Why Does My Spec Writer Ask So Many Annoying Questions?

Many full-time specifiers were project architects at some point. We’ve been in your shoes. We are thinking about ourselves in your future shoes, a few months from now, during construction. That’s why we ask you all these questions during the Construction Documents phase.

How do spec writers keep all these questions in their heads?

Well, they’re not always bouncing around in our heads. When we use our master spec sections to prepare project specification sections, we get prompted to think about many little details of construction, spanning a range from bidding to layout, rough construction, finished construction, to warranties and life cycle maintenance. We also think about sequencing, and how things will all get put together, a little more than some other members of the design team do.

But I still have design work, and other stuff to do right now, during CDs. Why do I have to think about these questions now? Why can’t we just address these things in the field?

The process of writing a spec section, much like the process of drawing a construction detail, is part of the process of design. Your spec writer is a design professional, just as your consulting engineers are.

Sometimes spec writers think a little bit like estimators – when we look at product data and specification masters, we consider different product options and selections that need to be made. That’s one reason we ask the project architect questions. We don’t want you to have to make these selections during the submittals part of construction. We want to specify it now. Why? It’s not because we’re control freaks, and it’s not that we’re so concerned about your work load during construction contract administration (although some of us might be control freaks, and I personally am concerned about my architect-clients’ work load during construction). We want to spec these things now because now, during CDs, is the right time.

Some product options are standard and others cost more. We’d rather specify the color you want, now, before the contract is signed, so that there won’t be extra costs in the form of change orders for silly things like colors that are more expensive than the color group the contractor was expecting (and priced).

Sometimes we think like installers or subcontractors. We might ask questions about whether the owner wants vinyl tiles to be under the casework, or to butt to the casework. This is something that might be in spec sections for casework and for vinyl tile. Someone needs to make the owner’s expectations explicitly clear to the contractor. The owner might not care. But the owner might care – the project architect should ask the owner.

Things that ought to be addressed during CDs, and aren’t, often end up costing the owner more money, end up costing the architect more time (and therefore burning through more fee and therefore reducing the firm’s profit) and end up causing the general contractor more stress, because of having to obtain a price on documents that aren’t really complete, and having to then address (argue about) discrepancies between what was actually desired (but not specified clearly) and what was priced (based on fair assumptions).

SOMEBODY HAS TO ADDRESS THESE ISSUES. The most qualified person, and the person who might actually be legally obligated, to address these issues, is the architect. The contractor often ends up making these decisions, and it’s not always the way the owner or the architect would have liked it – it’s better to explain how you’d like it, so the contractor knows, instead of letting him do it however he decides, and then asking for it to be redone later. Redoing things costs the owner extra money.

THE ISSUES HAVE TO BE ADDRESSED AT SOME POINT. They will not just go away. The time to address these things is during construction documents phase, when everything can be considered together before it’s too late. (Before it’s too late to make necessary changes to other things in order to get everything to turn out the way you envision. Nothing in design and construction can be considered in a vacuum. Everything affects, and is affected by, other things.) Try to address everything now, and you’ll have fewer surprises during construction.

Your spec writer is thinking about these relationships between building elements right now, and has taken the time to ask you the questions, and wants to write the specs in such a way that your intent can be achieved during construction.

Take the time now, read your spec writer’s provoking emails now, think through everything now, ask your spec writer questions now, and get all those design decisions made now, so that you’re not scrambling later, under the gun, in the field, during construction.

This is what the sophisticated owner expects.

Today’s Webinar on Submittals

This afternoon I attended a great CSI Practice Group webinar. You don’t have to be a CSI member to be part of the Practice Groups. There are practice groups with free webinars for BIM, sustainability, specifying, product representation, and construction contract administration. For info on CSI Practice Groups: http://www.csinet.org/Main-Menu-Category/Communities-2109-14280/Practice-Group

Today’s Specifying Practice Group topic, presented by Dave Stutzman and Louis Medcalf, was “Submittals.” There’s one little tangent from the presentation that I want to elaborate on here:

On a recent project of mine, the lack of a submittal for the contractor’s proposed solution to an unexpected situation caused a problem. The contractor didn’t think that a submittal was required by the contract documents, and the architect didn’t realize that a submittal was required by the contract documents. The contractor could have saved himself some money and time, and could have saved the architect and the owner some time, if the contractor had just prepared a submittal for the architect’s review before proceeding with the work. (Oh, yes, some freshly-installed flooring underlayment had to be removed before the project could proceed. THAT was a waste of time and money.)

If something is added to a project, because of an unforeseen condition, everyone (architect, owner, contractor) often acts as if it’s the first time this sort of thing has ever happened. It’s not. Unexpected things happen all the time on construction projects, and that’s why we have standard processes to deal with them.

