Avoiding Cost Overruns

When Amherst College went back to the drawing board after spending $19 million on design, engineering and other costs for a planned $245 million science center, it was a nightmare for School officials. As shocking as this sounds, it happens to educational institutions all the time. In trying to achieve a state-of-the-art facility, Schools’ bump up against escalating design costs, shrinking program spaces, and in the end, projects are put on indefinite hold.

There are countless reasons why a facility project can go over budget: omissions, site assumptions that don’t pan out, inexperienced architects, overall poor project management, and never-ending design changes can all contribute to increased project costs. Amherst had ambitious plans for their facility. They envisioned a terraced glass and steel four-story center with a grand atrium, nestled into a hill. The initial designs were beautiful, but with a focus primarily on aesthetics, they encountered more complications and higher costs. Additionally, inaccurate estimates with locating the building partially underground and on a challenging site forced the College to confront the albatross the project had become.

As a design/build firm that utilizes an integrated approach with a guaranteed fixed price, our clients don’t experience rising costs, numerous change orders, or inefficient project management. Regardless of the architectural firm and delivery method an institution decides upon, there are a few key tactics any institution can undertake to help prevent what happened at Amherst College. First and foremost, school officials must collectively know the objectives they want to achieve with the new facility. Is it going to be a statement facility where aesthetics are as important as functionality? Exactly what program spaces are crucial? Who will be using the facility (students, faculty, staff, the outside community, etc.)? It’s crucial from the get-go to get all user groups involved, make a list and prioritize. Once you have internally defined the program spaces, hire the right firm! Every building type has a learning curve associated with it, and architects that don’t specialize in your type of facility won’t necessarily know how to accurately determine true project costs. Hire someone who’s familiar with your type of facility to avoid inaccurate estimates and design concepts that need to be re-worked. Countless change orders can become very expensive, pitting the Owner against the Architect and General Contractor – a situation you want to avoid, if possible. If you follow this scenario, not only will you avoid cost overruns and save time but, upon completion, you’ll have the facility you initially envisioned without all the headaches!

We applaud the President of Amherst College for having the confidence to pull the plug on a facility project that had spiraled out of control. We hope the aforementioned story helps other institutions avoid the pitfalls Amherst College administrators experienced when designing their science center and enables them to more successfully make the right decisions on their future facilities.

The full Amherst College story can be viewed on The Boston Globe

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