Responsibilities of a Project Manager – One for Your “Don’ts” File

I have a “don’ts file.” It’s a folder on my computer that contains digital photos of construction detail failures and poor construction detail executions. All of these things that I write about in this post would belong in there, if photographing them were a possibility… 

Instead of just blowing off steam about bad project management things I’ve seen, I’m trying to be constructive here, and give advice.

When you’re the architecture firm’s Project Manager on a project, don’t make your consultants beg for sets of as-issued bid documents or permit documents or progress sets. Especially if you’re not actually sending hard copies, and are only issuing PDFs, issue them to your team right away. Issue complete sets of exactly what was issued to the Owner or Bidders. Your team needs them for coordination and reference.

When you’re the Project Manager, don’t assume that everyone else will review those documents after you give them to them, and will fix any problems and do all the required coordination among themselves without being prompted or without even saying anything to you. YOUR job is to COORDINATE the work of all the rest of the team. YOU are the point person that all communication among all other team members is supposed to flow through. AIA documents indicate this1, and even the International Building Code requires this2. I, personally, as the specifications consultant, always review the set after it’s been issued, to see what coordination items I need to be involved in, but not all your consultants will always do this. YOU need to review their documents and make sure the work of everyone is coordinated.

When the Owner has a technical guide, or a design and construction standards document, that the design team is supposed to follow, don’t assume that the spec writer is the only person who is supposed to be familiar with the information in that document. More than almost anyone else, the Project Manager needs to be familiar with the Owner’s guide document. Everyone on the team needs to refer to the Owner’s guide, just as everyone on the team needs to refer to the governing codes, before getting very far on any part of the project.

I know, I know, I’m always writing about how great product reps are, and how they’re the people with the most technical knowledge about their products, but you’re the person with the most knowledge about YOUR PROJECT. So, when you’re working with a product rep, and the product rep writes a spec section for you, don’t just pass it on to your spec writer without reviewing it first. Your product rep may have written that spec section with your project in mind, in which case you would just have to review it to make sure it’s meshing with your design intent and your drawings.  But your product rep might NOT have written it with your project in mind… in which case you need to talk to the rep before your spec writer gets into that section and asks you a bunch of questions such as “Did you change the design of … since the last issue?” “Does our project still have … in it or did you get rid of that?” “Did you give the product rep my spec section from the last issue when you sent him your drawings, or did he start the spec section from scratch, without knowing any of the answers to the questions I already asked you?”

If the Owner adds scope to your project, don’t try to fit it all in to the old schedule – get a schedule extension, or don’t add the new scope. If the Owner adds scope to your project AFTER THE PROJECT HAS ALREADY GONE OUT TO BID, get an extension for the bidders, as well as for yourself.

During the last week before construction documents go out to bid, don’t come up with new products to add to the project at the last minute, and try to sell the Owner on these new things, and get the design team working on incorporating them into the documents, only to have the Owner finally, definitively, say that, no, they really don’t want it in their project. Because now you’ve wasted all your precious document coordination time on adding something new, just to delete it right before issuing…

Don’t just forward every email to your team without reading the emails first and deciding whether 1. they’re correct, 2. they’re applicable, 3. the people you’re sending them to need them.

Don’t assume that just because the Owner is providing and issuing the Procurement and Contracting Requirements, including the General Conditions, nobody else needs to see them or to know what they are. Your spec writer needs them in order to properly prepare Division 01, and you ought to be interested in them, too… They spell out an awful lot of your responsibilities, and the General Conditions of the Contract for Construction are usually part of YOUR firm’s contract, too, since they’re usually incorporated into YOUR agreement with the Owner, by reference.

When you’re the Project Manager, don’t assume that your boss coordinated all the agreements between you and all your consultants, and made sure that between your team and the Owner’s direct consultants, everything that needs to be covered is covered. It might not be, and you’re the person most likely to identify the gaps. Ask your boss for copies of all your firm’s agreements with consultants, and with the Owner, so you know what everyone’s supposed to be doing. And, if the Owner has separate consultants doing part of the design work, or separate contractors doing part of the construction work, don’t assume that the Owner is properly coordinating everything that needs to be coordinated. Unless there’s a Construction-Manager-as-Advisor involved, the Owner probably ISN’T properly coordinating everything.