Anything that wasn’t originally in the project, but is part of the project now, is in the contract as the result of either a change order or a minor change to the contract. Whether it’s a moisture mitigation treatment for an existing slab, or a whole new roof assembly, whether it was initiated by an owner as a late addition to a project, or it was initiated by the contractor as a solution to an unexpected condition, or initiated as a substitution request because of a sudden product unavailability, it ends up in the contract as the direct result of a change order or a minor change (such as the type authorized by an ASI, Architect’s Supplemental Instructions). Even when the change results in no added cost to the owner, and even when its purpose is solely to repair a mistake made by the contractor, it’s a change, and it should be documented (and submitted on).

Architects and specifiers can make sure that the contract documents require submittals for things that weren’t originally in the project. Requiring submittals for items added to the project during construction is a good idea. In fact, requiring submittals for items added to the project during construction may be even more important than requiring submittals for things that were originally part of the design, since the new element wasn’t originally thought through along with the rest of the design. The contractor’s preparation of the submittal, and the architect’s review of the submittal, act as a double-check mechanism to help make sure that the added item will be appropriate.

If the architect is creating a new spec section as part of an ASI or Proposal Request, the architect should include in the specs a requirement for submittals – just as the spec sections in the original documents did. If the architect is modifying a spec section as part of an ASI or a Proposal Request, the spec section probably already calls for submittals. The architect needs to dictate those submittal requirements in the documents issued during construction.

Then, the architect just needs to make sure that the contractor provides the submittal required by the contract documents; the architect then just needs to enforce the contract documents.

We have typical processes that state submittal requirements for Substitution Requests and for contractor-generated Change Order Proposals. So the architect doesn’t need to reinvent a process; the architect just needs to enforce the contract documents.

If there’s a substitution request generated by the Contractor, the Division 01 spec section “Substitution Procedures” can include language that requires product data and samples to be submitted as part of the substitution request. MasterSpec’s master language already does this very well.

Contractor-initiated Change Order Proposals that are the result of unexpected site conditions are addressed in the Division 01 spec section “Contract Modification Procedures.” The MasterSpec version of this section includes some language for this, but more specific language could be added by the specifier.

When unforeseen site conditions pop up, people often panic, and rush through things, trying to find a solution quickly, to stay on schedule. Just remember – there are probably already processes for these situations in your contract documents, in Division 01 of the specifications. Do not ignore them. This is the worst time to throw out the rules.  Your schedule may suffer even more if you ignore submittal requirements. If the requirements for typical submittal info get written into the “rules” (Division 01) and are in there BEFORE unforeseen situations come up (before the contract is signed), it’s easier for the architect to enforce the submittal requirements. It can be difficult to extract a submittal from a contractor after a substitution request or a change order proposal has already been submitted and informally approved.


The Fervor of a Convert (part two)

People who have read Part One of this post know that although I often write about technical competence for architects, I have not always been technically competent myself.  So, why wasn’t I technically-minded earlier in my life?  And, if this technical stuff is so important, why don’t architects learn it all in school?    

In the family I grew up in, education has been held in very high regard for generations.1  When formal education is so revered, it is offered up as the answer to everything; the other side of that is that someone’s lack of formal education is seen as something to pity, even when knowledge and expertise in one’s field have been gained through practical experience.     

A recent column by Robert Samuelson2 discusses the college education issue.  Here’s an excerpt:

“The fixation on college-going, justified in the early postwar decades, stigmatizes those who don’t go to college and minimizes their needs for more vocational skills.” – Robert Samuelson 

In my opinion, in the field of architecture, not only does this college fixation stigmatize those who don’t obtain a college degree, it also falsely inflates the importance of the university degree in architecture, and it deemphasizes the importance of the things that aren’t taught in college.  Many people overvalue the degree and seem to undervalue the practical work experience in architecture.  NCARB overvalues the BArch and MArch.  Most states overvalue the BArch and MArch.  Many employers overvalue the BArch and the MArch. 

Although in most states a professional degree (BArch or MArch) is mandatory for licensure, I believe that those states should reevaluate this requirement.Yes, most people who have been through the rigors of semester-after-semester of design studio will be better designers than most who haven’t, but schematic design is such a small part of the actual practice of architecture.  Not every licensed architect will need to do schematic design.  But every licensed architect is required to be technically competent.

