Work As If You Have the Job You Want

You’ve probably heard people suggest to job seekers, “Dress for the job you want.”  It’s good advice, but I’m not that into fashion, so I modify that advice to say:  “Work as if you have the job you want.”

I am lucky to actually have the job I want!  But I don’t always get the projects I want.  My clients are great – it’s their clients (the Owners on construction projects) that I sometimes wish were, well, a little more this… a little less that… 

But I keep working as if all the Owners actually were appreciative of my efforts to do my best, and were aware of the ways my work can benefit them. 

One of my goals for my future is to work only on projects with Owners who are aware enough to appreciate my conscientiousness and thoroughness.  For now though, on a lot of my projects, I’m just practicing.  I’m doing my best on all my projects, whether it’s appreciated by the Owners or not.

As we’ve all heard “…perfect practice makes perfect.”  (This is how I remember that great Vince Lombardi quote, because this important fragment is all that I ever heard from Mr. Roberson, my guitar teacher when I was 8.)  The full quote is: “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” 

I believe that you cannot be prepared for the work you want to be doing unless you always work as hard as your dream job will require you to work.

Specs – “Letters” to Subcontractors?

My work, writing architectural specifications for construction projects, feels a bit like writing letters to subcontractors.  The architect and the general contractor sometimes seem like the couriers who pass these letters along. 

I’m oversimplifying things here; there’s so much other work that goes into the project management of a construction project on the part of the architect and the general contractor.  They are so much more than messengers, and even with specs, they need to be so much more than messengers.  But the specs are something that are best understood by the sub or vendor on the contractor side, and by the spec writer on the design team side.  We’re specialists in our fields.  (Something that highlights this fact is that a bad spec section can look just fine to almost everyone on the project team [owner, architect, general contractor], but a sub and a spec writer know an incomplete or incorrect spec when they look carefully.)

Because the writer of the specs naturally knows the specs better than the architect and general contractor do, sometimes part of my job is to act as translator between architect and general contractor.  That’s fine – I expect to do that.  But once in a while, I act as translator between general contractor and subcontractor.  And that’s a little weird

I wouldn’t be writing about this if it had only happened once, or if it had only happened with one contractor.  It’s happened to me with several general contractors.

The architect and the spec writer shouldn’t have to put their heads together to figure out what the general contractor is trying to communicate to the architect.  We shouldn’t have to trace back through an email chain to find out the source of the GC’s question.  We shouldn’t have to go back to the source (the sub’s email to the GC) to be able to figure out that the GC isn’t understanding something about his sub’s question, but he’s passing on the question to the architect, anyway.

General contractors shouldn’t just pass along questions from their subs to the architect – they should try to answer them first.  And architects shouldn’t just pass along questions from their consultants to the owner, they should try to answer them first.  And architects shouldn’t just pass on info from one source to their consultants without verifying it first.

And the main point of all of this is that architects and general contractors need to read the specs, and not just act like the couriers who deliver the specs to the subs.  The specs are not just for the subcontractors!

Construction Documentation Reminders from Children’s Literature

“What I mean and what I say is two different things,” the BFG announced rather grandly. 

“Meanings is not important,” said the BFG.  “I cannot be right all the time.  Quite often I is left instead of right.”

I’m reading The BFG with my 7-year-old.  It’s a 1982 children’s book by Roald Dahl.  (To give you a frame of reference, in case Dahl wasn’t one of your favorite authors when you were a kid, Roald Dahl also wrote the 1964 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.) 

The BFG (the Big Friendly Giant) is a nice vegetarian giant, who tries to communicate clearly, but frequently mixes up his words.  He knows that language is not his strong point, but he thinks that’s just fine.

The book is charming and funny, especially when you read it with a child who has nearly perfect grammer, understands that the BFG’s way of speaking isn’t grammatically correct, and finds it hilarious.  We laugh a lot when we read this book.

But some of the BFG’s pronouncements have uncomfortably reminded me of some people whose paths I’ve crossed in my professional life.

There was the electrical engineering consultant I worked with a long time ago, when I was practicing as an architect.  His drawings were a mess.  I told him his AutoCAD grid snap settings were turned off, so none of the 2 by 4 light fixtures in his ceiling plans were actually on the ceiling grids.  He proudly told me, about the snaps, “I don’t use ‘em.”  Aaarrrgghh! 

There was the owner’s project manager who, when I commented that a provision in the owner-generated general conditions didn’t match the rest of the documents, said “This is illegal verbiage; I would not worry about it.”  (The owner had no intention of clarifying this provision in our documents, and had no intention of correcting this “illegal verbiage” for future projects.)

There are owners and architects both, on CM/GC projects, who have had an awfully relaxed attitude towards documentation before and during construction, who have dismissively said things such as, “Oh, we talked about that with the contractor.  He knows what we want there.”  They didn’t intend to clarify our documents, and were therefore relying on the contractor to provide something based only on a discussion.

In all three of these examples above, the professionals knew that communications were not clear, and they were quite sure that that was just fine.  IT’S NOT OK!

Now, since this is the first time I’ve re-read The BFG since I was little, and we’re only halfway through, I don’t remember if the BFG’s communication shortcomings cause any mishaps.  I am sure the giant’s miscommunications do not cause any change orders, lawsuits, or unhappy clients.