Sometimes your spec writer might sound bossy when making suggestions. To some people (or from some people) these suggestions might sound like orders. They’re not. You’re in charge. Your spec writer is just another consultant, even if the spec writer is an architect, too. Don’t think that just because the spec writer is giving you professional opinions about what you may want to do in certain situations, that we’re trying to manage your projects for you. We’re not. It’s just that we see more projects than you do, and we look at your drawings in a different way than you do. You should listen to your spec writer, but don’t forget, you’re the manager of your consultants (within the scope of our agreements, that is).

And no, I didn’t make any of this up.

We all have to start somewhere, and we all make mistakes. But architecture firms need to provide better mentoring for project managers.


  1. The AIA C401 Standard Form of Agreement between Architect and Consultant says “Except as authorized by the Architect, all communications between the Consultant and the Owner, Contractor or other consultants for the Project shall be forwarded through the Architect.  The Architect shall be the administrator of the professional services for the Project, and shall facilitate the exchange of information among the Owner, Consultant and other consultants as necessary for the coordination of This Portion of the Project.”  The AIA B201 Standard Form of Architect’s Services says “The Architect shall coordinate its services with those services provided by the Owner and the Owner’s consultants.”  The AIA A201 General Conditions of the Contract for Construction says “…the Owner and Contractor shall endeavor to communicate with each other through the Architect about matters arising out of or relating to the Contract. Communications by and with the Architect’s consultants shall be through the Architect.”
  2. The International Building Code 2009, in Chapter One, Section 107.3.4 says “the building official shall be authorized to require the owner to engage and designate on the building permit application a registered design professional who shall act as the registered design professional in responsible charge. If the circumstances require, the owner shall designate a substitute registered design professional in responsible charge who shall perform the duties required of the original registered design professional in responsible charge. The building official shall be notified in writing by the owner if the registered design professional in responsible charge is changed or is unable to continue to perform the duties. The registered design professional in responsible charge shall be responsible for reviewing and coordinating submittal documents prepared by others, including phased and deferred submittal items, for compatibility with the design of the building.”  That registered “design professional in responsible charge” is someone from YOUR OFFICE.  Maybe even you.  Your office is supposed to review and coordinate the documents of everyone on the team before submitting to the building department.

In Architecture, Your Beginner’s Mind is Only for the Beginning

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki   

Shunryu Suzuki taught his American followers that the proper attitude for the practice of Zen Buddhism is to “always keep your beginner’s mind.”  This is a wonderful approach to life, and it is a great approach for the early phases of design.  However, this is a horrible approach for the practice of architecture during the Construction Documents phase.

An open mind, a “beginner’s mind,” is almost always appropriate when you’re coming up with general solutions to a design puzzle, but by the time you get to the Construction Documents phase, you need to be thinking like an expert.  If you aren’t an expert, you need to get one.  You need a technically-minded person on your team, and you need to listen to what that technically-minded person tells you, even though what this expert says will probably limit your possibilities

Unless you have an Owner who has given you explicit instructions to get innovative with details and assemblies, and who has a big budget for design and a big budget for construction, you need to be using details and assemblies that have been proven and tested.  Unless the Owner has explicitly instructed you to do innovative detailing, and to design custom assemblies, you need to be using standard assemblies, and manufacturers’ recommended detailing.  If you must innovate even though you have not been given instruction to do so by your client, make sure you’ve wrapped up your imaginative thinking by the time Construction Documents phase starts, or your firm and your client may develop project budget problems. 

Get innovative with WHERE you put your windows, during Schematic Design.  Don’t get innovative with HOW YOU FLASH your windows – they might leak.  Get innovative with LOCATING your big skylight, during Schematic Design.  Don’t design a skylight assembly from scratch during Construction Documents – there are manufacturer-designed assemblies that will produce the same desired results, the same feeling for the users of the space.  Get innovative with the APPEARANCE of your roofs, but DO NOT get creative with how you detail the transitions from roof to wall.

Don’t detail one manufacturer’s glazing product to be framed by another manufacturer’s framing product if doing that will void the warranties.  Don’t detail construction products in uses for which they were not designed – more often than not, that will void the warranties.  

You can’t just make up construction details.  You just can’t (unless this is what the Owner is expecting, AND your fees will allow you to spend the time to research constructability, durability, transitions to other materials etc. – in other words, your fees will allow you to fully design innovative assemblies.)

If you are inappropriately “creative” during the Construction Documents phase, you are likely to end up drawing building elements that will either be 1) unbuildable, 2) unwarrantable, or 3) very, very expensive, since the Contractor will have to hire his own design professional to design a warrantable, buildable assembly to look like what you schematically designed during Construction Documents phase.

