Hear Me Out: You Guys Have Got It All Wrong

Walter R. Scarborough

September 2007

After reading the two consecutive Estimator’s Edge columns at the end of last year about architects by one of this magazine’s former writers, Charles Mahaffey, I thought, as an architect, I could not not let his observations (I’m thinking accusations) go by without a response. His first column read as the typical rantings and ravings about one’s job; in fact, he admits he is ranting in the first paragraph. I was mildly amused, but mostly, I was slightly offended. Then, I read his next column. My attitude changed, and I am now professionally offended to the point of taking action. So here, in defense of architects everywhere, are my reasons/explanations to wall and ceiling contractors for why architects are the way they are … and I just bet you will be able to relate to many of the points I will make.

The Implications
I will start by saying that Mahaffey’s assessments are probably shared by more subcontractors than I care to count. To avoid looking like I’m taking it all out on one guy, I’ll address his comments as if they were made by the subcontracting community.

First is the indictment of architects that our sole goal in life is to make estimators crazy because after all, we are only a bunch of cartoonists (of course, an apology went out to cartoonists). Many of you seem to think estimators have to have the clairvoyant and medicated determination of a Jedi Knight to understand our drawings and specifications. This an observation that is troubling to architects. As Mahaffey implied, some of you may think architects purposefully mix the drawings of several projects together just to confuse estimators (oh, if we only had the time).

Another complaint about architects that was suggested by Mahaffey is the lack of interaction between subcontractors and architects. Mahaffey stated, "Is this cavalier attitude of the architect befitting all architects? No! Would it describe a large percentage of the architects? Yes! Based on what I experience every day, I would say that a large percentage of architectural firms could not care less about the quality of the plans they produce. I cannot think of another profession that could get by with such mediocrity and remain viable.” (Before I start my response, I would advise the reader that architects are not supposed to communicate directly with subcontractors during the course of construction out of respect for proper communication protocol established by the agreements.)

Do you agree with these points? If so, read on. I will try to change your mind.

My Reaction
It is easy to react defensively at first, but I want the readers of AWCI’s Construction Dimensions to like architects and to continue to work with them to produce good buildings for our owners while we improve our respective personal lives as much as possible. Therefore, I will proceed with a rational and dignified response.

I am a registered architect and have been the director of specifications (with a staff of 14 project specifiers) for the past eight years for HKS Architects, one of the largest architectural firms in the world (staff of 1,300 and growing by leaps and bounds). The first decade and a half of my professional career was spent as a construction contract administer, so I have worked very closely with contractors and subcontractors on small, large and very large projects. Therefore, I have a unique perspective on both the architectural profession and the construction industry.

I can confidently tell you that the architectural profession is an honorable profession that includes a considerable number of talented and skilled men and women who are dedicated to pursuing excellence. I personally know a large number of architects who try very, very hard to get designs, contract drawings and specifications properly produced, and who try very hard to overcome the limitations and constraints imposed on them and their projects. However, just like in all other professions, trades, jobs and disciplines, there are also those architects who should have found something else to spend their adult lives doing instead of being an architect.

The ironic thing about this is the same dualism is present in the industries represented by the readers of this magazine. I know; I have met some of them.

The Way Things Are
For the remainder of this article, I will unabashedly, and without apology, share with you my own personal viewpoint of the architectural profession today. I do this to provide a little insight into a world that many consider mysterious. (This is the part where you start coming over to my side.)

First: The dirty laundry. I am going to make a lot of architects mad at me for writing this, but I care about this profession and want to see it improve and truly be what it already thinks it is. The most fundamental deficiency in the architectural profession is not one of vision, dedication or heart. It is one of practicality. Architects as a group simply do not sufficiently understand how to put buildings together. We succeed brilliantly in creatively designing structures that improve the quality of life for many people; however, many architects have difficulty with the technical design of buildings.

And this technical design weakness unfortunately adversely impacts their construction drawings and specifications. This is due to several fundamental causes: architectural education focuses on creative design at the expense of technical design; product and material technology is expanding faster than the vast majority of architects can keep up with; and there is a Grand Canyon–size chasm between the manufacturing industry and the architectural profession. I fear the continued decline of technical design ability may eventually result in architects becoming irrelevant. There is already a trend of architectural firms only wanting to creatively design and leave the technical design to others.

Second: The big surprise. I am really going to get into trouble for this one, but it needs to be said: It should not really come as a surprise to the construction industry, but the architectural profession persists in an arm’s length love/hate relationship with specifications. Architects think visually, three-dimensionally, conceptually and graphically (I do as well). Because the majority of architects are technically weak, they tend to avoid technical matters that include technical descriptions, test reports and product literature; therefore they tend to not want to get too involved with specifications. Thus, specifications are viewed as being tediously intricate and too complicated to understand. I personally find this to be a big surprise because every project will have a volume of specifications that accompany the drawings. While HKS Architects strongly supports the specifications effort and staff, there are many architects and firms that simply do not believe in the important role that specifications play in the construction effort.

Again, readers of this magazine should not be surprised because you have probably seen a lot of really bad specifications. You have seen them outdated, illogical, poorly written, unworkable and sometimes simply wrong. For this I have no explanation. Specifications are a uniquely specialized part of architecture that is given very little attention (until something goes wrong). I know of firms that have laid off their entire specifications staff because the decision-makers did not believe in the importance of specifications. The level of importance placed on specifications by the construction industry is not shared by the architectural profession.