During one of my summer internships, I didn’t get along very well with a co-worker – our personalities clashed.  One day this co-worker said something important, and I responded with a retort that I now recognize was terribly wrong.  He said that I should have been learning more about drafting and construction detailing in architecture school.  My response was that I wasn’t going to a vocational school – I was going to a university

In my mind, not only was there a disconnect between the dirty work of building buildings and the work of designing buildings, there was also a disconnect between the technical work of drawing construction details and the work of designing buildings.  Looking back, I suspect that this misconception of mine stemmed from the combination of these 3 things: one, the knowledge that I was on the right track to a career in architecture by pursuing a university degree, two, the feeling that since this technical stuff wasn’t emphasized much at my school it must not be that important, and three, the utterly misguided confidence of a 21-year-old that since I wasn’t very good at the technical stuff, it must not be crucial.

So, if this technical stuff is so important, why don’t schools teach very much of it?

I certainly was taught some things about building technology in school.  One very relevant class that I remember was in first semester sophomore year; I was pretty lost when we covered wood framing.  I was 18, and I had already known for about 7 years that I wanted to be an architect, but apparently I hadn’t realized that designing wood framing was the sort of thing architects did

We did our thesis projects in the first semester of fifth year, and second semester we fleshed out the construction details of those design projects.  I fumbled through my wall section, probably just using Architectural Graphic Standards to guide me, and possibly not listening very well to my professors…    

Those 2 classes may have been the only classes in my program that officially addressed building technology.  I do not remember building technology being taught or emphasized in any other classes.  (Even my 4 semesters of structures didn’t really address building technology.)

Here’s why: It would be impossible for university programs to teach all the technical information that architects need to learn.  On the one hand, the schedule is full.  School is a great place to learn how to design, and to study architectural history and theory – things that we wouldn’t have the opportunity to learn on the job.  And on the other hand, there’s too much technical stuff to know, and it changes frequently.  Every building is different.  Each region of the country has different requirements.  Firms specialize in different areas of practice.  The best place for architects to learn technical things is on the job.  As I mentioned in Part One of this post, when it comes to the legal obligations of an architect, the technical things are essential, but the subjects we focus on in school aren’t.  This causes some people to suggest that architecture programs shouldn’t be in universities at all.4

Although schools cannot teach students all the technical things they need to know, schools can do a better job of preparing students to be able to learn technical things later.

Most architecture grads understand that a degree in architecture is not the end of their learning.  I did grasp that while I was in college, but I didn’t realize that it was truly only the beginning of my learning.  Schools should emphasize that students’ time at the university is only the beginning of learning about practicing architecture.

Learning challenging things is hard, because people who are learning are always slightly out of their comfort zones.  It’s unsettling to be out of one’s comfort zone, and to be responsible for production in an architecture firm, at the same time.  It’s difficult, or maybe impossible, to learn things when one was not expecting to need to learn things.  Schools should emphasize that students should expect to be out of their comfort zones, and learning new things, for years to come.

Every professor in an architecture program should tell his or her students how the subject matter contributes to the knowledge foundation for the students’ future practice.  Every studio project final crit could end with a professor explaining that in real-world practice, schematic design phase may be only about 15 percent of a project, and that the architect would need to produce many very detailed technical drawings to create a set of construction documents that someone could actually build the studio projects from.  Some of those detailed technical drawings should be explored in school, as a follow-up to that studio project.  Schools should take every opportunity to explain to students that although they aren’t learning or doing many technical things now, they will need to learn them, and do them, later.

The mere combination of knowledge of how to schematically design, and mastery of the modeling or drafting software that one’s firm uses, does not make one an architect.  Software skills are just a tool, a starting point, that makes it possible for an intern to work at a firm; an intern has to be able to contribute something to the firm, usually production documents, in order to earn wages and be able to have the opportunity to learn from the firm.  Schools should emphasize that, although interns will be contributing team players at the firms at which they work, what they gain in knowledge from their experiences should end up being more valuable than their initial contributions to the firm.  Interns should expect to work on production documents, and maybe help out with some design.  Interns should expect to be given the opportunity to learn about building technology.  (Note that I did not say that interns should expect to be taught about building technologyNothing is handed to us as emerging professionals in architecture.  We have to keep consciously working to learn, all through our careers.)

It’s overwhelming to think that a BArch or MArch, and all the time and money and work that degree takes to earn, is only the beginning of learning how to practice architecture.  Maybe this is why so many students don’t comprehend that.  But schools need to make sure that their students understand this concept.  Schools need their graduates to understand that although they should be ready to work in architecture firms by the time they graduate, they still have much to learn before they can engage in the independent practice of architecture. Perhaps more than anything else, schools must prepare their students for a lifetime of learning.5



