Last year, we featured the voice of two architects. This year we have four. It’s perfect symmetry of details and confessions in our annual architect tell-all.
Two things ring out loud and clear with the interviews of architects and specifiers below.
The first is that wall and ceiling subcontractors must read the specifications and the drawings completely in order to identify any ambiguity of intent. The architects all admit that drawings and specifications can be wrong. But, they say, it’s up to drywall contractors to request clarification early in the bid stage.
The second is that architects want what you want—a successful project. They actually welcome interaction. It’s just that contracts sometimes hinder the free flow of dialogue and input. So, to collaborate with an architect, or a specifications consultant that they’ve hired, you’ll have to go through the appropriate channels.
Here we can strip away the channels. Four architects had a lot to say about their profession, the GC, their interaction with subs and more. One architect is a principal with his firm. Another is an associate. The remaining two architects now make a living as specification writers—one with a large architectural consulting firm, the other as an independent consultant.
Come Together Right Now
Steven C. Kendrick
AIA, LEED AP BD&C, CSI, CDT
Principal, LPAS Architecture + Design,
Sacramento & San Francisco, California
AWCI: Is it easy being an architect these days?
Kendrick: With the economy, architecture has become to some almost commoditized. It’s detracted a bit from the design profession. Do it faster and cheaper. When you’re asked to accelerate things and do it for a lower cost, it’s challenging.
AWCI:How can GCs improve?
Kendrick: For me it’s about collaboration. When we can collaborate with the people charged with constructing a facility that helps us to be better architects. They have an expertise—how things physically go together. We have the conceptual, spacial development as our expertise. Collaboration between the general contractor and the architect is where those two [disciplines] need to meet. Every project where we’ve had collaboration with the contractors has, at the end of the day, been a better project.
AWCI:Do you ever call drywall firms?
Kendrick: Not so much. Most likely it would involve the finishes. If we’ve asked for a certain finish, can they achieve it with what we’ve given them as far as substrates? If I want something beyond a Level 5 finish on the walls, and we’re just asking the material to do something it can’t, I’d like to know that from the subcontractor early on.
Again, it’s about collaboration. We like collaboration during the design phase so that we’re not going down a path of designing something or documenting something and then later the subcontractor says, “Wait a minute. I’ve got a better way,” or “That material has some limitations.” They certainly have much more expertise of actually putting up these materials and the limitations that they’re going to be faced with than the design team ever would. It’s going to give a better project in the end. And with design-build coming more in vogue for the public sector projects, we have opportunity for collaboration.
AWCI:What if the subcontractor has questions?
Kendrick: Always run them through the general contractor. That’s who they’re contracted with. We’re more than happy to sit down with them and work things out, but we always want the general contractor there, because they know the limitations of their contractual agreement with the subcontractor.
If they get an opportunity to collaborate with an architect, they should take it.
AWCI:Have you ever hinted to a general contractor, “It sure would be nice to have ABC Drywall on this project”?
Kendrick:(Laughs) Yes. Most of the time we go with their recommendation because they have working relationships with those subcontractors, and they know what they’re going to get.
AWCI:Ever told a GC not to use a certain drywall firm?
Kendrick: I don’t know if I’ve ever done that. I’ve let them know on projects where I’ve been disappointed in the quality of what we got on the drywall side.
Kendrick: There’s probably a project in my past where we didn’t press the contractors hard enough to achieve the quality that we wanted and we just kind of let it slide. The contractor told me, “That’s all the better that we can do.” Thirty years later, I know better. We’re going to keep pushing the envelope on our designs. There’s always new materials coming out, and we’ll find unique ways to use them. We want them to be able to keep up with us.
I Prefer Face to Face
AIA, LEED AP
Associate, Ehrlich Architects,
Culver City, California
AWCI:What changes are affecting architects?
