The Uses of Feasibility Studies

As construction professionals, we all know that matching the tool to the task is tantamount for success. The master plan and the feasibility study are two great tools we have. As tools, they’re great for both sales and design and also offer substantial value for a customer with the right situation. In the January issue, p. 8, I looked at what a master plan is and its benefits. Now, it’s time to move on to a feasibility study.

A feasibility study is similar to a master plan in being less than the full design process. Although we sometimes use these terms interchangeably, the master plan and feasibility study are a little different. A master plan is typically geared to a large, multi-year, bigger budget project with two or more potential construction phases. A feasibility study is typically geared toward work that will all take place at once, but has some complexities or uncertainties.

There are three typical circumstances when we recommend a feasibility study:

1When there are several fairly divergent potential solutions (and correspondingly divergent budgets) to a client’s design. For example, if the client isn’t sure if s/he needs an addition or if her existing space could be remodeled to meet her needs, we might recommend a feasibility study to review design and cost implications for both.

2If there are zoning or historic district issues that may or may not be permitted, we often use a feasibility study to develop preliminary plans, complete research, and make contacts with the officials having jurisdiction to probe whether what the client wants would be likely to receive a permit.

3When the homeowner’s budget is absolutely fixed and there is a doubt as to if, and how much of, the desired changes we will be able to complete within the set budget; or, if the budget range is unusually difficult to provide after the initial sales call, we may propose a feasibility study.

We find we have the best success when we set expectations early and often. This is a great mantra for any aspect of dealing with customers and even better when it’s put into writing. As part of our master plan proposals, we always outline what our processes and costs will be for the full design. In these documents, we also try to limit the design deliverables to ensure that we don’t blow the limited budget we have to complete this work.

It’s important to be specific that the feasibility study does not include drawing the entire construction set, solving every problem, figuring out structures, or selecting finishes, etc. We peg the cost of a feasibility study to a budgeted number of hours after consulting with our designers or design director. When necessary, reminding the client the clock is ticking helps focus attention. We also credit the cost of that portion of the feasibility study that is used to the full design.

There are a few downsides to the abbreviated design process. Our fallout (jobs that don’t make it to construction) from feasibility studies and master plan studies is higher than with our normal process. Clearly some of this is due to the tentative nature of many of these projects. We also find that feasibility studies and master plan studies are likely to extend the total number of weeks a project spends in the design process.

Some design/build firms utilize feasibility studies for each prospective project, often for a minimal or symbolic fee or even at no cost to the client to “get their foot in the door.” Some of these firms complete the feasibility study hastily or on laptops at the time of the initial sales call. Sometimes the best design solutions are obvious, but exceptional design and space planning usually takes a little time. The tricky part in structuring a feasibility study is to create balance between designing too much or too little. The more feasibility studies you do and the lower the cost, the higher your fall-out rates will be.

Christopher K. Landis is a licensed architect in three states and partner in Landis Construction Corp., Washington, D.C.