  1. Including my parents, there are 10 of us in my immediate family.  My dad and I have bachelor’s degrees, my youngest brother is currently in law school, and among the other 7, there are 2 medical degrees, 4 master’s degrees, one doctorate, and 1 law degree.  These were earned from Georgetown, Columbia, Notre Dame, University of Virginia, and the University of Oklahoma, in public health, Spanish literature, art history, and philosophy.  The reason that my mom went to medical school in the 60’s when she was 22 was because her brother enjoyed medical school so much.  My mother’s father taught philosophy and law at Fordham.  Including this grandfather, three of my four grandparents, who were born between 1900 and 1910, graduated from college.  My father’s mother, who was born in 1903, didn’t go to college, and that is a fact that was kind of whispered, rather than stated outright… perhaps so that not too many people would find out.  As I mentioned, formal education is considered pretty important in my family.
  2. Robert Samuelson is a journalist who writes economics opinion pieces in the Washington Post.  Here’s the column, as published by the Denver Post:  http://www.denverpost.com/samuelson/ci_20714508/degrees-failure-idea-that-everyone-needs-attend-college?source=rss_emailed
  3. Here in Colorado we still have the apprentice/draftsman route to licensure.  A college degree is not necessary for licensure as an architect in Colorado.  http://www.dora.state.co.us/aes/licensing/requirements-arc.htm#exp  However, my understanding is that most Colorado firms do not want to hire an emerging professional who does not have a professional degree (a BArch or MArch). 
  4. Garry Stevens’ “Why Architecture Should Leave the University” is really something to think about, even if we just use it as a starting point to improve architecture programs in universities. http://www.archsoc.com/kcas/leaveuniversity.html  
  5. So, how do emerging professionals – and everyone else – pursue learning?  I plan to address some good ways in a future post.

The Fervor of a Convert (part one)

People who read this blog know that I’m a specifier, and therefore pretty technically-minded.  But many people don’t know that I haven’t always been technically-minded.  I migrated to the technical side of architecture from a place of relative technical weakness.  (I wasn’t utterly ignorant; I did know the actual dimensions of a 2 by 4.  Some architecture grads don’t.)

I first realized the importance of specifications when I started doing CA (construction contract administration) on the projects that I’d produced drawings for.  But it wasn’t until after I started preparing specifications myself that I started to learn and understand more about building technology, building science, construction detailing, and building codes, and finally started learning how to find out information about how buildings actually get put together. 

In hindsight, I realized that the technical weakness that I had when I was working as an emerging project manager and project architect was a pretty bad thing, though not uncommon.  That type of technical weakness is changeable, it is fixable – but it is NOT defensible.

In this blog, I try to write to the person that I used to be – the intern architect or architectural project manager or project architect who doesn’t fully realize the importance of building technology, building science, and construction detailing.

I have broadened my own focus in architecture.  Others can, too.  But they have to be open to learning about these technical things; they have to understand the importance of the technical before they can start drawing good construction details.  Only with good construction details can architects’ designs be executed the way they have been imagined.  The designer who can’t draw, or even recognize, good construction details that communicate to the constructor how to build his design will not be a good designer of anything but unbuilt work.    

I write so relentlessly about the importance of the technical things in architecture because I know what it’s like to not think they’re important.  I know the results of that attitude – embarrassing moments on the jobsite – because I used to have that attitude.  Now that I’ve become a more technical person, I see this issue from another side, and I see clearly that we can do better as a profession.

Looking back now on the early years of my career, I suspect that I had a number of opportunities to learn about building technology and construction detailing that I didn’t take advantage of, because I just didn’t realize the importance. I knew that there were things I needed to learn, but there were so many areas I needed to learn about.  I focused on some other areas of practice instead of on building technology.  I had to learn how to put together a set of drawings.  I had to learn how to communicate with engineers and general contractors.  I had to learn how to communicate with owners and potential clients.  I had to learn how to write proposals for fees and services.  I had to learn how to budget my hours on a project.  I had to get up to speed on new versions of AutoCAD when they came out.  All these things are important to the practice of architecture, and, of course, spending time on design is important, too.

But I have realized that when it comes to that stamp and seal, knowledge about building technology and codes is absolutely essential to the practice of architecture.  Our professional obligations mandated and regulated by governments, building owners’ expectations, and our obligations addressed in our owner-architect agreements and covered by our professional liability insurance, are related to building technology and codes more than to anything else about architecture. 

I am still learning about construction, codes, building science, and detailing.  We all are, because technologies and codes change – but I still feel like I am catching up to where I should be on these issues, because I still have to research a number of things on almost every project.  But I can catch up.  All of us can.

As a brand new intern architect, I didn’t know what specifications were.  When I first started doing project management, I barely comprehended that specs and drawings were supposed to work together.  Then when I started doing CA on projects, the importance of specifications hit me like a bomb.  And now I’m a specifier.  We all start somewhere.  Regardless of the starting point, and regardless of the career destination, architects who want their constructed buildings to look like the designs in their minds must understand building technology.

