3 Nov 2005

On time, on budget

Ever thought why those two phrases go together? Just as late and over-budget do? In theory, a building job could be late and on-budget, or on-time and over-budget, but in practice such situations are as rare as hens’ teeth. No, there is a remorseless logic to building work that dictates that when a job is going well, it both keeps up with the timetable and it doesn’t stretch the costings.

Let’s look at some of the common reasons a job creeps.

• There were unforeseen problems.
Were they really so hard to predict? Sometimes stuff does crop up which was in retrospect quite unpredictable. This happens with underground work, naturally, but it’s rare that they completely derail the timing on a job. Normally, it’s covered by a contingency sum. But often unforeseen problems are just a reflection of poor forward planning.

• The client changed their mind about a number of design points during the build.
This is all too frequent and seems to be a particularly British affliction. You could say that the client was underprepared when the job started: they hadn’t thought through all the options, they hadn’t spent enough time or money on the design work.

• The work started before the design work had been finished and there were delays because of this.
This is another clear sign of an under-designed or rushed project.

• The building inspector insisted on some items being redone.
There are various reasons for this. The instructions may have been wrong (bad design), or they may have been right but never passed on (bad communication) or they may have been passed on but ignored or misunderstood (bad workmanship). Sometimes it can be attributed to all three causes. The basic reason for such problems is that you have people taking on work they are not familiar with or don’t fully understand: you have people working outside their comfort zone and hence making mistakes. Whilst you can rail against the general low standards of workmanship on building sites, you could also usefully take on board the fact that everybody knows that standards are pretty basic and that if you raise the bar, you will quickly expose this fact. However, the decision to raise the bar in the first place is usually the clients.

• The subcontractors were unreliable.
They frequently are. They are often juggling jobs and consequently end up doing none of them very well. Because most building work creeps, for all of the reasons we are discussing, timetabling for contractors and subcontractors is often largely a matter of guesswork.

* Fixtures were not on site at the right time. Or the wrong fittings. Or damaged goods.
A frequent complaint. The delivery system in the UK is pretty good, by and large, but it’s far from perfect. Whilst a mislaid mail order shopping item can be annoying, it’s not expensive. But a critical item on a building site that’s gone AWOL can have a very damaging effect on timetabling and therefore on costs. The reasons for this can vary: sometimes it’s simply down to the clients not making up their minds in time.

• The critical path was ignored, or was defective.
On simple jobs, you hardly even need to think about critical paths, everything happens in a set routine. But if you go out on a limb, you have to spend a lot of time building the structure in your head before you so much as lift a spade. Otherwise you risk going down blind alleys where parts of the work can’t be completed until other bits have been done. You get the order wrong. This is far more likely on complex jobs where the order-of-build is sometimes far from obvious.

• Because of some of the above delays, subcontractors had to return for extra visits. These took much longer because they had to fit them in with other commitments.
No one likes these. But they are a very likely result of the above two points.

• Because of these delays, the scaffolding/fencing/site loos had to be kept in place for far longer than had been anticipated.
No comment

• The clients moved into the house long before completion, thus slowing up the finishing even further.
It seems to happen more and more and it often happens in frustration at the delays suffered along the route. The clients have run out of time, run out of money, run out of patience. They move back in, leaving the building work going on around them, which makes it even slower and more painful.

Now, if the job is so unsatisfactory that it goes legal, an apportionment of blame will take place. The client is frequently surprised and appalled to learn that the learned counsel does not treat them as innocent bystanders being chewed up in a shark pool, but willing players in this game of roulette. And frequently, the blame for jobs going over budget is largely placed at the door of the client, for many of the above reasons. If there is an architect involved, the decisions get even more complicated because there are now three parties to the disaster and they all have a hand in what goes wrong and, usually, the blame is interdependent.


  1. what are the books of the house builders bible and how do we know it's inspired? :)

  2. Mark

    Thanks for the great read. I am going to certainly going to keep your blog around. It'll keep me motivated to renovate my house!

    Book Writing?

  3. Mark,

    Chris, from New Zealand. I'm gonna design my parents house for them when I finish my architecture degree in a few years. I was wondering whether that job is worth having critical path or similar organisational tool (is it from an activity network diagram?) ? They want to build an traditional wooden house with rusticated timber weather boards and quite large. Two storeys of diff floor sizes and on a steep slope (~10-15deg).

    How can I make sure the builders are doing the right thing? - because of my inexperience I might just have the wool pulled over my face....

  4. Chris,

    It's a big question and there is no easy answer. The best advice I give to people is - usually - build the house in your had first. If you can't do this, them you don't know eneough to manage the build. Get some help.