On many medium-construction-budget projects over the years, I have seen the architect’s favorite design element, the thing the firm spent lots of time working on, cut from the project because it was too expensive, or because it wasn’t detailed in a way that anyone could build it.  The time spent designing that “signature element” should have been spent on other things – the things the Owner was expecting it to be spent on – verification of compliance with building codes, development of construction details for the rest of the building, coordination between the architectural and engineering disciplines, coordination between the drawings and the specifications.

Many architects were taught in school to “push the limits” of design.  Many architects today think they’re not doing their jobs right unless they constantly try to “innovate.”  Sometimes, this is not what an Owner wants.  Please provide the service that your client wants.  If an Owner has a small budget for design and construction, do not waste your time trying to convince them to accept innovative detailing and custom assemblies, unless you can actually afford to fully design these assemblies within the fee the Owner is paying you, and the Owner can actually afford to pay for them to be constructed.

There are infinite good design possibilities using standard assemblies and standard products.  Standard assemblies, and well-detailed transitions, are more likely to stand the test of time.  Keep your “beginner’s mind“ in the early design phases, but operate like an expert during the Construction Documents phase.  Even though it may feel as if it limits your possibilities, it’s the right way to work.

On Collaboration

“Collaboration” means different things to different people.

To me, it doesn’t mean attending meetings with lots of people and talking about lots of things.

I’m a visual person (even though I’m a spec writer, I’m an architect, remember?) so when I think about collaborating, I have an image in my mind.  I visualize 2 pieces of some kind of construction membrane butting together perfectly, or overlapping firmly, or trying to butt together but gapping at the seam… It depends on how my attempted collaboration is going…

In words, I think about construction project team collaboration kind of like this:

If everyone on a project team gives 101%, if everyone does his own job as thoroughly and as best as he can (accounting for the 100%), PLUS goes an extra 1% (tries to anticipate and be proactive about locations where gaps between the work of team members might occur, and tries to overlap a tiny bit) we’ll get to 100% (our best work as a team) on the project.

Nobody’s perfect – even when we shoot for 100% perfect, we fall short somewhere.  That’s why teams work well – on a good team, someone else will notice something that we forgot or didn’t even know about – WHEN  everyone’s pulling his own weight, and aiming for 101%.  If everyone on the team shoots for 99%, we’re totally screwed.

In a building, the places which are the most vulnerable to failures (such as moisture intrusion or structural cracking) are at the transitions between different materials.  We in the construction industry know this really, really well.  Likewise, on a project team, the areas of work most vulnerable to being overlooked, uncoordinated, or messed up, are the areas where the work of different team members is supposed to overlap.  If everyone tries only to get his own work covered, but doesn’t try to make sure that the transition from his work to his teammate’s work is meshing properly, we get gaps, rips, splits, failures in our product (the construction documents for a project, or a smooth construction process for a project). 

The difference between an uncoordinated set of construction documents and a coordinated set of construction documents may be that one short question or comment that you think you don’t have time to mention.  Ask it, mention it.  That little extra comment to another team member may end up being like a little extra bit that a roof membrane was supposed to overlap the adjacent roof membrane… but didn’t, causing an expensive roof failure.  (This is just a metaphor…  No actual roofs were harmed in the creation of this blog post.)

This post was inspired by an interesting article by Susan Cain published in the New York Times.     The Rise of the New Groupthink

 “… it’s one thing to associate with a group in which each member works autonomously on his piece of the puzzle; it’s another to be corralled into endless meetings or conference calls… “ – Susan Cain


I can’t even count how many times people have told me about construction projects gone wrong.  Most of the projects I hear about are small commercial or residential projects that involved finishes only, and didn’t need permits, so didn’t have good construction documents.

Every time the storyteller is finished, I say, “THIS is why we do DRAWINGS” or “THIS is why we write SPECS!” 

It’s good to hear these stories; it’s always efficient to learn from others’ mistakes.  But I hate seeing the frustration on people’s faces, and hearing the anger in their voices, especially since most of these situations could have been prevented by issuing better construction documents.

The other day, while on vacation in a warm place, I sat by a pool supervising my 6-year-old.  I overheard a woman telling 2 of her friends about a project in her home – a tile job that the installer had botched.  The 3 types of tile that the homeowner had supplied were intended to be installed in horizontal bands – a band of one color at the bottom of the wall, with a band of the second color above that, capped by a band of the third color.