When I graduated with my Bachelor of Architecture degree, I knew that there was a lot I would need to learn on the job.  But I didn’t realize how much there was to learn, and I didn’t realize which things were most important.  One reason I write this blog is to tell others the things that I now realize that I should have been trying to learn earlier in my career. 

For more about that degree, see Part Two of this post, coming later this week.

Loan Relief for Architecture Grads, in Exchange for Pro Bono Work? Ok… But How?

We need architects in the world.  Architects are, and should continue to be, the interpreters of building owners’ needs, the problem solvers of the construction industry, the people who communicate their design solutions to the people who build the solutions.  Architects, and future architects, are critical to our built environment.   

Right now, unemployment and underemployment among architects in the U.S. is high – very high.  Student loan debt from architecture school is astronomical.  Architecture firms’ billings and architects’ salaries are, well, not very high.  And they rarely ARE very high.  Architects are part of the construction industry.  The fortunes of architecture firms rise and fall with the economy.

Yesterday, there was a call by the American Institute of Architects and the American Institute of Architecture Students “for Congress to pass legislation that includes architecture school graduates in the same programs that offer other graduates loan debt assistance if they donate their services to their communities and elsewhere.”  Here’s the press release from the AIA. 

The press release compares recent grads in architecture to recent grads in medicine, law, and teaching. 

Everyone needs doctors, and we have a shortage of doctors in rural areas across the country.  All children need teachers, and we have a shortage of teachers in underperforming schools across the country.  We don’t have a shortage of lawyers, but we do have a shortage of available, affordable legal help for many disadvantaged people who need legal help, and can’t afford to pay the types of rates that many attorneys charge.

I don’t know much about this, but my understanding of the types of programs that offer loan relief for recent grads entering the types of professions mentioned in the press release (medicine, law, teaching) is that, in exchange for some loan relief, the new doctors go work in rural areas, or the young lawyers go work in low-paying public interest positions, and the freshly-minted teachers go work in underperforming schools.  These medical and legal positions are lower-paying than positions in different medical arenas and different kinds of law firms.  These teaching positions are much, much harder than positions at other types of schools.  These positions are hard to recruit for.

We don’t have a shortage of architects.  We don’t have a surplus of people who are in need of the services of a design professional, but who just don’t have access to one.  We don’t have easier-or-harder types of architecture jobs for emerging professionals.  We don’t even have huge differences in pay for intern architects at big firms vs. small firms, or firms in big cities vs. firms in small towns.

We also have the internship factor to consider.  If they wish to become licensed someday, architecture grads must work for a number of years under the direct supervision of a licensed architect.  They must become licensed in order to practice architecture on their own.  If they are to be the design professional in responsible charge of the construction documents for a building, they must be licensed architects.  In this country, nobody, not even an architecture school graduate, can call himself or herself “architect” unless he or she is actually licensed.  If they pass the board exams given at the end of school, doctors are M.D.’s when they finish medical school, and can practice medicine on their own.  Lawyers are licensed, and can practice on their own, once they pass the bar exam, which they usually take a couple months after graduation from law school.  

Many architecture grads and architects already give away, or nearly give away, their services, whenever they participate in a design competition.  Sometimes these design competitions are for non-profit organizations, or for governments, but sometimes, these design competitions are for for-profit businesses. 

Some interns are willing to work for free for big-name starchitects – although this practice is absolutely NOT condoned by most of the profession, including the AIA.  But this is the mindset of some emerging professionals, and a very small number of architects (work for free for the sake of the portfolio – the portfolio will lead to future, paying, work.)

This breaks my heart, but I have to say that I just can’t imagine how a loan relief program like this for architecture grads would work. 

What do YOU think?  Do any of you problem solvers out there have solutions to this problem? 

General Notes and Standard Details

“General Notes” can be helpful, or they can cause many headaches. 

“Standard Details” can save time, or they can create lots of confusion.

Don’t let your drawings go out with General Notes or Standard Details that haven’t been reviewed.  Don’t include General Notes or Standard Details that do not apply to the project “just in case we need them.” 

Including inapplicable information in the drawings unnecessarily drives up the cost of the project, and makes it harder for you, the architect, to enforce the applicable information in the contract.  Remember: If it’s in the drawings, it’s in the contract.  If the contractor keeps discovering inapplicable things in the drawings, you’ll start having to fight over the applicable things. 

Delete the stuff that shouldn’t be in the project!  Step 1 of that process is to LOOK AT those General Notes and Standard Details, before anyone else does.  Review those notes and details the very first time you issue them.  To the bidders, to the Owner, to the Construction Manager, to the Consultants, (and to the lawyers, if it comes to that) your General Notes and Standard Details mean just as much as everything else in the drawings.

