Clients expect you to make mistakes.

Interestingly enough the study also found that only 21% of Architects believe design errors cause uncertainty in construction and only 15% believe omissions cause uncertainty.

Essentially we have Architects and Owners in an inverse 80/20 curve pointing back at each other blaming the other for errors and omission in design.

Well I have great news for you!

Your both right!

The fact is that the courts have long established that there can be no expectation of flawless drawings.

There simply are too many ways for errors and omissions to occur and I am not the only one that believes this.

The AIA recently published an article addressing how the Standard of Care is applied.  In their article they state simply, “Perfection is not the standard of care for the practice of architecture“.

They go on to establish how a claim is made, but the most important part of this is the basic tenet that drawings are inherently imperfect and that perfection is not a reasonable expectation.

So where do we go from here?

Well once Architects, Owners, and Contractors accept the premise that drawings will invariably include some degree of error, there are two basic questions that we must answer.

First, what level of imperfection are we able to accept?  Second, how do we mitigate and manage that level of imperfection?

Contingency Calculator

To answer the first part of the question, we can use a tool called a Contingency Calculator.

Dodge Reports published a great white paper (which references the McGraw Hill Study) called Project Planning Guide for Owners and Project Teams.  In this guide, they share all the steps you need to build a contingency calculator.

A Contingency Calculator is an Owner’s tool for establishing how much reserve capital is needed to manage the potential for change.  This tool goes well beyond just design errors.  The tools helps owners determine what percentage of risk is present through every stage of work and helps you know how much contingency can be released as each stage closes.

In addition, I recommend that Owners have an open and honest conversation with their Architect about errors and omissions.  It will take some effort to break down barriers, but once both parties accept that changes will happen you can negotiate the degree of risk between both parties.

Risk Mitigation

To address the matter of how risk from design errors is mitigated, the Owner must engage the Architect to negotiate the Standard of Care.

This can be a difficult topic because Architects tend either to be completely ignorant about this concept or they take a firm legal stance that the AIA standard language is all they should accept.

I’ve written and spoken about this topic before and I maintain that Architects must drop their guard and build their understanding of this issue.

Relying on the vague language in AIA contracts does nothing more than hope that things go well and “kick-the-can” down the road until you find yourself in court.  Dealing directly and specifically with this matter is the best way for both Architects and Owner to address risk.


Architects often get a bad rap.  Contractors like to blame the drawings for every possible problem and Owner become frustrated when they are blind-sided with changes.

We need to drop the childish and prideful notion that an Architect’s drawings will be flawless and adopt a mature and proactive approach to risk mitigation.

Hoping that your project will not experience changes is not a plan, but planning for the changes that will invariably occur is.

What do you think?  Should Architects be expected to produce flawless drawings?  Which party in a construction project causes the most changes?  Tell me your stories.

Thanks for reading.  If you enjoyed this content, please feel free to browse my previous articles and please like, share, comment, and subscribe.  This helps promote my content and is greatly appreciated.

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