Is a third party or peer review of construction documents worth the time and money?

This is another article written by architect and expert Peter Lattey. Cost is one of the biggest reasons that project teams use to justify not implementing effective quality assurance practices. But as Peter illustrates, effective quality assurance, in the form of third-party peer review, reduces the overall cost by reducing RFIs and change orders. [Ed.]

First off, I have to acknowledge that the perfect set of construction documents is found in the same place as unicorns. That is in a magic garden somewhere that nobody has actually seen. But although we may never see a real unicorn, we can try to get a set of construction documents that are a little less bad than the last set.

For the uninitiated out there in construction land, a peer review is a review of plans and specifications that takes place when documents are 95% or 100% complete. It is done by one or more design professionals who are not on the design team and have had nothing to do with the design. It can be done in-house by the same firm doing the design, or by outside consultants.

I recently took a quick poll of spec writers, project managers and people in design build. The results were unanimous. Peer reviews are a good thing. They save the client money. They save the design consultants grief. They reduce RFI’s. They reduce Change orders and they produce better buildings.

Many of the better architectural firms do them in-house as a matter of policy because in the long run it saves them grief, money and time. It also makes for happier clients and happy clients mean more work and more profit for the firm.

Here is something that everyone already knows. Even a simple building in 2013 is a very complicated critter. With energy efficiency, seismic requirements, smart building systems, etc., etc., there are a lot of bits and pieces that have to work independently and together. It is a challenge to actually design a building where all of the parts are correct and where all of the parts work together the way they should. With the time and cost restraints on the design team, it is amazing that buildings are designed as well as they are.

So why aren’t peer reviews standard operating procedure on all projects? Good question. There seems to be several answers to this. The Architect didn’t budget for it. The design team is working to a tight deadline and can’t spare the three or four weeks needed before going to bid. The design team thinks they are smart enough that they don’t need someone else checking their work. (Yes, Virginia there are some pretty big egos in the Architecture game.)

Let’s do a little cost benefit analysis here. The cost of an outside team of consultants to do a complete review of all disciplines can be in the ballpark of $110 per sheet. For a nice little project with 200 sheets that is about $22,000. The time to do it will be 3 to 4 weeks and this can be done at the same time that the design team is doing the last 5% of the documents. If the review team finds one error that is attributable to the design team which is worth $22K then the review is a bargain. If the mistake is charged to the owner then they will pay the extra amount and be less pleased. Honestly, I can’t think of a significant project that I have worked on that didn’t have at least one avoidable Change Order worth more than $22K and I have worked with some very competent teams.

So, what is a person to do?

As an Owner, you should budget for a third party review and contract this as a separate consultant or insist that the Architect include it in their scope of work.

As an Architect, when negotiating your agreement, you should request that the owner budget for and engage a separate review consultant. If you can’t convince the owner to bring on a separate consultant, then budget the time and money to do the review in house using staff that are not on the project. Another alternative is to partner with another architectural firm and each do reviews of the others’ projects at no or nominal cost. This should make both firms stronger.

As a Contractor, you can offer the owner to have a review done as an added service. You can also offer a constructability review as part of the package. But don’t just use constructors for the review. Engage design professionals. Their knowledge and point of view will be different than those of the constructors and just as valuable.

For all parties; remember, you can pay now or pay later. Putting quality into a project in the front end is always cheaper than trying to put it in later by fixing up mistakes.

About the Author

Peter Lattey is a licensed architect with over 35 years of experience on most building types. His experience encompasses both the architectural and construction management areas of construction. He has played in a key role in the construction of major institutional, commercial, residential and recreational buildings. He has practiced in the USA, Canada, Australia, Papua New Guinea and Germany. He has provided expert witness testimony on numerous cases. He has been involved in the investigation of seismic, product defect, construction defect, construction delay, scaffolding collapse, water intrusion and fire cases. He worked in the both the original construction of the World Trade center and the investigation after 9/11.

In his spare time he is a sailor and an internationally exhibited wood sculptor.

Image courtesy Rob Boudon