Please. Stop the Reinvention Talk.

You may have seen the latest in the Reinvention Discussion – it’s an article on the DesignIntelligence website by James P. Cramer, called “Competing for the Future.” It starts out by intoning “Beware the unimaginative and the Luddites who portend the end of the profession, and open your mind to a future of relevant possibilities.” 1

Please.  Stop the Reinvention Talk, or do a better job of convincing me that the profession of architecture must be completely reinvented.  I am willing to listen, but I’d like to hear ideas that are more concrete than those I’ve read so far.

I am not a Luddite.  I am not unimaginative.  I am probably a cynic, but I do offer solutions (skip to the bottom for solutions).  The profession of architecture needs revitalization, not reinvention.  

Owners (the people who need buildings built) still have the same needs they have always had; owners need some entity to listen to and interpret their needs and ideas for their buildings, and to translate those needs and ideas into instructions to build the buildings.  Although technology has changed many things in the last several centuries, this particular need of owners has not changed.

Architects are the people who are best qualified to interpret the needs of owners and turn them into models, perspective drawings, diagrams, and plans that help owners explore and confirm their needs.  Architects have been the people who are best qualified to produce the drawings and specifications that serve as the instructions to build these buildings.  Notice that there are two parts to this; these are two of the fundamental components of being an architect.

Architects are no longer the only people fulfilling the needs above.  Owners are relying less and less on architects for all their needs (programming, master planning, schematic design concepts, placemaking, design development, construction documentation, guidance during bidding or negotiation with a contractor, and construction contract administration).

Some architects are not able to effectively meet these needs.  Other entities have stepped in to fill the voids.  (These others include, but are not limited to, “placemakers,” green building consultants, and Construction Managers.) 

We architects don’t need to reinvent ourselves as something else, and try to sell owners on something new that they may not need or want.

If we architects want more work, we must do a better job of meeting the needs that owners already have, that we used to meet, and no longer do. 

Owners’ needs haven’t changed – the profession of architecture has.  We have stopped being able to most effectively meet all of the needs of owners.  Some may argue that owners have additional needs, over what they used to have.  Some will argue that buildings are more complicated than they used to be, and we need more help.  These things are true.  But architects can get that help from consultants and keep it all under the umbrella of the design team – we don’t have to get that help from the contractor part of the team.  We have to prove our value to owners, and they will stop looking elsewhere for the services that we have traditionally provided.    

The Construction Specifications Institute can help architects meet the all the needs of owners that architects used to meet.  As I’ve mentioned here before, CSI’s Construction Documents Technologist program is a good start.  The CDT program can help architects develop a better understanding of the construction process, better construction contract administration skills, better construction documentation abilities, and better means of communication with the contractor on projects.  This is basic stuff, people.  This is stuff that architects used to consider to be of primary importance… and then they didn’t… and then other people started doing the work that architects used to do…



1.  Here’s that article on the DesignIntelligence website: http://www.di.net/articles/archive/competing_future/ 


Facilitating Competitive Bidding for Construction Products

Architects and interior designers often make carefully coordinated selections of products based solely on their appearance.  Many of the products so thoughtfully selected have no equal – nothing else has quite the same appearance, and if a different product with all the same characteristics (except for color) were used, the carefully coordinated color scheme would be ruined.

In these cases, a sole-source product is specified, and no substitutions are allowed.

Is this important?  Sometimes, yes, it’s important.  Ask this question another way:  Is this important to the Owner?  Has the Owner actually charged the Architect with creating a unique look that is decided upon early in the project, and cannot be changed?

Why does this question matter?  When only one product is specified, and no substitutions are allowed, the supplier of that product sometimes increases the price, and may decrease the level of service.  This price increase is passed on to the Owner.  A decreased level of service (due to a lack of incentive to keep people happy, since the deal is already done) may cause schedule problems during construction.  The Owner may be paying a heavy premium for the luxury of selecting colors during design.    

Sometimes only a very specific plastic laminate will be acceptable to the Owner, because of specific furniture finishes that they’ve contracted for separately.  Sometimes only specific ceramic wall tiles and solid surface countertops will be acceptable to the Owner, because of a corporate identity they must maintain.  In these cases, the direction not to allow competitive bidding has come from the Owner.

But sometimes, the Architect, for his own reasons, is trying to create a very specific look that can only be achieved with one manufacturer’s tinted glass color (although 2 others may make a similar color with the same performance characteristics).  Does the Owner care about this extremely specific appearance?  Maybe not.  Has the Owner been notified that the choice of one specific manufacturer’s color of glass may increase his construction costs, for the benefit of the Architect’s portfolio?  …  [Crickets]…  Probably not.

