Robust approach

Robust approach

Establishing a rigorous design process


GIRI research established that many of the weaknesses in design which lead to errors in construction are rooted in a failure to properly define and agree the design process at the outset, as well as a failure to rigorously apply it throughout the project.

A clearly-defined and well-managed design process should be established at the start of a project with the involvement of all key members of the team. Having agreed the process, the team must then apply it consistently.

Why is it important?

GIRI has identified a series of key issues relating to the design process which, if properly established and maintained, can significantly reduce project error.

The main priorities are to recognise the importance of a rigorous design process, and for the client with the support of the lead designer, to ensure that such a process is established at the start, understood and agreed by all key parties and implemented throughout the project. (See guiding the design team.)

Action to address any issues that arise must be taken promptly; it is crucial that problems are not ignored because they are considered difficult to resolve.

What are the desired outcomes and how can you achieve them?

The following recommendations can significantly reduce design error, but while they are all accepted as good practice, getting them adopted can be a major challenge.

Establishing clear roles and responsibilities

The key to eliminating any misunderstandings from the outset is to kick off the project with a team of people who understand their own scope of services, roles and design responsibilities, and who are also clear on the scope of all other team members and disciplines. (See collaboration, culture and guiding the design team.)

Delivering design to an agreed plan of work

The project team should follow an agreed framework, and the execution of the project should be developed on this basis (see planning the design work). It is important to ensure that all parties are fully aware of the framework within which they are delivering their design, and the requirements of that framework – whether RIBA for building, GRIP for rail, PCF for highways or any other client-specific delivery model.

Setting milestones

Milestones are important management tools that can be used to encourage beneficial behaviour across disciplines by carefully working them into professional appointments. (See planning the design work, opening up and closing down, and design gateways.)

Design leadership

Project success relies not only on process, but also on teams having a common collaborative approach to achieving the design objectives. Key to this is strong leadership, which should come from the individual appointed to manage the design process, and be supported by the client. (See guiding the design team.)

Robust brief

The project brief is an evolving document. As a minimum, a design team cannot progress without an outline that can be developed with the client into a project brief before the start of concept design. The brief must be signed off by the client and key stakeholders at the outset and must be used as a control document to refer back to; any changes must be agreed, recorded and signed off by the client. (See brief)


In establishing the brief it is crucial to set up a process by which the design can be satisfactorily tested against the budget at key milestones. Specialist design input should be obtained at an early stage in order to get robust cost advice; too often this recommendation is ignored because it is commercially sensitive and may be seen as favouring a particular supplier or contractor. However the current practice is simply not working. (See contractor input).

It is crucial to set a realistic budget and employ cost consultants to implement a rigorous benchmarking process.

Change control

Clarity is vital when changes are made to the design or brief; they should be managed in a clear and structured way to ensure all parties have understood and assessed the implications of each change before endorsing it, and with client sign-off.

It is probably unrealistic to implement a change control procedure before technical design commences, unless there is a major change to the project; however all changes that significantly affect cost or programme should be considered at the early stages of a project.

Change control should be an agenda item at all design team meetings. (See opening up & closing down, and design gateways.)

Realistic programming

The time allowed for each design stage must be realistic and recognise the complexities of the project and the procurement route. Activities should be planned and discussed by the key members of a project team, taking account of any programme constraints, and an appropriate period must be built in for client review and approval. The individual appointed to manage the design should prepare a design programme at the start of a project, which must be reviewed and agreed by all parties. (See planning the design work.)

Client review and approval

Client review meetings should be scheduled throughout the design stages to validate the design and for the design team, and cost consultant and contractor if appointed, to obtain clear direction from the client.

Establishing such a schedule ensures consistency of input from particular client individuals, which is important if change is to be avoided through different interpretations of the client brief. It eliminates surprises and misunderstandings when the end-of-design-stage information is issued.

Additionally end-of-stage presentations – and interim-stage presentations if required – should be made to the key decision makers , clearly setting out any design or project issues that need to be resolved. (See stakeholder management).

Peer reviews

At appropriate stages in the project it may be beneficial to facilitate design reviews by external parties to check that the design meets the brief and the correct level of detail has been achieved. This could be provided by one organisation or by individual design consultants. (See guiding the design team).

Consideration should also be given to engaging with other groups, such as end users or the team that will operate and maintain the asset once occupied. (See stakeholder management).

Digital engineering /BIM

With rapid changes in the way design is carried out, digital engineering and the use of digital models is becoming the norm across all sectors. The efficiencies that arise from being able to visualise, understand and resolve coordination issues in this way are now widely recognised. It is GIRI’s view that BIM to Level 2, or equivalent, should be adopted as a minimum, at both the design and construction stages. (See this link for more information about BIM levels).

Designing for construction

Another key finding of GIRI’s research is that buildability is rarely given proper consideration during the design development process. This may be due to designers lacking a full understanding of construction processes, or being given insufficient time to develop the design.

GIRI recommends that for any design beyond the concept stage, buildability should be specifically considered as a project requirement and ideally be reviewed by specialist designers and contractors. This could either be by informal consultation, as part of a pre-construction services agreement or as part of the peer review. (See contractor input).

Design interface management

Design issues often arise due to scope gaps between elements of works. These interfaces may be between different works packages – for example infrastructure works and building works – or between different material types, such as the diverse elements of a façade.

It is important to set out where interfaces arise in the scope of packages (often a contractor’s responsibility) and to define where design responsibilities begin and end. It is also important to allow enough time for subcontractors with design responsibility to further develop the design interface. (See information and planning the design work).

Key goal

A robust design approach involving key members of the project team should be adopted at the beginning of the project.

Practical steps

The team should adopt some, or ideally all, of the following points:

Practical stepPurposeMore info
Clearly define roles and responsibilitiesTo eliminate misunderstandings from the outsetCulture
Investing in design
Establish an agreed plan of work to which the design will be deliveredTo coordinate design activities in accordance with each contributor’s individual scopePlanning the design
Set and agree milestonesTo encourage beneficial behaviour across disciplinesPlanning the design
Opening up and closing down
Design gateways
Create the environment to support strong leadershipTo encourage a collaborative approachCollaboration
Guiding the design team
Ensure the brief is thorough and well-preparedTo serve as a control document throughout the projectBrief
Seek robust cost adviceTo ensure the project is properly budgeted and costs controlledInvesting in the design
Contractor input
Implement the appropriate change control processTo ensure all parties have understood and assessed the implications of each change before endorsing itOpening up and closing down
Design gateways
Allow sufficient time for design to evolveTo ensure the time allowed for each design stage is realistic and recognises the complexities of the project and the procurement routePlanning the design
Programme in regular client reviewsTo ensure the design is validated, and to allow the design team, cost consultant and contractor, if appointed, to obtain clear direction from the client.Opening up and closing down
Stakeholder management
Commission peer reviews and buildability reviewsTo check that the design meets the brief and the correct level of detail has been achieved; and to ensure that buildability has been given proper considerationContractor input
As a minimum, adopt BIM to Level 2 or equivalent, at both the design and construction stagesTo ensure efficient and accurate coordination and communication of designThe NBS
Ensure design interfaces are properly considered and managedTo eliminate the risk of scope gaps arising between elements of works, and leading to design issuesInformation
Planning the design work