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Advocating for Design Excellence // Tamra Collins


“A building should encourage us to look at the world from a different point of view.” (1)

-Will Bruder, AIA, on Design Excellence


Elevating architecture through design excellence. Architectural design excellence defined by the General Services Administration, an independent agency of the US government that helps manage and support the basic functioning of federal agencies, is a “holistic environment that adds contemporary form and meaning to America’s rich legacy of public Architecture.”(2) It is an advocacy for quality and value in the work.(3)  Buildings begin to take on a sense of delight and a pride of place when an architect and client pursue a level of quality throughout the design process.(4) In architecture, design excellence is required to elevate the development of projects.

Budget, schedule, scope and design excellence are intertwined. Each element can be thought of as a piece of the design process equation. All are necessary to determine the final project. ((Budget x schedule x scope) x design excellence = final product) Generally a draft for each is developed and approved by a client after the schematic design phase. However, through the design development phase, each becomes more complex and the variables begin to shift as they are redefined. During these shifts, some parts will lose significance and elements of the project will begin to get cut. Usually the most consequential piece, design excellence, is the first to go.

It doesn’t take much for a project to go off track, but there is always one component of the design process equation that takes precedent over the others. Often the budget is the fixed variable that sets the parameters in executing a project.(5) A large, unexpected impact to the budget could mean the schedule must increase, the scope must decrease, or that the design excellence suffers.  Similarly, when the schedule slips, the project costs begin to rise.(6) Alternatively, when a scope shifts during the design process it causes a ripple effect through the project. The schedule begins to slip as deadlines are missed in order to compensate the shift in scope. If the deadline is fixed, the budget increases and the design excellence is questioned in order to get things back on schedule.

Design excellence should take priority. When things begin to slip, the budget, schedule and scope must be revisited and compared with the essential nature of what constitutes the design excellence of a particular project. The client has everything to say in what takes priority in the project, which defines the parameters that the designer must work within. Sometimes, if the budget is the priority, this means the project must go through value engineering, where the project decreases the budget by diminishing costly areas. This can negatively affect design excellence if the design intent is lost in the process. Therefore the designer should stress the value of design excellence in relation to the budget to the client. During an AIA Design Excellence conference, Will Bruder, AIA, stated, “All clients hire [architects] for design excellence… and expect design excellence.”(7) If the client has heard the architect’s position and decides that design excellence doesn’t matter during an impact of a decision, it results in a loss of quality and value to the project.

Communication is key. While weekly, if not daily, organization of schedules and the budget can help minimize and track unexpected shifts in the design process, there is a need for constant interaction on the project. Our experience in the Design+Make studio confirms that computers can show the shifts in budget and schedule, but we must explain the significance of design excellence to the client. Normally, the designer will guide the client on design excellence through the design phases, but ultimately the general contractor would relay consequences of the scope, schedule and budget to the client during the construction phase. However, the Design+Make studio takes on the role of both the designer and the general contractor through the project, allowing us to evaluate the impact on the design excellence from conception to construction and easily relay that information to the client.

Communication between the client and the designer is essential in order to promote mutual trust and respect.(8) To cultivate communication, the Design+Make studio spoke with the client and camp employees on multiple occasions, first taking the time to recognize their needs, the site’s needs and the program’s needs, then exploring and appreciating the region of the grasslands in the Flint Hills. We had to understand their position by putting ourselves in their shoes before embarking on a project design. The level of comfort in communication became apparent as we presented our ideas and developed an open dialog through design iterations. This reciprocal relationship permits both parties to feel comfortable during correspondence, accelerating the decision making process, ultimately saving time

and money.  

An integrated process can elevate pressure on the design excellence. Compared to traditional delivery methods, those practicing the integrated project delivery method, like the Design+Make studio, have an increase in collaboration, coordination and communication between the client, designer, consultants and contractors. According to the Architecture Student’s Handbook of Professional Practice, the integrated design process allows the project schedule to be compressed while well-managed design and production can happen concurrently, which actually improves quality.(9) This may seem counter intuitive because a compressed time frame generally puts stress on the quality of design excellence. However, the communication between the designer and the contractor promotes opportunities to work together and react to design/construction ideas. Speaking from experience, Jan Tasker, AIA, principal and medical planner at Ellerbe Becket states, “Integrating services fosters design excellence.”(10)

While all variables in the design process equation should be considered important, design excellence should never suffer. Keeping open lines of communication and understanding the project priorities in relation to design quality throughout the project can increase the success of a project. Designers must push to uphold design excellence so that the client, who may have little familiarity with this, will become the beneficiary of  a holistic and rich experience during their architectural endeavor.



American Institute of Architects. The Architecture Student's Handbook of Professional Practice. 14th ed. John Wiley & Sons, 2008.

Borson, Bob. "Architectural Contracts 101." Life of an Architect. June 03, 2013. Accessed March 26, 2016.


"Design Excellence Overview." GSA. August 05, 2015. Accessed March 27, 2016.


Dixon, John Morris, FAIA. "Defining Architectural Design Excellence: An AIA Committee on Design Conference, Columbus, Indiana." Committee On The Environment. April 2012. Accessed March 30, 2016.



"Project Management Planning." State Chief Information Officer Archives. January 1997. Accessed March 26, 2016.

(1)  Dixon, John Morris, FAIA. "Defining Architectural Design Excellence: An AIA Committee on Design Conference, Columbus, Indiana."

      Committee On The Environment. April 2012.

(2)  "Design Excellence Overview." GSA. August 05, 2015.

(3)  Ibid.

(4)  Dixon.

(5)  "Project Management Planning." State Chief Information Officer Archives. January 1997.

(6)  Ibid.

(7)  Dixon.

(8)  Borson, Bob. "Architectural Contracts 101." Life of an Architect. June 03, 2013.

(9)  American Institute of Architects. The Architecture Student's Handbook of Professional Practice. 14th ed. John Wiley & Sons, 2008.

(10)  Ibid.

Written by Tamra Collins

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