Elemental Cost Plans (ECPs) are a widely recognised tool in the early stages of design and construction projects that provide a detailed breakdown of costs. However, there is a growing consensus that they may not always be the best choice for architects and clients. This article aims to shed light on the situations where ECPs fall short of expectations and suggest better alternatives. While ECPs are beneficial for certain scenarios, specifically in ensuring project design does not inflate the budget and for value engineering, they may not be suitable for every situation. For a deeper understanding of ECPs, refer to our detailed article on the subject here.


Scenarios Where ECPs Are Not the Right Tool

ECPs can be an effective tool in certain situations; however, there are several scenarios where they may not be the best choice for architects and clients. Here are the 10 most common situations we come across.

Wepik Export 20230904070543ujky


1. Early Budget Setting

In the initial stages of a construction project, when the focus is on setting a preliminary budget, relying on Elemental Cost Plans (ECPs) may not be the most efficient strategy. The level of detail provided by ECPs can be excessive for this stage and may lead to unnecessary costs. While ECPs are undeniably comprehensive, they might be overkill for tasks that require only a quick assessment of the project’s viability.

A more appropriate alternative for early budget setting might be the use of Budget Estimates. These provide a rapid and cost-effective method of assessing the financial feasibility of a project, without the detailed breakdowns that characterise ECPs. Consequently, architects and clients can avoid the potential overcomplication and cost inefficiencies associated with using ECPs for initial budget estimates.


2. Seeking Definitive Construction Costs

Elemental Cost Plans often fall short when seeking definitive construction costs. They provide only a rough estimate and their accuracy is largely dependent on the level of detail available in the design. This can pose issues when precision is necessary or when the client requires a definite cost for their budget.

A better alternative in this scenario would be the use of a Bill of Quantities (BoQ) or Benchmark Pricing, both of which are able to offer a more accurate costing once a detailed design is available. This results in a more precise and reliable projection of construction costs, ensuring both architects and clients are fully aware of the financial implications of their project from the outset.


3. Detailed Design Beyond Early RIBA Stage 4

Elemental Cost Plans (ECPs) begin to falter when it comes to handling detailed designs that go beyond the early stages of the Royal Institute of British Architects’ (RIBA) Stage 4. What this implies is that ECPs are not designed to fully account for the intricate and comprehensive design details that emerge during the later stages of this RIBA stage.

A more effective alternative in this situation is often a Bill of Quantities (BoQ) or Benchmark Pricing. These tools can accommodate a more detailed design and are preferable for late-stage design and tendering. They offer a better approach to constructing a precise, detailed, and itemised cost breakdown that Elemental Cost Plans might struggle to provide accurately at this stage of project development.


4. Lump Sum Contracts Tendering

Elemental Cost Plans, should definitely not be used for tendering under Lump Sum contracts. The reason is, that these contracts require a high level of detail that ECPs often lack. ECPs typically provide an overall project cost estimate but do not delve into the granular specifics of individual costs. This lack of detail can create potential budgetary issues later on, as the contractor might have to bear any additional costs, which were not accounted for in the ECP.

A more effective alternative to ECPs for Lump Sum contract tendering is the Bill of Quantities (BoQ). A BoQ provides a detailed, itemised breakdown of costs for every aspect of the project. It gives the contractor a clear understanding of what exactly they are bidding for, reducing the risk of unforeseen expenses. By employing a detailed BoQ, both clients and architects can ensure a smoother, more precise bidding process, ultimately leading to a more secure and successful project outcome.


5. Fast-Track Projects

Fast-track projects, where time is of the essence, often face significant challenges with Elemental Cost Plans (ECPs). The reason is that ECPs, while thorough, can be time-consuming to prepare and revise. This can add unnecessary delays to a project that is already constrained by a strict timeline. In such situations, ECPs can hinder rather than enhance the process.

For these high-speed builds, alternatives such as Quick Budget Estimates or pre-calculated cost models are generally more suitable. These solutions can be adjusted on the fly, allowing for the quick response times required in fast-paced projects. This makes them a more sensible choice for fast-track projects where speed is paramount, and time-saving is a crucial factor.


