Cost & Value

Posted by on Oct 29, 2020 in Architecture

Cost & Value

Architects have a reputation for not caring about cost.

While sometimes that reputation is unfortunately deserved, I believe that more often the issue is that we care about more than just cost.  All too often as we travel around, we see projects where costs have obviously been pared to the bone without any thought of the impact this will have long after the bills have been forgotten.  Often these impacts are not just aesthetic but financial as they may have long term effects on the success of the business or on the ongoing energy and maintenance costs.

What is more important than cost is value.  What do you get for every pound you spend?  Is it worth it?  Can we squeeze more value out of your finite budget?

Each project has different priorities.  The trade-offs will be different.  How value is measured will depend on the specific purpose of the building.  While it is nice to occasionally work on a project where cost is not the priority and all the stops can be pulled out to achieve the highest quality possible, these projects are, and should be, the exception.  In most projects, resources are finite, and our job is to get the most value out of those limited resources.

One of the first major projects I worked on at GLM was Arbuthnott House. One part of the project was the formation of a new library to house the existing bookcases.  The end walls of the room are shallow curves.  Under the window is a radiator, which also is curved.  With costs escalating elsewhere in the project, due to an outbreak of dry rot, the client instructed that radiator should be changed to a straight one, for a saving of £300.  This would have required either unsightly boxing out or forming a recess in the curved wall.  In the context of a circa £1m project, it seemed that such a trivial saving was not worth the long-term impact on the appearance of this otherwise perfectly formed room.  I can’t remember now whether I persuaded the client to change their mind or just ignored their instruction, either way I remember thinking that I would happily pay the extra from my own money if that was the only way.

On the same project there were some much eroded heraldic carved stone pediments above the dormer windows.  We got quotations from specialist stone conservators for the consolidation and conservation of these stones.  While this would have best preserved the stones, pragmatically it was decided that we were a generation too late for it to be worthwhile.  The detail that has survived into the client’s childhood was now so far gone that there was next to nothing to conserve. Instead it was decided instead to do just some basic stabilisation that could be carried out by the main contractor for a fraction of the price.

Another project where we had to balance cost and value was at John o’ Groats. This was a highly commercial project being built in the middle of a recession so capital expenditure was tightly constrained.  At the same time, visitor experience was paramount and could not be compromised on.  Others have written elsewhere of the procurement route chosen to keep control of the costs, but less has been written on the significant amount of “value-engineering” that was done on the design.  Often value-engineering is seen as just a euphemism for slashing costs – but here the emphasis was on finding ways to cut costs without significant impact on the result.

One significant area was the glazing.  Originally it was intended that the link blocks containing the stairs would be fully glazed both front and rear.  With careful consideration, the glazing to the landward side was reduced in width and where possible sills were raised while retaining the full glazing to the sea where it has the greatest impact.  These areas are still light filled and airy, with wonderful views out, but, from memory, about 15% was cut from the significant glazing costs.  Also, careful repositioning of some of the windows allowed almost all of the highly expensive fire-rated glazing to be eliminated, again with little impact to the visitor experience.

Elsewhere on the site, we looked at possible cost savings to the free-standing self-catering residences.  While there were various tweaks made to the specification, the easiest change to make would be to reduce the floor area.  The bedrooms and bathrooms were already well optimised but experimentation with the plan showed that about 10% of the floor area of the main kitchen and living space could be cut – and every square metre costs money.  This was not a saving that the client was willing to make as the spacious feel of this space was a key element of the visitor experience.  This cost saving would impact significantly on the commercial value.

I remember being thoroughly frustrated on another project, a private residential project.  The client pushed us to make cost reduction after cost reduction until they ended up with a thoroughly compromised scheme that barely gave the accommodation they required and would not be a particularly pleasant house to live in.  But then as construction proceeded, they started adding in all sorts of extras.  For example, the sanitary fittings were upgraded at significant cost, while the bathrooms remained cramped.  Ultimately, with all these extras, cost had not been saved and yet value had been seriously compromised.

I could keep going telling similar stories about many other projects – about different challenges on different projects – but while the details differ the principle is the same: what are the things that matter to you?  What are your priorities? What do you value? How can we work with the resources you have available to create the greatest value for you?

Neil McAllister

Architect, Associate Director