The Architect: Friend or Foe?
Ulf Wolf / July 2019
We know that, although not always seeing eye-to-eye, our relationship with the architect is a symbiotic one: A clear case of “can’t live with them, can’t live without them,” and at times, architects and contractors do find themselves at odds with one another.
On the one hand, architects—who often view themselves as artists working diligently to bring to life beautiful and complex design ideas (think Frank Lloyd Wright)—they do at times feel that contractors do not always bring about their vision.
Contractors, on the other hand, are problem solvers, builders who work hard to manage construction projects to keep them on budget and schedule. They often feel architects place undue emphasis on designs that are too impractical and expensive to implement. And they know that architects need contractors, or their most spectacular building designs will remain just so much paper (or so many pixels).
Naturally, these opposing perspectives can and do create tension at times, leading to miscommunication and misunderstanding that result in time delays and costly mistakes that affect the overall success of the project.
That said, the architect and contractor share the common goal of wanting to complete a project successfully, and this success begins with a healthy working relationship based on effective communication and a good understanding of each other’s perspectives.
In other words, the success of a building project depends on a positive and productive contractor-architect relationship.
So much for theory. These days, how is this relationship playing out in the real world?
Building Information Modeling
If not yet mature, Building Information Modeling has certainly reached adolescence and seems close to coming of age. Still, BIM has the same weak underbelly as all things information-based: “Garbage in” will still equal “garbage out.” That’s why it is crucial that all trades involved in a project participate in building the BIM model from scratch.
The MEP trades have been invited to BIM ground-breaking for some time now while subcontractors play in-the-field catch-up. There are signs that this is changing, and that is our first question: These days, are you (along with the other trades) invited to early BIM planning conferences to provide ground-floor input? Some AWCI member contractors do receive invitations.
Richard Wagner, owner of RWE—Richard Wagner Enterprises, LLC in North Carolina, says “Yes, we are invited, because our early input makes it easier on designers and saves the owner money.”
Greg Smith, area operation manager at Mirage Builders, Inc. in Nevada, gets an invitation as well. “We are being invited earlier than we have been in the past,” he says. “If the project is a private one, we are more likely to be involved early in a design-build capacity, along with the other trades and the design team. This is really the optimum scenario for us. Giving everyone involved an equal say in the design process makes the project flow so much better once we arrive on site.
“The early collaboration also helps build a team atmosphere as the project moves forward. We develop a trust with one another that only benefits the project. The early BIM process helps all of us gain a better understanding of the direction the project is going, not only from a design and intent standpoint, but also regarding the flow and tempo of the job.”
Adds Robert Aird, president of Robert A. Aird, Inc. in Maryland, “We’re a follow-on finish trade and not typically a large part of the total project contract, so we are rarely included in BIM planning.”
Shares Mike Espeset, president of Story Construction Company in Iowa, “As a GC, we are invited earlier these days. In turn, we invite a selection of key subcontract trade partners—including the wall and ceiling and building envelope contractors—to join the team early to support planning and prefabrication.”
“On design-build and design-assist type projects,” says Dave DeHorn, chief estimator at Brady Company – Los Angeles, Inc. in California, “we are typically awarded a pre-construction contract to provide BIM input.
“The purpose of this process is to identify, early on, all clashes that exist with the current model such as jamb studs running through a major duct work above. Once this clash is detected, the pre-construction team decides who has to do what to resolve the conflict. Once the model is ready for construction, maximum production is expected in the field as few changes will be required.”
But then, there are some AWCI member contractors who do not receive invitations to the early BIM party.
Gilly Turgeon, president of Green Mountain Drywall Co., Inc. in Vermont shares, “I have never been asked to any early meetings, whether BIM, a scheduling meeting or a details meeting.”
Howard Bernstein, president of Penn Installations, Inc. in Pennsylvania, says he is generally not invited. “I believe the mindset is that our scope-related conflicts—relative to other trades—are considered too low-cost to bother with,” he explains.