6. Projects with High Levels of Uncertainty or Risk

Elemental Cost Plans (ECPs) considerably fall short when utilised for projects characterised by high levels of uncertainty or risk. The main inadequacy lies in the fact that ECPs primarily rely on the available design details and may fail to adequately account for unpredictable circumstances or potential risks that might emerge during the project lifecycle. Consequently, the resultant cost estimates could be significantly off the mark and lead to unexpected budget overruns.

A more suitable alternative in such scenarios would be contingency-based estimates. These are specifically designed to factor in various risk scenarios and uncertainties that may arise during the construction process. By considering worst-case scenarios and building buffers into the initial budget, contingency-based estimates provide a far more realistic and reliable cost projection for high-risk projects. This, in turn, ensures better financial planning and risk management throughout the project.


7. Renovation or Retrofit Projects

Renovation and retrofit projects pose a unique set of challenges that make Elemental Cost Plans less than ideal. Unlike newly constructed buildings, these projects often involve unknown variables and hidden conditions that ECPs can’t account for effectively. They require an understanding of existing structures, often uncovering surprises along the way that make budgeting more complex and unpredictable.

In situations like these, a better alternative would be to carry out detailed site surveys and assessments, identifying potential problem areas and understanding the full scope of work required. Following this, an itemised Bill of Quantities (BoQ) could be produced. This approach gives a more realistic picture of costs, making it a more suitable tool for renovation and retrofit projects.


8. Specialised or Unique Construction Methods

Elemental Cost Plans often fail to deliver when it comes to projects that utilise specialised or unique construction methods. These plans are primarily designed with traditional construction techniques in mind, meaning they may not adequately cover or anticipate the cost implications of novel or specialised methods. This is because these unique methods may involve specialised materials, labour skills or equipment that are not typically found in traditional construction projects, leading to inaccuracies in the cost estimation.

Instead of relying on ECPs, it may be more beneficial to develop custom estimates in close consultation with specialists in the chosen construction method. These specialists would have a better understanding of the specific resource requirements, potential risks, and cost implications of these unique techniques. This approach ensures a more accurate and comprehensive cost plan that caters specifically to the project’s unique needs.


9. Projects that Require Frequent Client Changes

In situations where client requirements and specifications are subject to frequent changes, Elemental Cost Plans (ECPs) may fall short. Being based on a detailed and structured design, amending ECPs to accommodate frequent changes can be cumbersome, time-consuming and costly. This is due to the need to revisit and revise the entire plan each time a change is made.

A more agile costing method, such as parametric estimating, is a better alternative in such scenarios. Parametric estimating allows for swift adjustments to be made in response to changes, ensuring that the project cost and timeline are always in line with the most current client requirements. This flexibility helps to maintain efficient workflows and ensures projects stay on track despite frequent changes.


10. Projects with Multiple Stakeholders with Diverse Requirements

In situations where a project involves multiple stakeholders with varying requirements, the standardised approach of Elemental Cost Plans might not fully capture the individual needs and priorities of each stakeholder. This could potentially lead to misunderstandings and miscommunications, thus hampering the smooth progression of the project.

A more flexible and inclusive approach such as Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis (MCDA) might be a better alternative in these instances. MCDA takes into account the diverse requirements and preferences of multiple stakeholders, helping to ensure that every aspect of the project is handled according to everyone’s needs. This can significantly improve the decision-making process and boost overall project satisfaction among all involved parties.



In conclusion, Elemental Cost Plans (ECPs) do have their place in the construction industry and can be beneficial in certain situations, particularly when it comes to controlling project design costs and facilitating value engineering. However, as we have demonstrated, they are not the one-size-fits-all tool for every project or scenario.

Architects and clients should be aware of the limitations of ECPs and consider other tools and methodologies for early budget setting, detailed design, lump sum contracts tendering, fast-track projects, high-risk projects, renovation or retrofit projects, and projects involving specialised construction methods, frequent client changes or multiple stakeholders. By adopting a more nuanced approach, it is possible to ensure that the estimation and cost planning process is as accurate, efficient, and effective as possible.