What once upon a time was a straightforward communication of black and white certainties has, over the last decade or two, slipped into the gray of omissions and guesswork.
It used to be simple: An owner desired a building; a draftsman designed it; a general contractor, along with his subs, built it. Everybody was paid on time. The end.
Once upon the same time, an aspiring draftsman—let’s call him Archie Tect—is hired by a major California firm, but is told (and he expects this, for this is the norm) that before setting foot in the office he must first spend a full year as an apprentice on various construction sites, for how will he possibly be able to design buildings if he doesn’t know how to put them together? He can see the wisdom of that, and he happily complies.
Once Archie has garnered sufficient field experience to know, firsthand, how buildings are put together, he now spends a considerable time as an in-office apprentice, observing and learning that every new project begins with a series of face-to-face meetings with the owner to clarify the owner’s intent and wishes fully, including several visits to the prospective site.
He then learns that once preliminary plans are agreed upon, the design team does a thorough study of the various engineering reports to ensure the design will be based on well-understood current conditions. Makes sense.
The design itself, he observes, is a marriage of aesthetics and utility, and is one that can in fact be built. Archie nods in agreement.
Once complete, the spec writer is now brought in and briefed on the plans. He has a lot of questions, which the lead architect is all too happy to answer, for how can the spec writer put together proper specifications if he doesn’t understand the ins and outs of the building? Perfectly clear to Archie.
The complete package is then turned over to a general contractor who gets things under way. At least once a week, but usually more often, Archie and his mentors visit the site to observe progress, and to answers questions or clarify details as and if needed.
Ah, the good old days.
Fresh out of architecture school, another aspiring draftsman—let’s call him Wiz Kid—is hired by an up-and-coming Florida firm, more for his computer savvy than for his design skills. "After all, buildings, these days, virtually design themselves,” jokes one of the partners.
Armed with the latest design software and an ever growing digital library of ready-made detail, Wiz—without as much as a glimpse at a construction site and after an apprenticeship that primarily consisted of helping him find the coffee machines—is assigned to his first project.
In fairness to Wiz, he does want to put together a complete design—for he understands that the project will have to be built—but, unfortunately, he’s only given four weeks to complete the project. "The owner is in a hurry,” he is told, "and, after all, the owner is the one who signs the checks. Also, if the owner doesn’t like our service, he can easily go elsewhere, and has said so.”
"But … ” says Wiz.
"No buts,” he is told.
So Wiz works on the drawings, and they are submitted to the GC incomplete. The subcontractors who are bidding the job have questions. They submit Requests for Information, which go unanswered.
What’s a sub to do?
"We normally do not submit RFIs at bid time,” says David Hamilton, president of A.E. Conrad Company, Inc. in Minnesota. "We bid with what’s on the drawings, not including what is omitted. Normally, though, we call attention to what is missing, to raise a flag.
On the other hand, Matt Van Hekken, chief estimator at The Bouma Corporation in Michigan, does take the opportunity to submit RFIs at bid time. "We do submit RFIs at bid-time,” he says, "not only to clarify things for us, but to make sure that the GC publishes the RFI and so levels the playing field—all have to bid the same clarified specs.”
Tony Russo, CEO of Division Nine Contracting, Inc. in Arizona, tries to get all the answers from the get-go: "They often don’t know the answer to our RFI questions. That’s why they often answer with ‘bid per specs,’” he says.
Once they have been awarded the job, the contractors we interviewed tell us they still may have problems getting answers.
"If there are multiple GCs—as on a public project—the chances to get RFIs answered are small,” Russo says.
"A lot of our questions go through the GCs, who then have to clarify with the architect,” Van Hekken says. If multiple GCs are involved, we rarely get an answer, but at least we can point to the fact that we’ve queried it.”
Chimes in Hamilton, "In fact, they don’t always don’t know the answer to our RFIs. They sometimes come back with the wrong answer, but that’s all you’re going to get until you’re on the job, and now you have to get a correct drawing that shows us how to build the thing, which is always a battle for money at that point.”
