How to Avoid Construction Project Scope Creep

Project scope in construction is a detailed list of tasks and goals that are part of the project plan. Project owners typically have a vision for their project and, with the help of an architect and construction management team, they’ll outline how staff and the public will use a proposed facility and assign how much square footage is needed to conduct business.

From there, a comprehensive plan and cost estimates are developed along with contingencies to create a formal contract. Scope creep occurs when there are changes to that detailed plan, causing potential cost overruns and delays. As the name suggests, scope creep can add up bit by bit as the project progresses and, before you know it, your contingency funds are exhausted and your completion time and budget are threatened.

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What are examples of scope creep in construction and how can project owners avoid it?

Examples of Scope Creep in Commercial Construction Projects


Imagine having already started construction on an emergency medical center and inviting the emergency room doctors and nurses in to see the progress...only to have them point out inherent problems with the design and layout that will negatively impact their workflows and patient care.

Changing room layouts doesn’t just impact where walls go; everything from wiring, HVAC, plumbing, and other systems will also need to be reconfigured, raising hospital construction costs. Changes once construction begins are the most costly forms of scope creep and can easily exceed a project owner’s contingency fund.

Correctional Facilities

A county sheriff will often spearhead a large-scale jail project and most likely be the main point of contact for your project. However, always be sure to talk with people who will actually walk the floors and manage the day-to-day operations as well. For example, without giving the jail administrator a seat at the table to address a need for an additional padded cell or larger activities room, changes to the layout will be required in order to meet the jail administrator’s needs, bringing up costs. Structural and design constraints could also impact an administrator’s ability to write policies and procedures the way they intended.

Finishes and Features

Scope creep can also occur with seemingly smaller items such as wallcoverings, doors, counters, and flooring. A project owner may decide they want Terrazzo flooring instead of stained concrete, for example, doubling or tripling the cost. Adding upper cabinetry when only lower cabinets were initially spec’d could add tens of thousands of dollars.

Even something as seemingly simple as adding an additional toilet could cost $3,000 to $5,000! A member of the project team might be shocked at the price tag, exclaiming, “I can get a toilet for $150 at Home Depot!” True, but when you calculate the costs for adding additional slab flooring, plumbing, partitions, venting, piping, and other requirements for a commercial building, the costs easily add up.

External Factors

Sometimes scope creep occurs through no fault of the project manager or owner. Most types of commercial construction require submitting plans to local and state building officials to ensure compliance. When the inspector shows up, they may interpret the code differently than the officials who originally reviewed the plans.

A project might end up needing to add more fire dampers, parking stalls, or green space to satisfy an inspector’s requirements. Working with a construction manager who’s experienced in your industry can help anticipate and reduce these risks.

How to Minimize Construction Project Scope Creep

These are just a handful of scope creep examples. Managing scope creep starts early in the project, long before general contractors show up on the construction site. The bottom line is that you need the right people at the right time.

Project stakeholders and end users need to be invited to the table to provide their first-hand insights. This is where the value of a construction manager shines. They will ask questions and guide conversations to help draw out details that would otherwise get overlooked. They’ll help stakeholders explore what they don’t like about their old facility as much as what they do want in the new one.

When possible, project teams should also ask to be taken on tours of other facilities similar to the one they’re planning prior to finalizing their plans. Talking with similar building owners and staff, seeing how other facilities function and operate, observing traffic patterns, protocols, and more can be eye-opening, showing things that could never be translated on paper or a 3D model. Project owners might even see new ideas they want to implement in their own facility plan.

Communication is Key

The truth is, someone may change their mind, and scope change might still happen. That’s when compromises might need to be made, reducing scope in one area to accommodate an increase in another. There will likely have to be some give and take, but without the right people involved throughout the process and being informed with real data about how much those changes cost, poor communication results, and the most important needs might not be met.

Scope creep can be avoided when the construction manager and project team work closely together in a transparent environment. Get our 10 Questions to Ask a Commercial General Contractor guide and contact us today to see how our construction management team can help you avoid scope creep and project failure by way of blown budgets and disappointed end users.

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