When the Owner doesn’t have product preferences, if we, as design professionals, are to best serve the interests of the Owner, we should encourage competitive bidding, by specifying several acceptable products.



Architects, Take Back the Reins

Things are looking dismal in our profession.  We have lots of bad buildings in the U.S.  We have record numbers of unemployed architecture professionals, and many of the firms that do have work are getting lower fees for their services.  Architects seem to be respected a little bit less every decade by owners and contractors.

And, every decade, a higher percentage of design and construction projects seem to be led by the contractor team.

Yes, there’s a connection.  More contractor-led projects lead to more badly-designed buildings, lower fees for architects, less stability for architecture firms, and less respect for architects.

If we want better buildings to make up our built environment, if we want to be proud to be architects, and to be able to support our families on our salaries as architects, we need to change some things about how architects practice.  Once we make those changes, we can get back to being the leaders in the design and construction process, and we will have better buildings in the U.S.

Forget about this horrible recession for a minute.  I know it’s a big factor in our situation now, in February 2012, and it’s the reason for all the unemployment.  But just think back to 2007 or so, when the economy was fine.  Even then, we had a bunch of problems that we have now:

  1. We have intern architects clamoring for the right to call themselves “architects” without having to take those pesky Architect Registration Exams.
  2. Architecture school costs students more money every decade, yet, every decade, teaches them less that will help them in their practices as architects.2
  3. We have architecture firms recommending Construction Manager as Constructor project delivery to owners.3  We have contractors leading most Design/Build projects, and architects who are happy to partner with them. 4  Essentially, we have more contractor-led design projects than we did a few decades ago, and architects have played a part in letting this happen, and as a result, we have more bad buildings.
  4. We have some architects who don’t understand owner-contractor agreements, and who don’t know what the project specifications say, administering the contract for construction on design-bid-build projects.  They get led around by the nose by contractors, and are not providing to owners the services the owners expected and contracted for.  The owners get less value than they should, and therefore the owners have less respect for architects.
  5. We have some architects who don’t know much about building codes, building technology, and construction detailing, yet who are producing documents that contractors are supposed to build from.  So we get some building designs that are really poorly executed in construction, and look like junk in a few years.
  6. We have some guys who call themselves construction managers poorly managing the documentation part of bidding and negotiation with their subcontractors, and architects who don’t even recognize how poorly the owner is being served.  The architect who doesn’t know much about procurement and contracting, and doesn’t know much about construction, serves very little purpose to the owner on a construction manager project, whether the CM is a good one, or just someone calling himself one.

The more we have design decisions made by contractors (who are driven by costs), the more badly-designed buildings we will get, and the less the public will think that design matters.  The less good design people see, the less they think they need it in their world, and the less they’re willing to pay for it, and the more buildings will be built for the lowest price possible, and the more contractor-led projects we’ll have, and the more bad buildings we’ll have, and the fewer practicing architects we’ll have.  This is bad for our built environment and bad for our profession.

The more students, emerging professionals, and licensed architects focus on design (the way the building is intended to look) to the exclusion of the technical stuff (the instructions to the contractor for achieving the design intent – the specifications and the construction details), the more we will back ourselves into the corner of having to rely on contractors to design the details.  At that point, owners may be pretty easily persuaded by contractors that it’s just a short jump from designing all the details to designing the whole building.

The more architects focus on design, and the less they work on improving their knowledge of construction documentation, construction details, building technology, construction specifications, agreements, and construction contract administration, the more work (including design work, starting with the detailing) will have to be handed over to contractors, which will lead to more bad buildings in our world, lower fees and less respect for architects, and less value to building owners.  It’s counterintuitive, but the more architecture schools and architecture firms focus on design (and ignore the technical stuff), the more bad design we’ll see in the world.  The focus on design to the exclusion of the technical stuff is counterproductive; we’re “designing” ourselves right out of our traditional scope of work.    

Architects need to take back the reins, and keep a firm grip on them.  Here’s how:    

  • Architects need to understand that part of their job is to interpret the code and incorporate the code requirements into the project documents.
  • Architects need to understand what they are drawing, and need to have a good feeling for how the building and their details will actually be constructed.
  • Architects need to understand that the specifications are contract documents, too, and are complementary to the drawings.
  • Architects need to understand that they are responsible, (according to the code, and according to their owner-architect agreements) for coordinating the work of all the design disciplines.
  • Architects need to get better at construction contract administration – they need to understand construction contracts and Division 01 of the specifications as well as the technical sections.

