Industry Watch – Uncertainty – What Are the Main Causes of Uncertainty in Construction?

In last week’s article I referenced a study that was conducted by McGraw Hill back in April of 2014.  Last week, I focused strictly on the inverse perception held by Owners and Architects about the cause of errors in drawings.

This week, I want to walk through the top 7 things the study concludes are the main causes of uncertainty in construction and give you my recommendations for how to mitigate their impact.

Owner Driven Changes

The number one item the study concluded to be a source of uncertainty in construction was Owner-driven changes.  For Architects and Contractors this is one of those, “I told you so” moments, but for Owner’s this may be a revelation that they themselves may feel is unmanageable.

The truth is that while you may never be able to completely eliminate Owner-driven changes, there are several things that can be done to mitigate the number of Owner-driven changes.

First is to start early.  It’s never too soon to engage with an Architect or a Project Manager or even your Procurement team.

You should engage with your team at the first sign of a potential project, this allows for a formal period of pre-design.  I’ve discussed pre-design phase before.  This is a period of time (before start of design) when information is collected and documented.

I don’t mean allowing your architect one week to go and measure the existing conditions of your site, I mean a solid month or two where you and your team consider all of the parameters and criteria for your project.

During this period of time, there are a number of investigations and studies that should be performed before you put pen to paper and begin designing your space.

It’s also the period of time when you can gather all of the project stakeholders and get them to tell you what their list of requirements will be.

I know the reality is that we are often working with hard deadlines and short notice, but we will address that under item number 6.

Design Omissions and Communication Gaps

From the context of my earlier article, we know that errors and omissions in design are inevitable.

In last week’s article I addressed how you can create a contingency calculator and also how you should address your Architect’s Standard of Care, but besides that, a great way to mitigate the effect of design omissions is to use collaborative contracting techniques.

There are several collaborative contracting techniques you can use.  I’ve written about this topic and I will speaking next month about this at the ProcureCon Facilities Conference.

In a nut-shell what this refers to is any contracting method that allows your Contractor to participate as a reviewer of the drawings.

I have my preferred method of doing this, but regardless of how you go about making this happen, having the Contractor review the drawings is a great way to get ahead of any potential errors or omissions in the drawings.

It also reduces the potential for the Contractor to initiate changes because he will now be vested in the development of the drawings.

Construction Coordination

The third most common cause of uncertainty in construction has to do with the complexity of construction itself.

With dozens of trades and overlapping scopes-of-work working under high pressure timelines, coordination of the work presents a huge opportunity for errors.

Ultimately, the responsibility for coordination lies with the Contractor and there are a number of great tools that top tier contractors use to help them manage the coordination of trades.

However, my advice for mitigating the impact of coordination errors begins during design.

Building Information Modelling (BIM) is a great tool for mitigating coordination errors.  I’ve written extensively on when BIM makes sense and when it does not.

The bottom line is that if you are working on a simple project, coordination of trades presents a lower level of risk and for those projects, BIM would be overkill, but for projects that require a high degree of coordination, BIM is definitely the tool of choice.

Unknown Site or Building Conditions

The study identifies unknown site or building conditions as the fourth cause of uncertainty in construction.

The truth is that you can never completely remove this as a risk.  However, if you follow the advice to have a formal pre-design phase of work and you take that time to perform the right types of tests and inspections, the risk of unknowns can be dramatically reduced.

Basic investigations such as; soil boring, geotechnical investigations, comprehensive site surveys, LIDAR surveys, site assessment reports, and other preliminary testing are an essential first step before you begin to conceptualize a design.

Conducting these tests can substantially reduce the risk of unknown site conditions.

Design and Documentation Mistakes

Whether the drawings have omitted information (as we discussed in item number 2) or there simply is an error in the information, the impact and the mitigation for this is the same.

The main mitigation for drawing errors comes back to the Architect’s Standard of Care.  Don’t shy away from this topic and make sure your designer knows your expectations.

Accelerated Design and Construction Schedules

At the start of this discussion, we addressed Owner-driven changes and discussed how a formal pre-design phase can help reduce the number of Owner-driven changes.  I also acknowledged that the in the real world, Owner’s themselves are driven by schedules that may not be in their control.

So the reality is that we may not have the time to spend several months investigating the site and we may even be working under compressed time frames.

This is where an experienced procurement person can help the most.

There are a number of engagement and contracting methods that are available to help manage tight time frames and allow enough variability (in pricing) to accommodate on-the-fly discovery.

The options are too many to list in this article.  I’ve written about some of these in the past, but suffice it to say that there is always something that can be done to mitigate (not eliminate) the impact of accelerated schedules.

Delays in Procurement, Fabrication, or Assembly

I love the title of this seventh cause of uncertainty in construction because I constantly hear Stakeholder complain about the time it takes to engage with procurement, but if you read the report, this item is not about the impact of engaging with procurement, rather it’s about the market forces that impact procurement’s ability to contract the work.

Labor uncertainties, material shortages, political tariff policies, or the impact of severe weather are all factors that impact the ability to contract or receive goods and services.

I would be lying if I said there was any way to mitigate these risks.  The fact is that these can happen at any time without notice.

However, I think it is healthy to acknowledge that these risks exist and include them as a factor in a risk register and/or contingency calculator.


Construction work is inherently complex.  There are hundreds of things that can go wrong.  I find the McGraw Hill report to be a great reminder of some of the most prevalent causes for uncertainty.

We will never be able to completely remove uncertainty from construction.  Mitigation of the impact of these risks should be the goal.

What about you?  Do you use any of these techniques to mitigate uncertainty in your projects?  Are there any mitigations I failed to mention?  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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