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Why you need an software architect; the building project analogy

During a discussion with a business colleague the other day, I used an analogy " the building project analogy " that we use to explain why we insist on understanding clients needs before embarking on any bespoke software development.  Without out having a clear set of outcomes, it is almost impossible to delivery a solution and will lead to inflated costs without undertaking this vital step.  After all, you would not build a house without first getting an architect to draw up a set of plans, would you?

The problem

Imagine if you will, the client and a builder discussing the project during the initial stage.

The client needs to explain what their requirements are.  The builder wants to propose a budget that will be appealing  to the client.  The construction industry is a competitive sector, so the builder will often try and reduce costs by scaling down the requirements without explaining the pros and cons associated with the decisions he makes on the clients behalf.

Client:  We would like to build a house, how much will it be?

The builder will do a quick calculation (square footage x rate) using average house size, so lets say 2,000 sq ft x £ 90.00.

Builder:  Oh, around £ 18,000 for an average sized property.

Client:  That sound great!

The problem is that the client has now painted a picture of their dream home …

The clients dream home

… which is slightly different from the one the builder has based his costs on.

The builders house

If the builder doesn’t ask the clients what their needs are the relationship is going to break down as their expectations are not met the moment they see the foundations.  Unfortunately for both the client and builder alike, this is going to cause disagreement after a substantial amount of money and effort has been expended.  To make matters worse, changing the design of the house at this stage is going to be costly and increase the budget, which might not be an option for the client.

The solution

The solution is simple, commission an architect that will discuss your requirements and then design a house around your needs.  He’ll be able to show you drawings of what your dream home will look like and discuss potential alterations.  The drawings will contain all the details, right down to the lamp holders and wall sockets, discussing the details with the client throughout the process.  Changes made at this stage will have little of no impact on the budget and by the time the builder becomes involved everyone will have a clear picture of what the finished house will look like.

Alterations to the plans are inevitable, but the architect will ensure the impact of any changes " in terms of time and cost " are fully explained to the client before being implemented within the project.  The building industry refer to these as variation orders and allows both parties to control costs throughout a project, avoiding any surprises when the final bill is presented.

The reservations

In an attempt to cut costs, some people will attempt to avoid paying for an architect, thinking that they will avoid costs.  For some extremely simple building projects, you could be right, but you would need to have a very clear picture of what you need and ensure you are able to transfer your vision to the builder, but the devil is always in the detail.

We often find the smallest projects are more prone to budget busting changes because the margin for error is reduced and the builder is less able to absorb or changes.  A couple of years ago my wife and I renovated a Grade II listed property in Devon and I was careful to agree any changes with the tradesman before giving them the go ahead, but I have heard of horror stories of where people don’t do this and end up with  rather larger bills than they might have expected, or indeed budgeted for.

The reason costs can spiral

Once a specification has been agreed the builder can start the project, but details that have not been hammered out can prove costly.  If you avoided using an architect you might have missed the fact that the builder priced all the electrical fittings using cheap fittings.  The electrician buys the fittings and starts installing them. It is only now that you say you wanted a better quality and if you change them, you’ll be paying the additional cost of removing the old fittings and then buying and installing the new ones.

One of the problems for clients is that they cannot envisage the completed product.  When they finally do get a chance to see it, if their expectations haven’t been set there is a fairly good chance the finished product will not be what they imagined.

Most of us would be able to understand the overall details " four bedroom detached house " but would miss the specification of the finish (electrical fittings, etc.,) and this is where a detailed specification will really help you paint a picture of the house, before the first brick is laid.

The conclusion

The construction industry has a tried and tested approach to meeting the challenges of building projects and employs architects, surveyors and project managers to ensure things run smoothly and there are parallels in the software industry.  You should also ensure you commission a software house that can provide a software architect and project management team that understand the challenges to delivering your system with the minimum of fuss.

An architects role goes beyond simply drawing a set of plans, it is the ability to understand your needs, define the outcomes (what you need) and then provide a solution.  It is equally important that he is able to talk you through what the house will be like, what effects it will have on your life.  A good software house will do the same by painting a picture of what or how things will change once the system has been implemented.

Hopefully you will understand that even for smaller projects the need for a well thought through set of plans and specification are essential; so the next time you embark on a software project make sure you have an architect on board.

Date: 08/12/2010

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