As for Scott Christensen, area manager at the Denver office of The Gallegos Corporation in Colorado, he reports that “We are rarely invited to any BIM meetings, even after contract award. BIM input is usually requested through RFI distribution.”
Says Adam Barbee, general superintendent at Daley’s Drywall in California, “It’s beneficial to all if they can attend or budget to do so. This can save both time and schedules by working out clashes or potential problems before they happen in the real world.”
Correctly managed BIM projects are so successful, with few conflicts and nary a change order, that it’s likely just a matter of time before all trades will be invited at the very beginning of the BIM design process. Meanwhile, fingers crossed.
The Successful Architect-Contractor Relationship
What does a successful relationship look like in real life?
“A successful architect relationship,” says Brent Allen, vice president at Compass Construction in Ohio, “is one where both parties value and respect their shared experience, background and education, and rely on one another, be it as individuals or collectively as a firm, to deliver a project that meets the goals of all those involved.”
Brian Mead, president of Commercial Builders, Inc. in Florida, concurs: “A successful architect relationship is one where you can partner with the architect to find solutions to holes in the construction documents. We have to be problem-solvers, not by pointing out deficiencies in the plans, but rather by offering solutions to expedite the project and benefit savings, both in material and labor. This also tends to help us when final punch lists are produced, as we always try to turn the benefit of the doubt in our favor.”
“A successful architect relationship is one where they ask us for input on different types of detail,” says Turgeon. “Sometimes they come up with details that simply can’t be built.”
Bernstein’s opinion is that “a successful architect relationship is one where the architect is receptive to the feedback from those responsible contractors who are truly trying to help the team of which they are supposed to be a part. I believe architects are often wary, perhaps from unscrupulous contractors influencing them negatively in the past.”
“A successful architect relationship,” offers Chuck Taylor, director of operations at Englewood Construction in Illinois, “is one where the architect and GC collaborate on a design-assist basis as we budget and they draw and design—as opposed to the architect draws it, we send the documents out to bid and if (or when) the project runs over budget, the owner looks to us to value engineer.”
“When it comes to subcontractors’ relationships with architects,” says Kenneth Ottinger, senior field technician at Kitchell Quality Assurance in Arizona, “there’s a missing piece: the general contractor. The GC is the relationship between the subs (trades) and the design team—architect, engineers, owner and reps included—and is responsible for being babysitter, umpire, interpreter, therapist, diplomat and traffic cop.
“The hardest part of the sub’s relationship with the architect’s plans, intentions and goals is how the GC handles their part as a bridge between the design intent and the physical manifestation of the project. As a rule, GCs do not communicate properly to the subs their responsibility relating to the shop drawings and submittals, and rarely understand their own responsibility for shop drawings and submittals back to the design team.
“Any issues that develop in the relationship between the design team and the sub’s means and methods of construction are in fact the scope and responsibility of the GC and their site team. Sadly, the GC folks usually tasked with coordinating this ballet between intent and execution are the least experienced, sometimes even interns.”
Lee Zaretzky, president of Ronsco, Inc. in New York City, says, “A successful architect relationship is one where the architect welcomes and incorporates the knowledge and expertise offered by the manufacturers, suppliers and other subcontractors we bring to the table. They should be flexible for the greater good of the project.”
Says Wagner, “A successful architect relationship is one where they actually provide us 100 percent drawings the first time.”
“A successful architect relationship,” says Smith, “is one where there is a lot of trust between the builder and the designer. Developing team work with the architect is very beneficial for the project overall. They know what they want—the building will be their statement, and it’s up to us to make that vision real. I have worked very closely with some brilliant architects who convey what they want to accomplish with their project and who look to us to provide the best materials suited for the details they envision. We suggest the materials and the best building practices that will bring about the look and feel they seek.
“The more receptive the architect is to suggestions and the more he welcomes the willingness on the part of the contractor to help achieve the architect’s goals, the better the working relationship, and the better the end result.”
