My Friend the Architect

Ulf Wolf

October 2008

Architects, as part of the natural order things, seem to be the contractor’s nemesis, something vague and uncaring up there on the food chain.

Still, the amazing thing is that adversarial though the contractor-architect relation can be at times, at the end of the day it is communication, exchange of views, and mutual respect that seem to solve design problems and allow the owner’s intentions to be duplicated and understood.

And to be built.

A Question with Few Answers
In order to flush the good contractor-architect relations out into the open, we put the following question to members of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry across the nation: "What is your best architect-related experience?”

To which the stock reply was a long silence. Or, "I’m sure there has to be one, somewhere ...,” followed by the same long silence.

In fact, only 20 percent of those we contacted had unequivocally good experiences to relate; the remaining contractors offered up less than complimentary answers.

Incomplete Plans and Details
The consensus when it comes to architects and the contractor’s relationship with him or her is that things would be just fine (and at one time, say 20 years ago, were just fine) if the architectural plans that contractors are provided to take off and bid from were complete, and if all detail provided with those plans pertained to the project at hand and was actually buildable.

But things, as a rule, are not fine nowadays. Greg Vangellow, president of R.W. Dake & Co., Inc. in New York, illustrates: "We had a plan review this morning and the drawings were abysmal. My estimator had to be a detective to figure things out.”

Greg Koppman, president of Cornerstone Plastering & Drywall, Inc. in North Dakota, puts it this way: "For whatever reason, the architects no longer produce complete drawings.”

Steve Birkeland, owner of Artcraft Wall & Ceiling Contractors in Minnesota, agrees: "Many details are missing from the drawings, and when you call to ask for them, we rarely receive the clarifying addendum before the bid date, which makes it hard to bid properly.

"Nowadays, the plans we see are only 50 percent complete.”

Lee Zaretzky, president of Ronsco, Inc., in New York City concurs: "I’d be lucky to see 75 percent buildable drawings, on average.”

Glenn Sieber, chief estimator at Easley & Rivers, Inc., Pennsylvania, sees the same things: "I’d say that the drawings we receive are 20 percent less complete than stated on the plan. A set of plans stating 100 percent complete is normally only 80 percent complete.”

Daryl Grotewold, owner of Gerald Johnson Plaster & Drywall, Inc. in South Dakota agrees that "what passes for a complete plan today would only have been considered 75 percent complete even five years ago.”

Endangered Species
It is growing increasingly evident that the complete architectural plan, the one that comes with full and applicable accompanying detail, and where the drawings represent more than an artistic rendering of the concept—which does have its place, mind you, though not on the estimator’s desk—is becoming an endangered species.

When did this species begin to go missing? Opinions vary, but most of the contractors we interviewed say it happened within the last five to 10 years.

But as Zaretzky sees it, "The quality of plans has been eroding for the last 20 years, with no signs of improvement.”

Jeff Statz, estimator at Statz & Harrop, Inc. in Wisconsin, feels this is hard to pinpoint but says: "I’d say over the past six or seven years. Some plans are still all right, but we now have questions on a lot of them.

"The detail is supposed to be worked up ahead of time. My guessing on gauges and loads just doesn’t work.”

Kim Sides, president of Sides Drywall, Inc. in Auburn, Ala., says detailed drawings started getting less detailed "probably in the mid-1990s; and over the past eight years, they have really taken a tumble. During this time, we’ve become more and more responsible for engineering, and for more and more shop drawings, which is something that we have never had to do before.”

Rita Gosselin, president of G & R Construction, Inc., Connecticut, thinks "it started 10 years ago, and I think it has grown really bad in the past five, to the point where you’re now guessing 90 percent of the time.”

It seems that the trend of the less and less complete building plan begun in the mid-1990s has really taken a dive since the turn of the millennium. Not a single person we interviewed had seen improvements in quality.

Underlying Causes
Going back 20 or so years—and on this most agree—there were few or no problems with plans, and now there are many. What is causing this?

