How Documentation Can Make or Break Projects

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015
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The architecture profession is better known for its “glamour” side – caricatured as flamboyant artists wielding scale rules over drawing boards much as a painter might wield a paintbrush over a canvas.

The reality of course is very different. Project documentation and the importance of highly accurate and detailed construction plans are a long way from the glamour. But when it comes to making or breaking projects, they are an indispensable part of the profession which informed clients realise the true value of.

There is a world of difference between the drawings architects produce for futurist visions of buildings or entire cities, and the working plans needed to create them. The latter is known as documentation and it’s been a poor cousin to design for a long time. This is both unfair and lacking in logic because of the role accurate documentation can play in project feasibility, costing and delivery.

In some companies, documentation is so poorly regarded that it is effectively ‘outsourced’ to low-cost international markets where high volume, cheap drawings are produced based on the designs provided. This is fraught with potential problems because few overseas markets understand fully the nuances of Australian building codes (all of them!) and other regulatory conditions. This can lead to project documents which, if built based on those documents, can result in projects in breach of Australian law, leading to costly remedies to bring them into line.

So why should a project proponent ask not just about the design skills and reputation of any particular architectural practice, but also about their documentation strengths?


The ability to actually build the project as designed is not as straightforward as many believe. Accurate documentation takes into account a variety of issues which can impact on a design’s ability to be realised. If the project involves an extensive renovation or addition, detailed and accurate plans ought to fully reflect the nature of the existing and proposed works, down to location of critical services from waste to energy to data and more. For example, even things as mundane as backup generators have physical dimensions which need to be accurately reflected in plans. Otherwise, entire structures can be thrown into disarray, construction programmes blown out and budgets severely tested.

Accurate costing

A significant benefit of engaging architects to provide full sets of detailed documentation is that contractors can be more certain of what it is they are pricing. For the client, this can mean a more competitive set of estimates to work from.  If the estimates all come in within a few per cent of each other, you know you’ve provided highly detailed plans to price from, but when there is a large spread in construction estimates, this is often a sign of poor documentation.  You won’t know which price you can really trust.

Less room for variations

Detailed design documentation also means there is less room for variations. This is because the documentation should fully reflect the clients’ intentions, meaning they’ve been encouraged to go into detail up front, rather than being confronted by ‘what if’ options during the course of the build. Clients do change their mind but even here, the basis of what was first intended and the nature of the changes should be easier to quantify and the variation more accurately priced.

Appropriate choice of materials, finishes, and fixtures

In design and construct situations, the details of particular finishes, material choices or fittings can often be left to the contractor. This can be fine if you have a long-standing relationship with the contractor and they are used to the particulars of your needs, but there are cases where it simply doesn’t work. Plaster walls in aged care centres, for example, need to have extra reinforcement to carry the weight of hallway railings. This small detail, if missed, can have expensive consequences in terms of remediation. Then there are issues about whole of life value in materials or fittings choices, which the client may want to last for many years but where the contractor may be satisfied with a life span just beyond the defects and warranty periods, unless specifically instructed to make alternative choices.

BIM: the next phase

The importance of accurate documentation is finding new expression in BIM for project design through to construction and on to management. This is a change that in many respects can’t come quickly enough but even here, it’s important that clients understand that a designer’s approach to using BIM will differ from an engineer, and again from a contractor. Just because all three can use the common BIM platform, doesn’t make them architects any more than it makes architects into builders or engineers. The design process, matched to accurate and detailed documentation which reflects the clients wishes, won’t change whether drawings are produced on drawing boards or keyboards.

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