Truly creative people do things that, by definition, have not been done before. At the same time, each and every job is bounded by the parameters of budget and schedule, which provide the “predictive value” that clients demand.

One of the most difficult questions in professional practice is how to correlate creativity with predictability. We all know that design is an exploratory process, and that it takes a certain amount of time to reflect, invent, and then delineate a range of possible solutions for the client’s consideration.

Truly creative people do things that, by definition, have not been done before. At the same time, each and every job is bounded by the parameters of budget and schedule, which provide the “predictive value” that clients demand. Clients really do need to know what they are getting, by when, and how much it will cost them. Few, if any, will invite their architects to take as much time and spend as much money as they want in order to produce a great design. (Even popes had budgets!)

The question is how to align the creative and management aspects of professional practice, both of which are necessary to do a good job, and to do so in such a way that all members of the project team—the owner, architect, consultants, and contractor—know what to expect from each other along the way. At The Stubbins Associates, we’ve treated this age-old problem as a design issue. In response, we’ve devised a simple but comprehensive graphic format that can be used as a navigational tool throughout the life of a job, from the marketing proposal through beneficial occupancy.

The key to the chart is that it’s both specific and flexible; specific in the sense that it gives an overview of the entire project with each of its subcomponents, and flexible in the sense that should things change at any time, the chart can be easily and quickly adjusted. Starting with the big picture and reading from left to right, the top matrix displays the entire schedule of the job on a month-by-month basis, from schematic design through beneficial occupancy. This is important for several reasons. First, it makes clear that design is only a part of the creative process; the bulk of the effort (and hence the fee) is actually devoted to production and construction. Thus, it’s obvious that a majority of the fee must be held in reserve for CD and CA services. The chart also allows the owner to plan for the required cash flow, and for the entire team to coordinate its work with regard to necessities such as the approvals process.

At specified points along the way, there are milestone events such as the preparation and release of specific bid packages. By calling out these deliverables at the very beginning of the job, all members of the project team will be able to plan their work in advance, including allotting time for checking and coordination. Note that as the schedule proceeds, the amount of fee expended is displayed for each and every consultant, and that at the bottom of each column, the staffing requirements can be displayed in terms of FTEs (full time equivalent staff). Thus, the architect will know on a continuing basis two important things: Is the work being produced in a timely fashion, and are the right people on the job? If either one of these is out of balance, the project is headed for trouble. In a similar way, the project manager can easily check the staffing and fee expenditures of the engineers and other consultants on an ongoing basis. Once again, this helps the client plan for the necessary cash flow, minimizing the surprises about invoicing.

The chart can be expanded to include just about any project activity or consulting entity that may be needed, regardless of when it may occur during the life of a project, and thus it adapts easily to changes down the road. The entire team will know ahead of time what is expected to happen, who will do the work, when it should be completed, how much it will cost, and how that work supports subsequent activities—the necessary “handoffs.”

Just below the top matrix is a summary of the cost of design services on a month-by-month basis. The value of this is to demonstrate that delays of any kind will cost money as well as time. Note that the chart does not assign this cost to either the owner or the architect, it only displays the financial implication of a schedule hiccup. It’s easy for both the owner and the architect to draw their own conclusions.

Another matrix displays consulting services that may be provided directly by the owner. These are items for which the architect is not formally responsible, but which may have a substantial impact on the overall management of the project. Geotechnical engineering and hazardous waste removal are two good examples. These could be rolled into the upper matrix; however, the value of listing them separately is that it makes clear that the owner, not the architect, is responsible for their services and hence their performance. If they don’t do their work properly or in a timely way, it will affect everyone.

To the right of this is a third matrix, which shows the breakdown of the architect’s staffing by role, function, and cost per hour over the entire life of the job. This helps both the architect and the client to understand what kind of support will be provided, by whom, and when it will occur during the life of the job. This also shows the financial implications of any single individual’s time commitment, and emphasizes that if time is to be charged to the project, it must be productive time. Note again that the chart displays these values not only in terms of dollars, but also in FTEs. Hence, the project manager will know at all times whether or not the job is properly staffed. If the team is too big, the fee will run out before the job is completed, and if too little, there will not be enough horsepower available to complete the assignment properly.

The chart is sufficiently simple that it can be quickly and easily filled out, even using “plug numbers” if necessary, and then adjusted when the scope of work, schedule, and construction budget are clarified. It’s enormously useful when submitting a proposal—it helps both the architect and the client understand what’s really necessary to execute a job properly. Thus, it’s a great marketing tool, and also a great negotiating tool, since the scope of work, cost, and schedule are all related and can be manipulated until agreement on the contract terms is achieved. It shows what services are included under the architect’s umbrella, but also what’s not, setting the stage for legitimate additional services down the road should the need arise. Once the commission has been secured, the very same chart that was used to win the job and negotiate the contract can become an ongoing management tool. Another significant benefit is that the numbers can be easily understood by team members at all levels of the organization, which significantly de-mystifies the financial management. It makes clear to all staff how and when they are expected to contribute to the overall success of the project.

The most important benefit of the “magic matrix” is that it provides a way to integrate the creative mission of the firm with its business mission. The chart is not prescriptive … it does not tell anyone what to do. Instead, it simply displays a set of intentions, and makes it abundantly clear that all team members are mutually dependent on each other. If the designer’s work is late or incomplete, or if the engineer’s work is left uncoordinated, or if the owner is unable to make timely decisions, or if the approvals process is left unattended, or if the contractor does not order material on time, the impact will be felt by all. Then it’s up to the team to take corrective action.

The big lesson here is one of attitude rather than numbers. There’s no reason why projects should be chronically late or over budget. In fact, the value of good management is to clear the path, allowing a firm to focus maximum energy on design quality. If architects think that the creative aspect of professional practice is divorced from the necessities of management, they will suffer the inevitable consequences. The chart helps clients and architects alike understand that design is a value-added enterprise, and that it takes real leadership to pull it all together. Clients are willing to pay for this leadership if architects are willing to provide it.

—Scott Simpson

Simpson is president & CEO of The Stubbins Associates of Cambridge, Mass. He is a contributing editor at DesignIntelligence, a Richard Upjohn Fellow of the AIA and co-author of How Firms Succeed— A Field Guide to Design Management. He has been a visiting design critic at Yale and the University of Wisconsin and a guest lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.