Our contractors have given this some serious thought, this is apparent in their answers, and the causes can be summarized as follows:

• Death of the Draftsman (also known as Computer Aided Design, or CAD).
• Inexperience/Lack of Apprenticeships.
• Time and Money.
• Architect Curriculum.
• Personalities (also known as ego conflict).
Death of the Draftsman. Thirty years ago, when an architect was awarded a contract by the building owner, he’d thoroughly walk the site, then sit down, sharpen his pencil, and begin his design—from scratch.

Sieber speaks from experience: "Once CAD became the norm—and that’s 10 or 12 years ago now—this software gave the architect the ability to go out and grab a pre-packaged detail and simply bring it into the drawing. Compare this to the draftsman actually drawing these things from scratch, which meant that they really had to think through the whole process of how one thing was going to integrate with another. Once they no longer had to do this—once they no longer had to think things through properly—that’s where the disconnect started.”

Charles Mason, managing partner of Covenant Associates, LLC, Maryland, also speaks from experience: "I think you’ll find that most engineering firms today tend to take on the type of jobs that they are already familiar with, or that are similar to jobs they have designed in the past. In this way, they have a library of already composed details to draw from.

"None of these new guys—those just out of architecture college—are actually drawing details; they just pull them from a CAD file and then just replicate, replicate, replicate. No one actually sits down to design things from scratch anymore.”

Karl Pearson, chief estimator at Mader Southeast, Inc. in Florida, concurs: "True, the day of the draftsman is now gone. The draftsman is no more. He is now a CAD operator who cuts and pastes from other sets.

"Now, the biggest thing I miss from the old days is back-referencing the details. Go back a few years, and they used to indicate where the detail came from, what sheet, or sheets. They don’t do that anymore.

"So sometimes you sit there and you have a random detail that you don’t know what to do with or don’t know where it came from. You’ll spend hours hunting for it—in the end it may not even apply.”

Inexperience/Lack of Apprenticeship. The California Employment Development Department, as recently as 10 years ago, told 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.”

Today, the budding architect moves from one CAD screen, in college, to another CAD screen, at the firm. The apprentice step seems not just endangered but extinct.

As a result, some of AWCI’s contractors have run into situations where drawings are simply not buildable; or if built as drawn, would blow any budget out of the water.

Sieber reflects: "We recently had a project where the architect had designed 18 gauge studs and 14 gauge tracks throughout the project. They also specified two layers of non-paper faced drywall. The projected cost overrun for this publicly funded project turned out to be huge, some 30 percent over budget, which in the end forced a redesign and a new set of plans.

"And a lot of wasted time,” he adds.

Sides has recently been in the same boat: "We were just awarded a job where the architect speced it out with interior load-bearing studs.

"Luckily, we had a good line into him, and he didn’t take offense when we pointed out this error. Instead, he issued an addendum to prevent the project from going over budget.”

Time and Money. The two oldest "causes” in the book, but nonetheless true.

Owners are giving architects less and less time to complete their designs and drawings, while expecting to pay them less for the job.

Owners also want their building finished "yesterday”—which, of course, only deserves one response: "Come back yesterday and we’ll have it done for you.”

Koppman says, "It seems they’re trying to do things faster, and they’re obviously trying to make more money. The result is incomplete plans with a lot of ambiguities that don’t communicate the owner’s intentions very well to the contractor.”

As an aside—several contractors ventured the guess that plan and detail ambiguities might be the means to avoid legal liability: It is hard to prove what you really stated in your plans if you are ambiguous about it.

Birkeland offers this view: "The architect feels he isn’t paid as much as he used to be and so does not spend much time on the drawings. Things go downhill from there.”

Zaretzky concurs: "I think incomplete designs stem from owner pressure. The owner tries to save money and does not retain the architect’s full services. Of course, this, in the long run, leads to change orders that will cost the owner more.”