In order to get the chance to produce good designs, architects have to get back to understanding, and properly drawing, the construction details, the way architects used to (before they started handing this architectural work over to contractors).  In order to get to work on building designs that are executed well in construction, architects must get back to the basics of understanding building technology, thorough product research, specifications writing, good construction contract administration practices, and good agreements that include fair compensation and appropriate allocation of risk.

Architects need to think about their work in a different way. 

Of course, there are good architects whose firms are doing everything they should be.  And there are good construction management firms who are true assets to projects.  With good architects and good contractors, good working relationships between architects and contractors are possible, and are happening right now.  And the owners are often getting a good value.  But architects don’t have to have contracts with contractors, or give away work to them, or go along with them to the detriment of the owner, in order to get along with contractors.  Good contract documents (clear, concise, correct and complete drawings and specifications) and an understanding of roles and responsibilities during construction are the appropriate foundation for good working relationships between architects and contractors.

The Construction Specification Institute can help architects improve their practices. CSI’s certification programs can help architects develop a better understanding of the construction process, better construction contract administration skills, better construction documentation abilities, and better means of communication with the contractor on projects.

If we don’t change the way many firms are practicing architecture right now, I see a future with fewer practicing architects, even lower fees, more poorly-designed buildings, more poorly-constructed buildings, and less respect for architects.  If architects don’t get more technical, but keep focusing on design instead, we’ll actually end up with less good design in the world. 



  1. Check out “Architect” magazine’s article “The 50-Year-Old Intern.”  http://www.architectmagazine.com/architects/the-50-year-old-intern.aspx  Remember, “Architect” is “The Magazine of the American Institute of Architects.”  The article actually asks, “Does Licensure Matter?”  Also check out this article by John Cary published in the online magazine “Good”: http://www.good.is/post/why-architecture-s-identity-problem-should-matter-to-the-rest-of-us.  Even though they work in architecture firms, many emerging professionals don’t know what it means to be an architect.  This dilutes the respect that the public has for architects.  The International Building Code requires documents to be submitted for permit by a “registered design professional in responsible charge”, who is “a registered design professional engaged by the owner to review and coordinate certain aspects of the project, as determined by the building official, for compatibility with the design of the building or structure, including submittal documents prepared by others.”  I can’t imagine this requirement changing anytime soon.  This person can be an engineer or an architect.  It’s best, for our built environment, to have this person be an architect.  It’s best if this architect is directly hired by the owner, instead of by a contractor who is part of an alternative project delivery team.  On most buildings, design professionals can’t submit for permit if they aren’t licensed.  You can’t lead if you’re not licensed.  Students and interns need to understand this, and the public needs to understand this.
  2. One thing I learned really, really well from my 2 summer internships and my 5 years in college (the whole first half of the 1990’s) was that I didn’t know much, and that I had a lot that I needed to learn after graduation, during my internship.  This is a concept that many of today’s emerging professionals seem to be unable to grasp.  I suspect that they are not being taught this in school, and I think this has something to do with the lack of experienced professionals who are teaching in architecture schools.  The National Architectural Accrediting Board “2010 Report on Accreditation in Architecture Education” tells us, “Of the total number of assistant, associate, and full professors, 934 (29.4%) are registered to practice in a U.S. jurisdiction.”  Less than a third of faculty in accredited architecture schools are licensed!  Only 25.9%, about a quarter, of full professors are actually licensed.  This report can be found on this page.
  3. When you don’t know much about construction or the technical parts of architecture, doing construction management project delivery method takes some of the pressure to figure out how to meet the owner’s budget off the architect.  Having the Contractor’s input during preconstruction seems to take some of the risk out of the project for the architect.  I know how it feels.  When I was a project manager in an architecture firm, I knew that there was a lot I didn’t know.  I was so relieved to find out that a large project that I was managing was going to be a Construction Manager as Constructor project.  That project wrapped up in 2000.  (I haven’t been happy with a CM as Constructor project since 1999.   You do the math.)  The fact is that if you don’t really know what you’re doing, and the CM gives you no preconstruction input, but you were counting on it, you’re in bad shape.  And the truth is that your actual liability as an architect doesn’t change if the contractor is a CM as Constructor.  Take back the scope of architecture work that should be yours – do design-bid-build project delivery and hire a good estimator as your consultant to help advise you on designing to the owner’s budget.
  4. When the contractor is the entity who has the agreement with the owner, well, the contractor is your client.  Wouldn’t you rather work for the owner, whom you may be able to convince to implement good design, rather than work for the contractor, who is almost always going to make design decisions driven by the dollars?  When architects don’t have a direct relationship with owners, and serve only as the contractor’s consultant in order to produce a permit set for the contractor, respect and fees for architects get chipped away at, and get progressively lower.

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.