Christensen concurs, “A successful architect relationship is one where the architect is open to ideas and to solving constructability issues in a collaborative manner.”
Gabriel Castillo, director of business development (with an architectural background) at Pillar Construction, Inc. in Virginia, suggests, “A successful architect relationship is one where contractors stay in communication with the designer to cross-reference details and share good and bad experiences. The contractor should be in constant collaboration with the architect, and by collaboration I mean a healthy negotiation to accommodate the wall assembly, clean up the details, upgrade components, select the material and discuss details from previous projects, etc.
“We, as contractors, realize the designer’s idea. We engineer the components and figure the most efficient way to produce the design intent. When there is no connection between the ‘what’ (architect contract drawing) and the ‘how’ (contractor shop drawing), there is a higher risk of holes and cost inefficiencies finding their ways into the construction documents, not to mention the waste of time waiting for answers to RFIs and the increased difficulty for CMs to compare and understand the best value proposition.”
Quips Espeset, “When it comes to our relationship with the architect, none of us is as smart as all of us.”
DeHorn nails it down with, “A successful architect relationship is one where the architect, the general contractor and the subcontractors all collaborate for a common goal: a win-win-win.”
The Ideal Architect
What are the qualities of the ideal architect?
Suggests Mead, “An ideal architect would have to spend a minimum of two years in the field before being assigned any drafting positions. These days, what is drawn cannot always be built.
“Too many architects and Engineers of Record are kicking the can down the road by placing the exterior framing on plans as ‘Done by Delegated Engineer.’ This method is all right for those subcontractors who will take the time to have a Professional Engineer provide a rough analysis for bidding purposes. Sadly, too many subs will not go to these lengths, resulting in lower bid numbers and unnecessary GC/owner change orders once the project is underway.”
Turgeon's take is that “an ideal architect would finish a set of plans before sending them out for bids.”
Bernstein quips, “An ideal architect would be wealthy and ask me to marry her. That said, the ideal architect would also solicit input from the project team on the front end to develop a positive rapport.”
Suggests Taylor, “An ideal architect would be given enough time to prepare proper documents. There are many great architects out there who simply are not given enough time to complete their work properly.”
John Kirk, owner of Kirk Builders in California, has this opinion: “An ideal architect would be one who has had a come-to-Jesus talk with the owners and has explained to them that it is a horrible idea to skimp on the planning and architectural budgets, and clarified for them that by doing so the cost of the job will increase along with the duration. Any potential profit will be devoured by RFIs and the subsequent change orders that they generate. RFIs also contribute greatly to schedule overruns.”
“An ideal architect,” says Zaretzky, “would provide buildable, dimensioned and detailed plans with complete and non-conflicting specifications and would approve submittals expeditiously. He would also be readily available to approve layout and respond to RFIs, and he would attend site visits and meetings to resolve any issues/conflicts that arise during construction.”
Smith says, “An ideal architect would be very open to new ideas and concepts. The most successful design-build projects that I have been a part of involved an architect who was open to ideas.
“We are not here to redesign the building or poke holes in the design. We are here to help them achieve the best-looking project we can. Sometimes you do encounter an architect who is combative and over-protective of their design; this yields a very short preconstruction process and a difficult project ahead.”
“An ideal architect,” suggests Aird, “would steep him/herself in the ongoing evolution of building science and be open-minded to new information. “He/she should involve him/herself in the experience and knowledge of those who are ‘in the trenches’ to learn what works and what doesn’t.
“A major deficit of architectural planning today is the employment of young people who are good with computers and at clicking and dragging details from a master set, but who lack experience and consideration of proper coordination and sequencing of the trades to create a well-functioning building.”
Castillo says, “Ideally, an architect would maintain a close relationship with subcontractors to vet details constantly and be up to speed on improved details and solutions.”
Barbee says an ideal architect would “visit the site once a week. This would help streamline the job and kick it into a faster gear. Doing this, the architect may answer any questions/confirmations on site.”
