The Devil Is In the Details
Ulf Wolf with Steven Ferry
April 2008On paper, the construction process is quite straightforward: Someone, usually the owner, desires a building; someone, normally the architect, designs it; and you, the contractor, build it.
Once the owner has made up his mind about what he wants, things boil down to one thing, and one thing only: communication. The owner shares his intent with the architect, who, we trust, understands and duplicates exactly what the owner needs and wants, before he sets out to design and document this intent for use by the general and the subs.
The tools he uses to communicate the owner’s intent are drawings—the graphic representation as well as the detailed side text—and specifications.
The drawings are—or should be—straightforward enough, and should indicate dimensions, location, type, quantity and quality of materials, along with sufficient descriptive detail to make everything clear.
The specification document—which, depending on the project, could be as thick as a book—accompanies the drawings and describes which materials to use (listing, also, any acceptable alternates), and precisely how to install them.
So far so good.
Ideal World vs. Real World
In a world of our choosing you, the contractor, receive the drawings and the specs—which all make perfect sense—give them to your estimator who works up the costs; you add a nice profit margin to that, bid it, win the bid, build it and then take a well-deserved couple of days off with family and friends.
Not that this does not happen, for it does now and then, but, more often than not, this scenario does not represent reality as we know it.
Now, back to the real world. By survey, this communication sequence breaks down, to a greater or lesser degree, anywhere from 20 percent to 100 percent of the time. And the Devil seems to rest in the details.
As a Vermont Contractor laments: "Seventy percent of the time the specs and the drawings don’t match, and this has grown progressively worse over the last four to five years.
"Also, eight out of 10 drawings we see today are incomplete; not even close to being complete.”
A New Hampshire contractor concurs: "I’d say that 75 percent of the time there are discrepancies between the drawings and the specs.”
The same holds true for a Delaware contractor: "We run into discrepancies 60 to 70 percent of the time—where the drawings and the specifications don’t match.”
A Pennsylvania contractor agrees: "We see conflicts and discrepancies about 90 percent of the time. In fact, I can’t think of a recent job where we didn’t have to issue some sort of RFI (Request For Information).”
A New Mexico contractor confirms this: "Eighty percent of the drawings that land on our desks are only 65 percent complete.”
As does a Georgia contractor: "Easily 70 percent of them have conflicts.”
And a Rhode Island contractor: "Every single project has some discrepancy.”
Interestingly, there are some exceptions to these high percentages, but they seem to relate to contractor category more than to anything else. One such category is contractors who specialize.
A Connecticut contractor, who only works acoustic tiles, reports: "Yes, we run into discrepancies now and then, but not so often. When we do, we write an RFI, get an answer, and we’re all set.”
He goes on to explain, "We never have more than one or two questions, and they are easily clarified.”
Other contractors specialize in tenant improvements, and these, too, experience lower discrepancy rates.
A New York contractor who mainly works renovations: "I would say we see discrepancies about 30 percent of the time, at most.”
A Minnesota contractor who works tenant improvements exclusively rarely runs into this problem. "We don’t bid open market projects. Most of our jobs are negotiated, so we don’t have a problem with discrepancies.”
Also, contractors who work design-build projects seem to circumvent the problem as well. As an Ohio contractor reports, "A lot of our projects are design-built, so we work with both the owner and the architect throughout the project. That way we don’t encounter many discrepancies. Plans may change as the project progresses, but we’re in on the changes as they happen.”
Overall, however, there is a consensus: There is a serious disconnect, if not between the owner and the architect, then at least between the architect and the contractor.
As if to underscore this, a Connecticut consultant reports: "Plan review and reconciliation is the fasted growing portion of our business. Eighty percent of our customers are general contractors who ask us to review plans and resolve conflicts.”
He goes on to say: "We go over these plans; report to the architects, who respond; then we generally end up generating a lot of details.
"These we bring to the pre-construction conference, where we go over them with all concerned, to finalize an agreed upon, synchronized, version of the plans and specs.”
Cause and Effect
What accounts for this disconnect? Why these discrepancies?
The majority of our contractors put the reason squarely at the architect’s door—after all, he or she is responsible for accurately communicating the owner’s intent by precise drawings, matching detail and correlated specs. That’s his or her job.
So why, and especially of late, does the architect seem to fall down in this duty?
Several contractors suggest that the current-day lack of on-site construction experience lessens the architect’s grasp of practical detail.
Experience. Interestingly, as recently as 10 years ago, the California Employment Development Department informed budding architects looking for work that, "Job seekers need a well-organized portfolio with examples of recent work for job interviews. Practical knowledge of building materials and construction methods is also an asset to the beginning architect. Some employers recommend that students have a year of on-site construction experience before seeking work as an architect.”
Confirming this, several contractors—those who have been in the trade for a few years now, and have seen a thing or two—recall that 20 or so years ago, construction experience was almost a given for the architect.
As a Delaware contractor puts it: "The architect, today, is using boilerplate specifications and does not put in the time to review the details.”
"When it comes to the plans, I think they use younger architects who don’t really have any experience out on the job, who stay in the office all day, and who never see what’s going on at the job site.
"Years ago, I remember, architects would show up on the job sites; in fact, they had to learn different aspects of construction in order to become a registered architect.”
A New York contractor agrees: "They don’t know the products. I don’t think they know them well enough. They think that by reading about them and writing things down, they know more about them than the contractor—who may have worked these products daily for the last 10, 20 or 30 years.”
He goes on to say: "I don’t think they are experienced enough to understand what makes up a complete set of drawings. Today, they design more to the visual part of the project—how it looks—than to the technical part of it—how to build it. They want something that looks beautiful, which is fine, but how do you build it? That’s where they are falling short.”