The New Breed
Not long ago, Pat Arrington of Commercial Enterprises, Inc. in New Mexico had an illuminating conversation with the then-president of the American Institute of Architects, who, among other things, shared with Arrington, "Not only are the kids coming out of architecture school these days all about electronic tools and gadgets, they also seem to be wholly self-serving.
"And,” he adds, "they don’t want to join the AIA because they don’t get paid to go to it. All of us—the older school—have gone through our entire careers joining different associations—general contractor associations, subcontractor associations, estimators groups, you name it—because we felt that this was part of our professional duty: to inform and keep informed. The architects coming up today don’t look at it this way. If they’re not paid to do it, they’re not going to do it.”
Arrington asked him if he thought their electronic orientation lay behind this.
"I’m afraid so,” the president confirmed. "They have few, if any, people skills, because from grade school on up, they have done everything electronically. They don’t even talk to each other or leave messages, these days: They text. They’d rather text than use voice.
"The problem with this is that my firm has clients that want to put up $100 million projects. These clients are usually of the old school, and they want to be able to sit across a table from the guy they will depend on to put this project together; they want to look him in the eye and size him up and talk to him face to face. These new architects are not up to this kind of interaction.”
Contractors report having to build from drawings that are anywhere between 40 and 80 percent complete, with the majority being 70 or 80 percent incomplete.
"Nowadays,” says Charles Antone with R.J. Kenney Associates, Inc. in Massachusetts, "we see big holes in design. The complexity of the envelope is increasing with stricter and stricter energy efficiency requirements, while the work on the architectural side is slipping into cut and paste. Most plans, this day, cannot be built. In fact, they have to be sorted out by the trades.”br>
"It varies from project to project,” offers Van Hekken "but the plans are not as complete as they used to be. Some are still decent, especially the bigger projects. On an average, I’d say that our drawings are about 80 percent complete right now.”
"Also,” Van Hekken continues, "the cut-and-paste situation is quite obvious, especially when it comes to the spec books, where they’re pulling specs out of a database that may not even pertain to the building at hand. I think it comes down to the architects not reading the requirements thoroughly enough, or truly designing the current building from scratch, leaving it up to us to determine what goes where.”
Russo corroborates: "Today’s plans are not very complete, perhaps 80 percent, especially when compared to what we saw 20 years ago. These days it seems like the architects are relying more and more on the GCs and the subs to determine precisely how the project is to be built.”
Walter Scarborough, a Dallas-based architect who has written articles for AWCI’s Construction Dimensions in the past, offers a view from his side of the table: "I can say that the plans today are woefully less complete than they were 20 years ago, and in some cases even unusable.
"In fact, I believe that the architect profession is in trouble, and has now become the weak link the process of constructing buildings.
"Paradigms are shifting, and it seems that the architecture industry wants to get away from construction—they’re no longer interested in technical information and specs.
"That said,” Scarborough continues, "the incomplete documents and specs are not solely the architect’s fault. The design and construction process itself has changed.
"Fifty years ago, the architect would do a complete set of plans—from concept drawings to construction documents—before the job was bid. All concerned had a complete understanding of precisely what was to be bid and built.
"Since then, owner pressure to get construction under way sooner and sooner has increased to the point where architects now have to get bid documents out before they are complete.
"Today, they have neither the time nor budget to do a proper job.”
The Underlying Cause
We’ve all run across people from many different walks of life. Most of those we meet are inherently good folks who want to help and who want to do the best job they can, whatever their profession. Architects are no different.
Hamilton observes, "These days architects have to work with smaller owner budgets; consequently, the drawings are not as developed as they should be. It’s not so bad with negotiated work, when we are dealing with one GC. But when it’s out to bid for several GCs, we have to submit bids with tons of clarifications and exceptions.”
"Also,” he continues, "we often see projects now where the architect’s involvement ends once the project has been awarded. From there on, it’s up to the GC to handle discrepancies or omissions. In these cases, the GC has to deal directly with the owner, who does not really understand the process, and who does not want to spend additional money to do things correctly.
"I remember when the architect stayed on the job full-time once it broke ground. Nowadays, they usually don’t show up at all for the job, and if they stay with the job after it’s awarded, they’ll manage it from their office.
