3 August 2023

Room for manoeuvre

What will it cost? Everybody’s thinking about it but no one likes to talk about it. Why budget is such a bugbear and how you can beat it.

In building projects there is normally a gap between what we might like to do and what we would like to pay for it. While that’s not necessarily the same as what we can afford, the question of what the budget will stand always arises, often repeatedly, during the build. 

The time to grasp the issue is right at the beginning, at the point of commissioning a design. In that heady time when ideas are explored, unbounded by detailed cost projections, it is easy to get excited about the glory of the finished project. It is only when the enquiry goes out and the estimates come in that reality dawns. So, what is to be done in an attempt to achieve the impossible or put it another way, when one’s appetite for development exceeds one’s stomach for expenditure?

No one likes to think their project is going to be ‘built to a budget’. It sounds cheap (in at least four senses of that word). And yet we have to put a number on it if it is ever be built at all.

It’s all too common for initial design concepts to imply a bigger project than one had in mind. You can’t blame architects for that. They are trying to produce the best possible creative response to the brief. Like all creatively-minded people they naturally want every job to be the best it can be. And that’s a good thing, surely. But in a world of constantly shifting costs for materials and labour, it shouldn’t be a surprise to discover that what one imagines to be achievable may not be, or at least, (key word coming up) not exactly.

In most cases you can look at options that might achieve a similar if not identical result at lower cost. It might be in materials or in design features or in the building process, but in any of those areas choices can be made. The key thing is to encourage your architect and QS and building contractor to look for a solution as a team. With a combined depth and breadth of knowledge it is more likely that a collaborative approach will find a greater range of options and identify a solution that works well for you, that respects the design idea, and is deliverable practically as well as financially.

Having a flexible and collaborative approach makes every project go more smoothly

It is crucial to ask yourself what is most important. Is it the space, the look, the performance, the  quality, the environmental care? Draw up a list of those elements in the design you cannot imagine the project being without, as designed, and then take a red pen to everything else. Ask whether there might be alternative materials available that offer similar quality, performance etc. for lower cost. For example, there are many insulation materials on the market, some of which have better or worse performance or environmental credentials, but which matters most when you’ll never see it? 

Often the issue is over how it is to be built rather than of what materials. Consider also whether a change to a design feature might simplify the building process without losing the effect it was intended to create? Perhaps there is a way to alter the design or position of a window, say, without affecting the lighting of the space or the overall outward appearance.

Those are simple, common-sense ways to evaluate the project. They imply a compromise for everyone, but that is the nature of any successful and smooth running project. Above all get everyone around the table early on and challenge the team to develop ideas or solutions to problems that won’t break the budget.