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Never the Twain Shall Meet (Part 1)

There’s only you and me and we just disagree.—Dave Mason, from “We Just Disagree”

Renowned radio talk show host and author, Dennis Prager, frequently repeats a signature phrase that’s become a recurring theme in his prolific broadcasts, columns and lectures: “I prefer clarity over agreement.” All well and good, if given the choice. But what about those instances in which you are given neither? If I were to poll all North American wall and ceiling bidmeisters, asking them to cite a circumstance in our profession that best exemplifies both lofty levels of disagreement and dizzying heights of befuddlement, the virtually unanimous response would be reached without hesitation: “The blatant contradictions between the architectural renderings and structural drawings of a common project” would be the resounding reply. I’m certain of it.


I once heard one particularly frustrated quantifier describe the dueling dynamic quite succinctly. He said, “It’s like two beings living on different planets, speaking different languages and subscribing to different alphabets with no means of or inclination toward communicating with each other, are given a common set of primitive schematics and assigned the task of creating a constructible project from them without the slightest mention of any attempt to reach some semblance of agreement with the other.” Well, words to that effect anyway.


Clearly, agreement is a secondary objective, or even a trivial consideration in the grand scheme of things when an architect is teamed with (or pitted against) a structural engineer. The scant likelihood of the two design professionals ever finding common ground stems from their divergent and opposing backgrounds, which gives rise to an adversarial rather than a cooperative dynamic. One is a pragmatist, the other an aesthete. One is a mathematician, the other an artist. One is formulaic, the other imaginative. They are known to refer to each other in private using less than flattering terms. Architects have been overheard accusing their engineering counterparts of being “number-crunchers,” “sprocket heads” and “Euclidean automatons,” while structural engineers call architects “dream doodlers,” “paper planners” and “cloud-castle stackers.”


They are oil and water.


Of course, the intended outcome of a mutual and concurrent effort between disparate design schools is an edifice that is visually pleasing, serves its social purpose, and doesn’t fall down. That’s the theory. Sometimes the combined oil-and-water endeavors of form versus function yield just such a desirable structure. Oftentimes, from the estimator’s point of view, they just yield oily water.


Take for example the most common convergence of the combined efforts of architects and engineers that a wall-and-ceiling estimator will encounter: a multiple-story exterior partition. The following scenario occurs more frequently than it reasonably should. (I just ran into it again a few months ago—honest to God, I did!) The architect indicates, per the wall section pages, that the three-story exterior wall will consist of three vertical segments—a common slab-to-slab installation, i.e., the framing is interrupted at each deck and only the skin itself bypasses the slab edge. But for whatever reason, the engineer chooses a balloon-frame, or bypass approach to the skin framing in which the entire assembly bypasses the slab edge. Both methods have advantages and drawbacks for the framing contractor. The slab-to-slab approach entails framing a separate wall along a common perimeter plane at each level. This wall system requires an anchored bottom track and a deflection top track at each level. Typically it will also require a functional expansion joint at or near each slab-edge elevation to allow for building deflection. The bypass approach calls for full-height, single-span framing between window openings and head/sill combination conditions at all openings.


As stated, each approach has its pros and cons in the performance of the work. The bypass method eliminates four rows of costly track and presumably eliminates the need for a functional expansion joint at each floor. But balloon framing adds the problem of handling cumbersome full-length studs (40-footers!), the necessity of deflection clips for each stud at each level, usually welded at the slab-edge bent plate, and more stringent head and jamb requirements at window openings. On top of that, the framing estimator must consider that all framing on a slab-to-slab condition can be constructed from the interior by workers standing on the floors, while all framing on a bypass system must be done from manlifts or scaffold, adding extensively to labor and equipment costs. Clearly, the framing contractor’s preference would be the architect’s slab-to-slab method. Unfortunately, the general contractor and whoever is installing the finish skin prefer the bypass approach, which allows completion of entire elevations—a definite scheduling advantage for them. Besides, the hierarchy of construction documents gives priority to the structural drawings, so you’re stuck with balloon framing and it’s a not a point up for debate, right?


Not by a long shot. It gets even more convoluted. Consequently, this entire matter merits further discussion next month.

Vince Bailey is senior estimator at Berg Drywall of Phoenix.

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