"Again, I think all this comes down to dollars. Owners are paying architects less, and the architects are then scaling back their services more and more to stay profitable, or to even stay in business.”
Scarborough corroborates: "Today, after the 2008 bust, there are simply too many architects out there, and this boils down to supply and demand. When it comes to architectural services, it is now a buyer’s (owner’s) market, and firms hungry for work have to accept less pay for designs.
"In fact, they are paid a lot less than they should, which means the architect needs to cut corners as well in order to stay in business.
"The paradox is that today’s buildings are increasingly complex, which should require more time to design, this while they’re actually being allowed less time by the owners to do it, for lesser fees.
"My guess is that in 15 years or so, architects will no longer do construction drawings; they will only do the conceptual design, leaving the details up to the trades.”
"In my view,” Scarborough continues, "the looming crisis is that the architect no longer knows how to build. Nor does he have an appreciation for the role that specifications play in the construction of a building. Drawings cannot say it all; you need accurate specs.
"Broadly speaking, the architectural profession is no longer aligned with the subcontractor and manufacturing world. They do not understand this world. Well, some do, but they’re in the minority.”
"Also,” he adds, "the constant pressure to get construction under way sooner and sooner is making it virtually impossible to produce viable plans. If it were left to the architect, we would want to complete all the documents before a project goes to bid.”
Karl Pearson, chief estimator at Builders Service Group, Inc. dba Mader Southeast, Inc. in Florida, sheds additional light on this: "Thirty years ago, working for an owner, I was in charge of buying architectural services. At that time, architectural services constituted 5 to 7 percent of the contract. Today, I don’t think it’s more than 2 or 3 percent of the overall budget. It’s been squeezed down that far.”
Can we hope to see a change for the better once we’re out of the financial trough, or is this what we should expect to see going forward?
According to those we interviewed, you are going to have to learn to live with it.
"This,” says Dave DeHorn, chief estimator of Brady Company, Los Angeles, "is the new norm.”
And the new norm also means that many contractor RFIs are going unanswered.
Given the above situation, and that it more than likely will continue just the way it is, the subcontractor faces two major problems: how to bid incomplete plans, and how to build incomplete plans.
If you can afford to submit proposed solutions with the bids, this may win you the project, since it differentiates you from the competition. Should you find it too time-consuming to work out solutions at bid time, then at least submit as many RFIs as needed to alert the GC to omissions and to level the playing field.
Should you win the project, always propose the missing solutions in your shop drawings so that the project you embark upon is, in fact, something that can be built.
Van Hekken says, "We RFI as much up front as possible. We want the plans to be as complete as possible, with all questions answered, at bid time.
"Also, since RFIs are usually relayed to all bidders by the GCs, they give us an even playing field—everybody has to bid the same plans.”
Michael McAdams, vice president at Bay Plastering, Inc. in Alabama, says, "We ask as many questions as we can, in writing, before the bid is due, and based on that, we try to qualify our bids. We try to be as specific as possible about what we’re bidding and, more importantly, about what we’re not bidding.
Joseph Mirer, owner of Clay Drywall, Inc. in New York, agrees: "You have to qualify your estimates. It is as important to tell the contractors what you don’t include and what you do include.
"If we are awarded the contract, then, obviously, we’ll propose better solutions if we see them. Once somebody becomes your client you have the responsibility to make suggestions for the good of the project, either in writing or verbally.”
Do We Shoot Them?
Far from it.
One successful contractor, who prefers anonymity, is fairly philosophical about this situation when he says, "The current market is what it is, and I don’t think it’s going to change much. So, we have a decision to make: We can either play the existing field, or get out of the game.
"Truly, I don’t have any gripes with the architects. Yes, there are things that could be done better, but I believe it is up to us and to our level of professionalism to deal with it, to fill in the gaps as needed. Hopefully, the generals will see this as added value on our part and award us more projects.
"The market in general is tough, but I hope to distinguish myself by overcoming these problems and by providing whatever service is needed to get the job done.”
Coeur d’Alene, Idaho–based Ulf Wolf writes for the construction industry as Words & Images.