“How Did You Get… So Far Behind?”

Sunday morning a few weeks ago, my family ran into some friends of ours, and we were chatting about what we were going to do for the rest of the beautiful day.  I said that I needed to squeeze about 3 weeks worth of work into the rest of the day.  (I was exaggerating, but not by much.)  My friend paused, then responded with a perfectly reasonable response, “How did you get… so far behind?”

That’s truly not how I saw my situation.  My perspective was that the reason I had so much work to do was because I hadn’t received, in a timely manner, the information that I needed to do my work.  I had unanswered questions out there.  Yes, there was some work I could have been doing, but I have a (totally rational) distaste for taking the risk of having to completely redo something.

Our work as design professionals does not follow a linear path.  I know that the work of my accountant friend who asked the question isn’t completely linear either; he also relies on input from others to complete his work.  But the bulk of the work that we do when preparing construction documents for a building is collaborative.  None of us can operate independently of other members of the team, and, remember, the Owner is part of this team.  The work of each of us involved in this process is integral to the work of the whole team.

We start with some basic info.  We begin our work in a somewhat linear manner.  We design or research things, we ask questions about products, building codes, existing conditions, the work of other team members.  Sometimes one question brings not just one answer, but an answer and a whole host of other questions.  We need to get these answered before we can move on.  We get these answered; these questions bring up more questions.  We build on the design work of other team members, after we put all our work together at design documentation milestones.  Sometimes we have to take a step backwards, if someone went a little too far ahead.  We build (or revise) on the input of the Owner.

I have found that, sometimes, Owners provide information without realizing what they’re providing.  Sometimes Owners do not respond to questions from the architect in a timely manner.  Owners sometimes seem to want us to “finish” before they review things.  This is a really bad idea if we are not actually to have free rein in this design process.  Owners need to realize that we proceed with the information they give us, and if they don’t actually want the stuff they’re giving us information on, they shouldn’t give us that information.  I know this sounds ridiculous, and obvious, but it needs to be said.

None of us knows everything that is involved in the work of others.  Owners seem not to understand how much work and time is spent developing a design or a project specification based on specific instructions, and how many parts of a project every single other part profoundly affects.  When we, the design team, are instructed to change things or add things at the last minute, it’s never good.  The reason we have intermediate milestones is for everyone to review the work of others, and for the Owner to make sure that the direction is correct.

Every member of the team should carefully review documents that are issued at every milestone.  If the Owner doesn’t like something, the Owner needs to speak up immediately, instead of waiting until after the next milestone, when things have been further developed.

So Owners, please answer questions from the architect.  Please know what you want before you provide information to the design team.  Please understand what it is that you are asking for.

Owners, you may not realize your very important role on the team.  Design is a “garbage in, garbage out” sort of process.  Sure, I can write a good spec in a vacuum.  But a project specification that’s good in a vacuum isn’t necessarily good for your project.  When you get questions from the architect’s spec writer, answer them thoughtfully.

Owners, if you need to change things after they’ve already been developed, please change the design team’s schedule and fees as well as the scope of the work.  It’s only fair.  It will allow architects, engineers, and specifiers to produce better, more coordinated documents, and this is likely to save you time and money in the long run.

2 thoughts on ““How Did You Get… So Far Behind?”

  1. Liz,

    Oh, how well this post applies to my workload and worklife at the moment! Everything is urgent, and of course lean in terms of budget.

    Regarding your remarks on the nonlinear, collaborative work methods of the design professions I have in the past used the analogy of “building” the design and the design documentation. A building does not go up in the linear way either, but with a certain orderly progress; and times more visible or substantial, at other times less so. But certain things must be put in place prior to others.

    I have been thinking on this topic much more lately – and have come to the realization of how important the presentation of a project workplan is at the outset of a project. Architects should insist on the discussion of the workplan with the Owner – thus establishing expectations and responsibilities, and providing the opportunity to discuss the importance of timely and accurate decisions and data, and the impact of late changes, etc.

    Of course this would require architects to hold our own feet to the fire as well! – both in taking the time to establish a good workplan, and then to stick to it! This is also a great way to reduce the risk of our fees being chipped away with rework, backpedaling, and having to justify additional services requests.

    Thanks Liz for the post – Could have written it myself almost word for word!

    • Adam,
      The project workplan concept is great. We don’t really know what others’ expectations are of us, sometimes. An architect and an owner may think they’re on the same page, but may actually have pretty different expectations. (Same thing goes for an architect and a consultant.) Having a workplan would require the architect to explicitly spell things out for the owner – and the owner would have to agree. (If they realize they disagree, it would be a great catalyst for discussion.) Thanks for reading and commenting!

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