Getting your Client Approvals in Place

In our position supporting Architects in their Lead Designer role, we often witness the good and the bad related to obtaining Client approval to design submissions. Attaining official Client buy-in to either your work in progress or end of stage design saves tears and headaches later – be it redesign, prolongation, additional cost related to it or simply having clarity that the Design Team is heading in the right direction. Check out the Plan A ten actions to consider when obtaining approval to your design.

1.The approval process starts with the Client. Ask them early (competition stage/ pre-award preferably) what the process is, who is/are the decision makers etc. Ask them to confirm in writing – getting the process agreed in writing will help both sides later on. If one doesn’t exist, confirm back to them what you think it is.

2. The content of End of stage information received by a Client should not be a surprise to them. There should be regular iterations of design information issued to the Client during the design stage rather than solely at the end. Regular feedback from the Client and Design Team allows a better chance of a smoother approval process and decision making at the end of the stage. A series of milestone submissions should be included in the design programme so that Clients have the opportunity to review the design on an ongoing basis.

3.We have seen on other projects a familiar Client cry upon issue of an end of stage report that they expected to receive more deliverables or focus on a particular aspect of the design. To help smooth the approval process, tell your Client what deliverables they will receive at the start of the design phase to manage their expectations – not necessarily every drawing number but groups of architectural deliverables are fine. Showing them examples of the types of drawings /deliverables is a good way of making sure all are on the same page.

4.Allocate time in your design programme for Client approvals. Duration periods for approvals can typically be included in your appointment or if not confirm what your understanding is early. It all depends on the design programme, content and how geared up the Client is – providing written comments within a maximum of 5 or ten working days is not unheard of. Be wary of Clients saying they will approve an end of stage report on the same day it is issued in order to ‘assist’ with the programme – it rarely happens this way.

5.At the end of a work stage, target specific approvals that relate to principles of the design that need to be frozen rather than a blanket Work Stage sign-off – This not only reduces the burden (and perceived commitment) of approving design that is still in development but also helps the Client to appreciate that, in order to progress, certain principles need to be fixed at an earlier stage of the design than others, concurrently making them aware of the detrimental impact of change on time and resources at a later stage. We often use a Client sign-off schedule to enable this.

6.Should an Architect go straight into the next phase and proceed at risk? The Client approval process can overlap with the subsequent phase so that momentum is maintained and there is less of a stop/ start approach to resourcing. There are ways to minimise the risk of proceeding without formal sign-off of the design. An end of stage presentation allows for quick and direct feedback to be provided and allow you to make a call on whether to proceed on the basis that the Client feedback will be manageable less risk of redesign later. The timing of cost checks should be considered carefully when deciding on the approach here.

7.Make sure it is clear who is responsible for obtaining third party approvals and their status. Just because the local authority approves the design for example, does this mean that the overall Client has approved your design also and you can proceed without risk?

8.We would recommend that this feedback is made formally and channelled through a single point of contact (on both Client and Architect side) so comments are filtered and there is clarity on the Client expectations. This also helps to avoid potentially off-message feedback from multi-headed Clients where comments come back from different people and are not co-ordinated.

9.It seems obvious but get it in writing. If the Client is reluctant to do so, confirm to them in writing that you expect your end of stage report is approved unless they come back to you in writing within 10 days. Not as watertight as something direct from the Client itself but it puts you on the front foot.

10. ​A common reason for rejection of a design submission particularly at the end of a design stage is that design and cost do not align. Keep the Cost Consultant on their toes. There should be regular cost reviews during design stages - a cost summary every fortnight? - rather a last-minute dash to prepare a cost report at the end of the stage. Even though the Cost Consultant may be separately appointed, our approach is to make sure they sit within the Design Team and not at the edges.

The updated RIBA Plan of Work has provided added clarity to the work stages and demonstrated the organisation is listening. Don’t let the good work be lost through redesign and lack of clarity and get your approvals in place.

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