DeHorn says, “An ideal architect would complete the drawings with correct details, including proper UL designs, and tailor the specifications to the particular job before sending them out for bid.
“Too often, we see the typical cut-and-paste details that do not conform to the project at hand and/or the specifications. We see UL designs calling for walls on the drawings where the UL design uses a specific manufacturer, while the specs do not even list that manufacturer or call for a different manufacturer that may not even be available in our market.
“An ideal architect would also complete the drawings and not issue the numerous addenda that we see today. Very often, we receive a set of drawings and within a few days the architect starts to issue addenda to the original set. It’s not uncommon to see six to 12 addenda on a project today, before bid date.”
The Architect—Friend or Foe?
And now, the final question: Is the architect a friend or a foe?
“Both,” says Turgeon. “A lot of architects like to work with subcontractors and are very receptive to our ideas, but there are some who don’t want to hear about anything that we have to say. “I think they need to realize that we are the professionals at putting buildings together, and they could learn some simple techniques or ideas from our field people that would help them on their next project.”
“No project,” says Taylor, “benefits from an adversarial relationship or finger pointing. Ultimately, we should share in failure as much as in success.”
“As a tradesman,” says Kirk, “I, along with my crew, don’t take well to criticism of our work. Likewise, every time we make an offhand remark about crappy plans, we are criticizing the designer—without knowing their constraints. Every time we ask for an RFI, we are saying that the plans are deficient at some level. But I’ve never experienced an architect coming unglued over a typical RFI the way a tradesman might become unglued over a legitimate critique.”
“Friend for the most part,” says Zaretzky. “It’s all in how you choose to approach the project. We all have a job to do and it is a symbiotic relationship. When all team members keep that end in mind and collaborate and are reasonable and deal with the realities and obstacles that arise for the greater good of the project, then it’s friendly—and successful.”
Muses Wagner, “As design software continues to evolve, owners will contract with architects to put together full materials and labor estimates, and then owners will shop out GCs and subs to perform the work. So, we had better stay friends.”
“For me,” say Smith, “architects have always been friends. There are few exceptions, but for the most part, I have always enjoyed good relationships with my design counterparts—we build some pretty cool stuff because of their ideas and concepts.
“Most of the time when you complete a project and you look back at how rewarding that project was, it’s because it was a great design, challenging to build and something you can brag about in your company portfolio or with your colleagues. That comes from a great design and concept and that started with the architect.”
Christensen says, “Friend, of course. We are in a mutually dependent relationship and must by necessity learn to function well together.”
Aird says, “While there is an enormous amount of information needed to design a project, the provision of incomplete or incorrect drawings and specifications puts a large burden on the contracting community and potentially creates the need for time-consuming and expensive requests for information to clarify the designer’s intent or, worse still, construction of non-code-compliant or poorly functioning buildings.”
“Friends for certain,” says Espeset. “We can’t do this work without them and wouldn’t want to.”
Says Barbee, “They are like our stubborn friends and/or like weather men—they can be wrong and still keep their job (joke).
DeHorn’s take is this: “I know it is hard for architects to keep up with all of the new materials available on the market each year, but I wish they would cleanse their specifications at least once a year. This is especially true when there is a design-build type project where the subcontractor has the ability to redline the specifications and line them up with the project drawings. The architect should take the subcontractor’s comments and incorporate them into the master specification for future projects.
“Also, when subcontractors write RFIs on a project to clarify the intent of something in the specification, and that particular RFI keeps raising its ugly head on other projects, the architect should take notice and realize that there is something wrong with the specs and fix it to put those RFIs to rest.”
Most architects are willing to do whatever it takes to see their designs materialize, and most contractors are willing to do whatever it takes to realize the architect’s vision. As long as each party takes the time to make this very clear to the other—and perhaps even shake hands on it—the road ahead should be pretty smooth.
California-based Ulf Wolf is the senior writer at Words & Images.