A Georgia contractor puts it succinctly: "I think there are very few architects out there today who have ever gotten their hands dirty.”
In-Office Disconnect. Aside from lack of construction experience—which most contractors agree is an important shortcoming among today’s architects—some contractors believe there is also an in-office disconnect between the designing architect and the spec writer.
A Rhode Island contractor suggests: "The architect uses a spec writer and the two of them just aren’t getting together. The spec writer is turning out boilerplate specs, while the architect has a specific thing in mind. Sometimes these two never get together on the exact details.”
A Pennsylvania contractor likewise observes: "Most architectural firms have employees who develop boilerplate specs, and they are in some sense disassociated from the project architect.”
Remote Architects. Another contributing factor was raised by several contractors: the remote architect.
A Pennsylvania contractor reports: "We had a case just this morning where we have California architects designing to a shell space in a mall being built out here in Pennsylvania. Most likely, that architect never left California to come out to the shell space to look at what’s going to be built, or to see how things are going to fit in with what they’ve designed.”
He goes on to reminisce: "Architects used to be local, and they’d walk the project. Today, more often than not, we see architects from California, or Toronto or Florida.
"The remote architect may not realize what winter conditions are, so you have plans specifying finishes, like EIFS and temperature-sensitive outside plaster products, to be installed in the worst possible conditions, say February, with the added cost of temporary heat and protection.”
A New York contractor observes: "I think the architect may not have the time, or is not taking the time, to research the site.
"This, of course, is almost always the case with architects who are not local, and who therefore never walk the site. They’re working from San Antonio and they’re designing a building here in New York. Well, how do you do that efficiently?
"Unless you take a road trip, you have to make decisions from a distance.”
Computer Aided Design (CAD). Some contractors see the culprit as the continued automation of the design process, where drawing details no longer have to be made from scratch, but can simply be cut and pasted from an inventory of boilerplates.
As a result, the architect is one step removed from the actual project at hand, building it as he does from pre-existing design-blocks that he may, or may not, take the time, or care, to then properly customize to the current job.
As a Pennsylvania contractor puts it: "I think one of the other issues is that with the advent of CAD, they can grab a canned detail and pull that into the job, and that detail, while they’re used to seeing it on all their jobs, may not fit this particular plan.”
A Georgia contractor concurs: "Today, architects are using these programs, and I’m not so sure the people who are inputting things into the computer are supervised properly.”
In the Architect’s Defense. Several contractors, however, take a more conciliatory view. Yes, the architect can do a better job, and there are too many discrepancies, but they’re not entirely to blame.
A Connecticut contractor who’s been around the block a few times offers this perspective: "The architects I speak to say, yes, they know, they should take the time and do more, and do it better, but the owners chop them to hell with price. They ask them to come up with a nice design, and a nice color scheme, to produce a nice impression for the client, and as for the details: let the subs work it out.”
A Georgia contractor sees it similarly: "Perhaps they’re just overwhelmed. Perhaps it’s a numbers thing where they’re trying to get too many things done and delivered in too short a time.”
A New York contractor, too: "It’s understandable for some of these things to fall through the cracks. There are literally thousands of items, and it’s very difficult to check everything before the drawings go out the door, to make sure everything is correlated, especially if they are rushed.”
And a Delaware contractor observes: "They know what they see in their manuals and books but in order to actually know what is going on at the job site you have to put in the time and actually visit. It seems they no longer have that time—the time to be thorough, and that’s where the disconnect is.”
As a rule, if you read the fine—or not so fine—print, the contract between owner and architect, more often than not, includes a provision in the General Conditions, under the heading of "Order of Precedence of Documents,” which gives you, in descending order, what takes precedence:
• Contract between Owner and GC.
• Special Provisions.
• General Provisions.
• Details on Drawings.
• Plan Drawings.
This language may vary slightly, but this is the gist of it: If the drawing details conflict with the drawing itself, go by the details. If the specs conflict with the drawing or the details, the specs rule.
Some contractors are aware of this scale of precedence and uniformly go by the specs if there is a conflict. However, there are other solutions.
Qualify. Says a New Hampshire contractor who runs into conflicts often: "Typically, when we bid work, we try to qualify as much as possible.”
"First we’ll try to get some answers before the bid’s due, but often they don’t get back to us in time, which becomes a problem, so we qualify as much as possible.”
Communicate. Still, this is all about communication. And if the details don’t agree with the specs, or the specs with the drawing, a little communication the other way—back to the GC or architect—usually resolves things.
A Georgia contractor agrees: "I usually pick up the phone and call.”
As does a New York contractor: "I call up the GC and I tell him; or I write up an RFI, and then they usually send back some sort of addendum making the changes.
"Also, a lot of this is sorted out at pre-construction meetings where the GC and the architects go over the project with the subs; at that point we either ask questions verbally, or we submit RFIs to the GC.
"Really, it’s a fairly standard procedure; it’s not the worst thing.”
A Pennsylvania contractor says, "We want to keep things documented, so we generally send an e-mail through the GC to the architect. In some cases we contact the architect directly; that is, if we have a good enough relationship with them.”
A Virginia contractor sums this up nicely: "We’re all in this together. I know there’s sometimes the attitude that the architect is out to do the contractor in, but when you talk to the architects, you find that they’re trying to do their job as well—and it’s a big job—and they’re doing the best they can.”
"We’re in a society where everything is moving faster, faster, faster. Yes, we can all pine for the old days when people had more time and things were more personal, but that’s not going to change things: These times are what they are. We have to make the best of it.”
That will keep the Devil at bay.
Los Angeles-based Ulf Wolf writes for the construction industry as Words & Images (www.words-images.com)