The homeowner left home for a while after the installer began work, and she came back to find the project nearly completed, and totally wrong.  The tile had been installed in vertical stripes instead of horizontal bands.

She was so indignant as she told her story.  I was marveling about how an installer could have screwed up so badly; I was thinking that he must have completely ignored the drawings.  One of her friends said, “Well, maybe you didn’t get it in writing.”  She assured them that she HAD gotten it in writing… and it slowly dawned on me that the intended tile pattern was described in WRITING, and not shown in a DRAWING.  The situation was totally different than I’d initially assumed; the homeowner had communicated the design intent to the installer in a completely inappropriate way.  And I started feeling really sorry for the installer who was the victim of a totally preventable miscommunication, and as a result, probably lost money on the job. 

The written word can be interpreted in so many ways when it comes to things like tile patterns!  THIS is why we do DRAWINGS.

Properly-annotated construction drawings have been proven to be the most effective way to communicate the desired results for the appearance of visually important components of a construction project.  Written descriptions alone, or worse, verbal descriptions alone, of the desired results for a project (no matter how small) are ineffective.  Drawings alone, without proper notes, are not as effective as they could be.

People interpret different types of communication in different ways.  For the purpose of construction, verbal communications leave WAY TOO MUCH room for many different interpretations.  Written communications alone leave too much open to different people’s interpretations.  Drawings and other images are pretty good at communicating the desired results.  But a combination of properly-annotated drawings, project specifications, and project procurement and contracting requirements, is the best way to demonstrate the expectations for construction.

So how do you, as a design professional, know what properly-annotated drawings or good project specifications for your project are?

As you gain more insight into the different ways your documents may be interpreted by the people bidding, estimating, or constructing your project, you will gain a better understanding of how to properly prepare these documents.

There’s SO MUCH to learn – all of us in the construction industry are constantly learning (or should be).  Much of this knowledge can ONLY be gained through experience, but not all of it has to be.  A really good way to learn about how your documents may be interpreted by the users is to prepare for a CSI certification exam, starting with the CDT (Construction Documents Technologist) exam.

The more you know, the more you can learn; once you have built up a good foundation of knowledge and understanding, you will find that you can learn FASTER and you can learn MORE than you could before.  If you have a little bit of experience working in an architecture firm, you can study for and pass the CDT exam.  Preparing for and passing the CDT exam can be a shortcut in building this foundation of knowledge and understanding.  You may already have a good foundation, built up from your years of experience.  Take the CDT exam and supplement your experience; at the very least, it’ll be a good review, and there’s a chance that you may find out you have some gaps in your knowledge base. 

When I took the CDT exam, I discovered gaps in my knowledge base – and filled them in!  I also realized that not all those lessons learned the painful way, through experience, had to be learned that way… I wish I’d taken the CDT exam earlier than I did.

If you’re already a CDT, take an Advanced Certification exam (Certified Construction Contract Administrator, Certified Construction Specifier, or Certified Construction Product Representative).  It’ll be a good review at the very least.  Or, it could turn out to be a refresher for you; you may have been doing things a certain way for years, and maybe some things have changed in the way people are interpreting your documents!

Even when documents for a project are good, I still hear construction-gone-wrong stories.  No construction project is perfect, but when the documents are clear, concise, correct, and complete, all members of the project team (Owner, Design Team, Contractor) have the opportunity to determine what’s expected, and therefore, an opportunity to do their best work.  CSI’s certification exams can help you be a part of the group working on IMPROVING construction communications, and reducing the number of those silly construction-gone-bad stories people are always telling me.

General CSI Certification Information:

Registration link:

  • Exams will be offered April 2 – April 28, 2012, in the U.S. & Canada.
  • Early registration deadline: February 2, 2012
  • Final registration deadline: March 2, 2012 

CDT Information

General information about the CDT exam:

  • Cost Before Feb. 2: $235 (member) $370 (non-member)
  • Cost after Feb. 2: $295 (member) $430 (non-member)
  • Cost for qualified students: $105

The CDT exam is now based on the CSI Project Delivery Practice Guide:

Advanced Exam Information

Cost of an advanced exam:

  • Before Feb. 2:  $275 (member) $410 (non-member)
  • After Feb. 2: $340 (member) $475 (non-member)

CCS information:

CCCA information:

CCPR information:

  • This is the last year this exam will be based on the Project Resource Manual (

You don’t have to be a CSI member to register for an exam – I wasn’t! – but if you join first, you get the member discount!