Whitney Wyatt: We see more clients exploring design-build as a delivery method, but in general clients are wanting things done much faster. We’re continuously exploring ways to be more efficient and effective. BIM and our 3D software, Revit, has certainly helped us with that.
We use the Revit model to help us generate all the project collateral including 3D perspective views and animated walk-throughs—including early options and the final design for client presentations, marketing and agency approvals, programming documents like room data sheets that include 3D axon views of the space inventory, material take-off schedules and quantity surveys for cost estimation and value engineering, the construction documents drawing set and the pre-construction clash detection model the subs use to test their own shop drawings for accuracy and systems coordination.
AWCI:Where do you see LEED heading?
Wyatt: LEED has some drawbacks, since projects can play the point system to achieve higher levels of certification, while others have design elements that are definitely energy and resource saving and aren’t even recognized. But, all in all it has done great things in raising awareness and gaining public support.
I think we have to think beyond LEED as it is now and work toward building projects that go beyond the act of using fewer resources and to producing regenerative and resilient designs that give back what we are losing.
AWCI:Candidly, what would you like to say to general contractors?
Wyatt: That to best serve our clients, and theirs, collaboration and having an open dialogue is critical. Early on in my career, a contractor once told the design team during a job site meeting that “we are all in this boat together.” Every time I interact with contractors—or anyone I am working with for that matter—I remind myself of that. I try to clearly articulate my position as well as see things from their perspective. Both sides have experience and expertise to share. We can learn from one another and the end product, as well as the participating parties, will all benefit.
AWCI:How often do you talk with subcontractors?
Wyatt: The answer of how often, or how soon, depends somewhat on the project delivery method—design-build versus design-bid-build. Generally, we prefer to engage the people actually performing the work as early as possible in order to establish a relationship and an effective means of communication.
Whenever I go out to a job site, I usually meet with the GC and a series of subs to address questions and concerns. This allows all parties to participate in and hear the entire conversation, rather than relying solely on RFIs, which are often poorly written and open to misinterpretation. I prefer face-to-face interaction on-site whenever possible. It provides the opportunity to establish a collaborative relationship, ask questions to gain understanding rather than making assumptions, align goals and ultimately become stakeholders in the project’s success.
AWCI:What advice do you have for drywall contractors?
Wyatt: Walls and ceilings are critical to the overall sense of space in a project. They are two of the most viewed surfaces within a building and are where the majority of devices are installed from outlets and switches to light fixtures, sensors, alarms, mechanical vents, access hatches and sprinkler heads. All this stuff can become quite “noisy” and visually distracting. Architects are concerned with the finish level and corner-edge detailing of these surfaces, but we also want to eliminate or quiet down the “noise” as much as possible. Initiating a conversation early on to confirm the design intent and expectations for all this small stuff is much appreciated and helps to avoid headaches.
I’m a Piece of the Act
FCSI, CCS, CCCA, SCIP, AIA
Principal & Sr. Specification Writer/Technical Consultant,
DTR Consulting Services,
Santa Rosa, California
AWCI:Subcontractors may bid on drawings where the design intent isn’t clear. What do you make of this?
John Guill: Let me correct the perception that the subcontractor should only bid what’s on the drawings. The subcontractor should bid the specification as well. If there is an ambiguity they should request clarification from the architect before they put numbers to it. If they put a number to something they think is ambiguous without clarifying it first, well, in my opinion, they own the ambiguity themselves. They need to find out what that intent is.
AWCI:Do you ever speak directly with subcontractors?
Guill: As a consultant to architects, it’s up to them how they work with the installers during design and construction. I would only do it on the architect’s request.
There are two times for a sub-trade to communicate. The first time is before the bid. If you see something in the documentation that doesn’t look right or that you could do better, let the architect know. Say, “We’ve got this new stud design that’s stronger than the conventional model. We could use a lighter gauge and still meet the fire rating.” And back it up.
Understand that the architect has risk in the product selection, and they have liability if it fails. So, the architect might be skeptical of a field method that doesn’t have a UL listing or doesn’t have a Gypsum Association wall tag attached to it.