Third: Too many projects and too few people. There is an overabundance of projects today at the same time there is a severe and alarming shortage of both architects and interns available to be hired. In fact, in many instances, all that is being accomplished when people are hired is that they are enticed from another firm that is also short of staff. Until the economy turns down (which we all know is coming eventually), there is a raging deficit of enough people to do all the work that has to be done. Contrary to the prevailing liberal viewpoint that the Bush economy is in trouble, the reality in the architectural profession and the construction industry is we both continue on an unprecedented journey into uncharted territory.

Five years ago, HKS Architects totaled 500 employees, and by the end of this year we will be almost triple in size. I suspect the construction industry has seen the same explosive growth; if you’re not seeing it in the number of workers you’ve hired, you’re probably seeing it in your backlog.

In addition to the shortage of people, expansion of this magnitude yields another unfortunate situation: The younger members of the profession and the industry are given an opportunity, required by necessity, or asked because no one else is available, to do work that really is beyond their skills and abilities. Many succeed, yet some fall miserably on their faces, and the seasoned members have to go behind them and clean up their messes.

Fourth: Incredible time pressure. The time pressures on every architect and every project are simply incredible and at times unbelievable. If you estimators out there think you are under pressure to produce, come sit with me for a while and just watch how fast a project has to move through our office. These are not pressures architects impose on themselves due to an over-abundance of work; these are pressures required by owners and contractors that force the architect to produce portions of the work before other portions are decided, such as issuing foundation drawings and specifications, sometimes before the design of the building is sufficiently complete.

Architects who can measure their careers in three or more decades can nostalgically remember a time when we were able to produce an entire set of drawings and specifications before construction began … sadly, today production is totally different, as we will see in the following paragraphs. Only so much time can be squeezed out of the time required to design a building to an owner’s requirements, and get it drawn and specified. I am personally at the point now where I am not sure the process can be squeezed any more.

Fifth: The overlap of design and construction. Because our society is on an unending quest to produce faster and cheaper, the creative and technical design of a building has become fragmented. Every project is a fast-track project, which means construction has to begin before the project is fully designed, drawn and specified. The calm project delivery process of the past is now controlled chaos, at best. Before the project even seems real to the architect, there is a demand to issue something for the contractor to start building. Drawings and specifications are produced and issued in packages that are somewhat logically sequenced to the construction process (earthwork, underground utilities, foundations, building structure, etc.). Unfortunately, coordination, accuracy and sufficiency are sometimes unintentionally diminished to some degree when so much focus is put on delivery and deadlines.

While the architectural design of a building is evolving in the architect’s office, the general contractor and subcontractors are making agreements and constructing the very same building in the field. The word "impossible” has no meaning today. Is it any wonder contractors and subcontractors are struggling with incomplete drawings and specifications that appear incomplete? How many other industries that build things do it this way? Can you even imagine building other complex things like cars, computers, airplanes, or even a sandwich, without having a completed plan from the beginning?

Sixth: Contractors act as architects. Because drawings and specifications are being issued in packages, general contractors are (intentionally, I believe, under the premise that the drawings and specifications are not complete) appropriating architectural responsibilities at the expense of the architect and the subcontractors. This fragmentation of "the plan” gives the appearance to the construction industry that the architectural profession is out of control and architects are incapable of producing sufficient drawings and specifications.

Let’s face it: General contractors are bidding projects and signing contracts based on the fragmented document delivery process, and they are expecting subcontractors and suppliers to do the same. As the architect continues to advance the drawings and specifications with more and more information, and then issues the packages, all of a sudden, the architect is the bad guy because of the perception that there are more changes than can be implemented in the work (all the architect has really done is finish the very in-progress documents that have been used as the basis of an earlier agreement). Architects are under monumental pressure to produce contract documents, and this pressure works against an orderly production of the contract documents. At times we have to issue a package in order to make a deadline rather than get all the documentation that is necessary done adequately.

Seventh: Changes, changes, changes. You know how much you love change orders? The same goes for architects. Try doing all of the above with the additional situation that since the creative and technical design continues to evolve, changes due to the design evolution or the owner become impossible to avoid rendering portions of previously prepared drawings and specifications inadequate. And the best part: The deadlines do not change!

So, what do you think? Does this sound like we have nothing better to do than figure out ways to make your job harder? Like I offered, come sit with me for awhile. I have spent a considerable amount of my career working with builders. Have you ever spent time with an architect? Just like some wall and ceiling contractors, architects and architectural firms come in all shapes and sizes … and not all of them are good. Some are bad, and some are superior.

We grow up thinking there always has to be a bad guy in every story. The reality is that we are all—architects, GCs, subcontractors, manufacturers and suppliers—caught up in a storm of which we have very little chance of influencing, much less changing. But because this is a free country, everyone gets the chance to do what they want to do, love to do or have to do.

Hopefully you now can see that architects go through many of the same things you do in trying to put a building together. We all deal with fast-track schedules, incomplete details, change orders and more. Same problems, different roles. Being an architect today is like trying to change a flat tire while driving down a crowded freeway at 80 miles per hour!

In closing, I ask the question that is on all our minds: When did building buildings stop being fun?

About the Author
Walter R. Scarborough (CSI, CCS, CCCA, AIA) is vice president and director of specifications for HKS, Inc., Dallas. He has 30 years of experience in the architectural and building industries, is active in the Construction Specifications Institute, and he has co-authored a new college textbook, Building Construction—Principles, Materials and System.

He eagerly awaits your comments regarding this article or any other topics about the relationship between contractor, subcontractors, manufacturers and architects.