On the other hand, unclear and incomplete construction documents can cause misery for owners, architects, and contractors.  They often lead to change orders, and they can lead to lawsuits, and unhappy clients.

CSI (The Construction Specifications Institute) always reminds us that our contract documents must be clear, concise, complete, and correct.  If you can’t accomplish that yourself, the right thing to do is to hire someone who can accomplish it for you.  Owners, you should have qualified people prepare (and regularly update) your procurement and contracting requirements.  If you are a public entity, you absolutely owe that to the taxpayers.  Design professionals, if you haven’t mastered new must-have technologies, you should hire, or outsource to, people who have.  Owners and design professionals, you should properly staff projects so that the required documentation gets done in a timely manner to prevent misunderstandings.  (Design professionals – this needs to be a factor when you negotiate your fees.) 

Contracts are based on what’s written and drawn.  They are not based on what we meant to write or draw.

“I know exactly what words I am wanting to say, but somehow or other they is always getting squiff-squiddled around.”  (The BFG)

We can do better.

Adapt or… What?

For years, it’s been said (mostly in whispers) that Architecture is a dying profession.

One of the reasons for this dismal outlook is that many of the building products and systems that we are incorporating into our buildings today are pretty complicated, and require quite a bit of project-specific design work by their manufacturers.

As Michael Chusid’s important blog post today said:

“Instead of building with raw or semi-finished materials, we assemble buildings from components that are shop fabricated and finished. Master builders with a personal knowledge of all building materials and methods are an endangered species; designers and builders must now rely on manufacturers’ product data sheets, shop drawings, installation instructions, field training and supervision, and off-site fabrication. Many building products require such specialized experience or knowledge that they can only be detailed or installed by the manufacturer. The building product industry today is more than just a material supplier; it plays an integral role in detailing, engineering, and constructing systems, sub-assemblies, and entire buildings.”

Some buildings end up with a large percentage of components that were designed by the product and system manufacturers, instead of the architect.  Entities who are part of the contractor team – subcontractors, vendors, manufacturers, and installers – sometimes do so much of the design for specific elements that some people wonder why the architect was engaged in the first place.  They may wonder if the architect’s function is just to produce a schematic design.  They may ask, “Well, couldn’t some hotshot fashion designer / interior designer / artist do that just as well?”  No.

The role of the architect has NEVER just been to produce a schematic design.  Aside from schematic design, what we architects have always done is to design how all the different components of a building go together.  What we do, what we need to do, what we are more qualified to do than anyone else, is design the transitions from one material to another.  We select the systems and the products, which are often detailed by the manufacturer.  But then WE, the architects, design the way these things go together.  This, we cannot delegate.  This, general contractors are not particularly well suited to do.  This is the work that architects will always need to do, no matter how much project-specific design manufacturers do.

Remember, our primary job as architects is to interpret the owner’s wishes for the building, and communicate those wishes to the contractor, to get the building built.  We are the people who need to communicate to the contractor how he is supposed to get the subcontractors to build the building.  The general contractor needs to coordinate all the different installers, but we, the architects, need to draw, and specify, how all the different manufacturers’ standard pieces go together to make a building.  Every building is different.  Every manufacturer has standard details and standard specifications for their products, and the architect is the person who needs to take those standard details and specifications, and, working with the manufacturer, properly adapt them to the specific project, and then produce those adaptations as part of the project drawings and specifications.  This is pretty much how it’s always been – it’s just more complicated today.

As those systems and products have gotten more complicated, so have the transitions between all those systems and products.  The transitions between different materials and products have always been the most vulnerable parts of buildings.  No one manufacturer, and no general contractor, and certainly no installer in the field, should be designing the transition from one manufacturer’s product to another manufacturer’s product.  (I’ve seen what happens when the installer solves an unaddressed transition issue in the field.  This is the LAST thing we want.  Fellow architects, design those transitions, please!)

We need to be familiar with the products and systems we are drawing and specifying, but we need to remember that the product reps and manufacturers will ALWAYS know more about their products than we will.  They know more about their products than architects, specifiers, contractors, and owners ever can.  Except when drawing and specifying simple, straightforward products, it’s always a good idea to talk to product reps about your project.  For systems (elements such as curtainwall, exterior metal panel rainscreens, or roofs) it’s even more important to talk to the reps for all the manufacturers that you are incorporating into the documents.

In this time of increasingly complicated building products and systems, architects need to be spending a little less time copying manufacturers’ standard details, and a LOT more time figuring out and detailing those pesky transitions between all these complicated products and systems!

The profession of Architecture should not be dying.  Architects need to continue to be the leaders in the design and construction process (great phrase – thanks, Michael Chusid).  Trained and licensed architects are important to the look, feel, safety, durability, and function of our built environment.  Architects are essential to ensuring that owners get a good value for their construction dollars; architects help keep contractors honest.  But, as Michael Chusid wrote:

“A better understanding of the organization, activities, and concerns of the building product industry would enable architects to design with and specify building materials more astutely and effectively, and would strengthen their ability to lead the design and construction process.”

This is today’s world of architecture and construction.  Architects must recognize the important role that product reps play in the construction process.  Architects must realize that the role of product reps does not threaten the role of architects, but complements it.  Together, we can improve our built environment.  Architects must step up and meet the challenge of more complicated products and systems.  Architects must adapt or… what?

This is the link to today’s important post from Michael Chusid, of Chusid Associates: