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Understanding design management for building projects

Paul Sancandi
May 21, 2012

The design and construction of buildings has changed significantly over the past 30 years. These days, there is a greater expectation from owners of a high level of performance from their project team, which includes the project managers, design team and the contractors.

During this time the role of the architect has changed from what was the leader and manager of the project to more of a leader and coordinator of the design and the design team. This has more recently resulted in confusion about who is actually leading the project when roles and responsibilities have not been clearly defined at the start of the project and in the consultants’ agreement.

Design continues to grow in its complexity as a result of the significant increase in the specialist inputs to the design and the need for continual refinement and exchange of project information.

In their paper Managing the Form, Function, and Fit of Design Angela Dumas and Henry Mintzberg proposed, as one of four management models, co-operative design: interactive functions. This model encourages interaction between the different contributors. Co-operative design is based on teamwork and reflects the ad hoc structure of most ‘creative’ organisations. This approach requires a number of mechanisms, teams, task forces, and integrating managers to promote mutual adjustments among experts, under conditions that are both dynamic and complex.

As a result of the greater demands by owners and the increasing complexity of the design process, project managers have increasingly taken on the responsibility to manage the design as part of the overall management of the project.

Splitting design from the project

Stephen Emmitt in Design Management for Architects (2007) defines project managers as being responsible for the overall management of the project; their primary responsibility is the project.

Project managers are employed by the owner to ensure that the project is delivered within the agreed time, cost and quality parameters. This, however, is a challenging role since the project manager usually has very little control over the organisations and individuals that form the design team. The project manager is also responsible for the smooth running of the project, which requires skills in coordinating the work by others.

The conventional approach to the management of the design is through the project management process whereby the design management is simply considered as a component of the overall project management process, with the design project primarily managed in terms delivery to a program schedule and cost plan. The management of the design itself is generally left to the design team with the lead consultant, typically the architect, taking control of the design coordination process.

As stated earlier, the design of a building is in fact such a critical component of the overall project delivery process that it actually needs dedicated and independent design management to achieve the best results for the owner. This design management process and focus on the design ideally needs to be implemented from the start of the project lifecycle and then undertaken throughout all the critical stages of the design.

Design management, through a dedicated design manager working with the project manager on behalf of the owner, primarily seeks to establish project management practices that are focused on enhancing the design process across the entire design team.

The design manager should ideally have a diverse range of skills to manage the complexity of the design process. These include:

  • Diversity of business, creative and design related experience, the will, and the people skills to make things happen;
  • Ability to nurture good ideas and deliver them in a way that makes sense;
  • Ability to be a diplomat, peacemaker and  planner;
  • Having a hands on approach, educating by example;
  • Being able to manage the design strategy on behalf of the owner;
  • Ability to explore a wide range of design disciplines;
  • Synergising all the required design disciplines;
  • Being aware how to conduct a design project and work with designers;
  • Ability to facilitate the design process, enhance quality and quantity of original ideas to fight for the ideas to be implemented; and
  • Being a builder of trust and maintaining trust.

For building projects today, the successful implementation of owner focused design management throughout the entire project lifecycle can represent the difference between the success and failure of a building project.

Paul Sancandi
Paul Sancandi is a senior design manager with InfraSol Group. He has a technical background as a structural engineer, owned an architectural and engineering practice and has worked in Australia, Asia and the Middle East on a wide range of small to mega projects over the past 32 years.
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7 thoughts on “Understanding design management for building projects

  1. Hello,

    Thanks goodness I found this blog. I have been looking around for hours trying to find this data. Keep up the good work! Also I adore your over all look of your blog. I will be back. I have bookmarked you.

  2. Thoughtful article. One aspect that comes to mind is how can design quality can be given its required weighting and some success criteria in the project brief and project plan. Otherwise We endup telling our architects to “make it happen”, without any real guidance or level of commitment to the outcome from the project sponsor. Cooperative definition of design aims, goals and strategies between the project sponsor and their architect/ design manager is needed. Otherwise “show me what youve got” without the sponsor and project manger both being involved is a guaranteed route to rework without clear goals, associated time and cost overruns and more importantly project results that just do not have that ‘sparkle’, required to make it an all round success.
    I am happy to discuss this further as I am trying to achieve this goal in my project work.

    1. Thanks for your comment Kevin, agree with you entirely. One of the things that is critical in a project is a well researched and developed Function Design Brief at the Outline(Concept Design Stage) which has the input of the Owner and is developed by the entire design team and then officially approved by the Owner before design starts.

      You might be interested in the following article.

      Check out my details in the comment above if you would like to explore further articles on Design Management or contact me on


  3. the role of a design manager is well expalined. primarily the Architect shall possess all the abilities, may be through his team of associates but the prime responsibility lies on his shlder. the other agencies and personels are mearly responsible for successful execution.

    1. Dilip,

      Yes it must be a team effort, but like any team there must be a leader for the entire design and delivery process. Ideally the Architect should do this and certainly used to but not these days.

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