How to Avoid Scope Creep in Construction Project Management

Project scope in construction is a detailed list of tasks and goals as part of a 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. They’ll also determine 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 and determine scope.

What is scope creep? Project scope creep occurs when there are changes to a detailed construction plan, causing potential cost overruns and delays. As the name suggests, scope creep can add up bit by bit as the project progresses. 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?

Scope Creep Examples in Commercial Construction 


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.

RELATED ARTICLE: 7 Costly Healthcare Construction Mistakes

Correctional Facilities and Jails

A county sheriff often spearheads a large-scale jail project and is the main point of contact. 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, as examples, changes to the layout will be required in order to meet their needs, thus bringing up costs. Structural and design constraints could also impact an administrator’s ability to write policies and procedures the way they intended.

RELATED ARTICLE: Issues that Cause Costly Jail Construction Delays


Manufacturing facilities are feeling the pinch of short labor markets and increased capacity demands. In response, manufacturing construction spending grew by more than 20% since the start of the pandemic. Companies that have enough acreage are building or adding on to their footprint to allow for more equipment and automation.

Imagine, however, starting construction and learning that local building codes require a minimum clearance from neighboring buildings that wasn’t accounted for. Or, what if the land has unsuitable soils or contaminants that went undetected for decades? Remediating such situations can be a costly endeavor and disrupt a project schedule. These types of scenarios stress the importance of working with an experienced and highly detail-oriented construction team

RELATED ARTICLE: Considerations When Choosing a Site for a Manufacturing Plant

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 specialty flooring like Terrazzo tile 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 extra work and costs for adding additional slab flooring, plumbing, partitions, venting, piping, and other project 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 and works closely with local officials can help anticipate and reduce these risks.

How to Manage Scope Creep in Construction

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’ll ask questions and guide conversations to help draw out details that could 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 team members 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. An in-person tour can reveal 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 plans.

Project management software and control processes are also major pieces of the puzzle. The construction management team will use a work breakdown structure (WBS) that helps organize large projects into smaller pieces so nothing gets missed.

Communication is Key

The truth is, someone may change their mind and changes to the original scope of a project 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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