The second time it’s okay for the sub-trade to talk to the architect is after a construction issue arises. Submit an RFI or a substitution request. Again, back it up. Don’t be combative. Most architects are willing to work with a sub-trade.
AWCI:Are the sub-trades combative?
Guill: It depends on the project type and the procurement method. The design-bid-build methodology is broken. It’s not possible to have a functional collaborative construction project on a public bid job, in California at least, and have all the parties get along. I’ve had numerous experiences in my individual practice as an architect with combative and exploitative acts on the part of wall and ceiling contractors. So, yes, the sub-trades can be combative.
For private work, negotiated work and design-build-work it’s a different attitude among the contractors. The alignment of the contractor’s interests and the owner’s interests go a long way to reducing that combative attitude that we see in public design-bid-build (see page 29).
AWCI:What can general contractors do to improve?
Guill: To sum up construction administration—all the parties in the process have to communicate. If the issue requires money to fix, it will require less money to fix if the difficulty is made known to all parties as soon as it’s known. The further you push something into the future, the more it costs to fix—always.
Guill: I’m not saying our work is perfect all the time, but quite frankly the most common cause of misalignments between the drawings and the specifications are because the architect changed something and forgot to tell us. Or, they added something and didn’t let us know.
Architects are now the ringmasters of an incredibly complicated circus, and they have lots and lots of performing acrobats and dancing elephants in circles all around them. I’m just a tiny little piece of the act. Sometimes it’s hard to be heard over the din. But, we try.
Read What I Write
AIA, CSI, CCS, CCCA, LEED AP BD+C
Architect and Architectural Specifications Writer,
Liz O’Sullivan Architecture, LLC, Denver, Colorado
AWCI: Subcontractors say that drawings and specifications are often unclear.
Liz O’Sullivan: It happens a lot. Part of it has to do with architect’s fees, expectations from owners, reliance on BIM. It’s a focus more on the software than on the output of the construction documents. Young architects, especially, are focused on creating these beautiful 3D models.
AWCI: Expectations from owners?
O’Sullivan: It’s my feeling that building owners are expecting more from architects in a shorter period of time and for less money.
AWCI:What do you have to say to GCs?
O’Sullivan: General contractors need to read the drawings and the specifications. They should be nearly as familiar with these documents as each of their subs are with their own parts of the drawings and the specs. A general contractor should not wait until a problem comes up to go read the specs. It’s his job as the general contractor to coordinate all this stuff, and he can’t do it unless he can see the big picture. He can’t see the big picture if all he does is act as a pass-through, just passing the spec and drawings to the subs. He has to read them.
AWCI:Do you speak with tradespersons?
O’Sullivan: Not directly. Contractually, all communications between the architect’s consultants and the general contractor’s subs has to go through the architect and the general contractor. There are good reasons for this. Both the architect and the general contractor are supposed to have the full picture—one from the design side and one from the construction side. Each consultant and each sub cannot consider all the same constraints and requirements that all the other consultants and all the other subs are considering. That’s the architect’s job and the general contractor’s job.
What if a subcontractor knows a better way to build something?
O’Sullivan: I hope they will share their knowledge. Experienced drywall subcontractors know more about installing drywall assemblies than anybody else does. Specifiers and architects know a little bit about a lot of different things, so sometimes a spec can be wrong. Sometimes a drawing is wrong.
My strong opinion is that where the intent of the document is not clear, or when the drywall sub knows of a better value for a wall assembly, the sub should raise the issue with the GC in writing and ask the GC to pass the question on to the architect in the form of an RFI or a substitution request. The architect will pass the question to me, the specifier. I know that general contractors are terribly busy, but it’s their job to coordinate the work. And it costs less in time to pass on a question than it costs in money to rip something out and redo it.
Mark L. Johnson is an industry writer and marketing communications consultant.