Statz says, "It boils down to money and time. Less money in the job and less time for them to do it, so they blow it off; the architects do the irreducible minimum.”

Architect Curriculum. Walter R. Scarborough, vice president and director of specifications at HKS, Inc., a Dallas architectural firm, who in September of 2007 wrote an article in this magazine airing this perceived conflict from the architect’s side of things, concurs with the reasoning of the wall and ceiling contractors, but then adds another.

"I would add another reason,” he says, "and that would be the lack of attention to building sciences in architecture college. It’s no longer part of the architect curriculum.”

As a result, the young architect of today graduates more artist than builder?

"That is correct,” he confirmed.

Personalities (aka ego conflict). One of the properties of the immodest ego is that it is seldom (as in hardly ever/never) wrong.

As do all industries, we have our share of these in construction, and on both sides of the architectural divide. It is very hard, if not outright impossible, to partner or meet in the middle if neither party is willing to take as much as half a step in that direction. And so, many a design issue remains a design issue all the way through the final change order for lack of communication.

"Unfortunately,” Sieber says, "this business is an ego-driven business. One and all want to think they are the guy, and unfortunately, everybody plays such a significant part in putting a building together that any one of us not working well with the others can wreck the project.

"If people would communicate more openly and could put their egos aside and recognize that the other guy is a professional, too—that he, too, knows what’s going on—things would go a lot smoother.

"The architect has the 30,000 foot view of the project, the GC sits at 20,000 feet, and the interior contractor in our area of expertise is down in the trenches 5,000 feet with a microscope on this thing. If he’s experienced and willing to communicate, and if the architect is willing to communicate, a lot of grief can be saved right up front.”

As they say, it takes two to tango, and the best solutions for the architect-sub problem may be found in the basics we learned in kindergarten: mutual respect and understanding.

Mutual Respect. "My best experiences with architects,” shares Sieber, "are those times when I’ve called the architect with a question or an issue and he really showed an interest in hearing what I had to say, acknowledging that I am a professional with valid input to the project.

"They’d recognize that I’m interested in the success of the project rather than in complaining or showing someone up.

"They understood my input or accepted my expertise and they were willing to listen. Those are the best experiences that I’ve had with an architect.”

Patrick Arrington of Commercial Enterprises, Inc. in New Mexico has this to say on the subject: "If you say a job is going to take 12 man-days to do, you need to be able to show that it will in fact take 12 man-days. This way you develop a mutual respect and appreciation for each other so no one burns the other.

"You need to establish partnering and mutual respect. Most architects believe, or like to believe, that all of us contractors like change orders; we don’t. In my firm we’ve even talked about giving back 1.5 to 2 percent of our contract if there are no changes at all on the job.

"We need to work on respect and mutual trust between each other in the trade, architects included. It comes down to a good healthy respect for each other.”

Sieber adds: "We carry a measure of respect in the construction community in our area, which is an advantage. Therefore, we can contact the architect and ask questions or make suggestions, and they will take our calls and they will listen to us.”

The good relationship that Sides has with smaller architectural firms is because "we have established a mutual trust with our local architects. We can talk to them, we help them, and they, in turn, do the same thing for us.

"Now, with the bigger firms we don’t have that; we don’t enjoy that process with them. It’s a lot more difficult with them.”

Understanding. On occasion, it would serve us well to appreciate that when we issue the RFI or call the architect with a question, he might be under twice the pressure we are. He may have four more designs to get out by Friday, while owners are lining up behind him with yet more changes to plans that have already gone out (in effect driving him crazy). He may be very willing to help but just not have a clear view of daylight right now.

As soon as word gets around that we always have the success of the project in mind, rather than trying to show up someone’s mistakes, people—even architects—will be more willing to take our calls.

Understanding cuts both ways, and once in place, it tends to solve all kinds of problems.

Friendship, and more communication—not less, is always the answer.

Los Angeles–based Ulf Wolf writes for the construction industry as Words & Images.