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.

THIS Is Why We Do DRAWINGS!

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: www.csinet.org/certification

Registration link:  https://webportal.csinet.org/Conference/RegistrationProcessOverview.aspx?id=80

  • 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: www.csinet.org/cdt

  • 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: www.csinet.org/pdpg

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: www.csinet.org/ccs

CCCA information: www.csinet.org/ccca

CCPR information: www.csinet.org/ccpr

  • This is the last year this exam will be based on the Project Resource Manual (www.csinet.org/prm)

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! www.csinet.org/joincsi

Company Culture and Architects’ Contractual Obligations

Architecture firm principals, managing partners, anyone who signs Contracts or Agreements:  Always give a copy of your Owner-Architect Agreement to your project architects, project managers and job captains at the beginning of the Schematic Design Phase.  If your construction contract administration team is made up of different people, give that team copies of your Owner-Architect Agreement at the beginning of the Construction Phase, at the very latest.  Give your team copies of your Architect-Consultant Agreements, too.  (If your firm keeps fee info confidential from employees, obscure those numbers.  But give them the documents!) 

When you give them the documents, tell them to read them!  Tell the construction contract administration team to read the Owner-Contractor Agreement, and the General Conditions of the Contract for Construction, as well as the Owner-Architect Agreement and Architect-Consultant Agreements. 

All of these documents spell out some of the Architect’s obligations.  Many emerging professionals are not familiar with all of the Architect’s typical obligations.  Those who haven’t yet begun the process of studying for their architectural registration exams may have no idea what’s contained in an Owner-Architect Agreement or in the General Conditions of the Contract.  But when these Agreements get executed, the Architect becomes legally responsible for performing the activities required by these Agreements.  If you have unlicensed people managing projects, you have to be especially explicit about the requirement that project managers are familiar with these documents, because they may have no way of knowing, except through your guidance.  (Remember, they’re interns, working under your direct supervision, learning how to be the architects of the future.)

If you don’t demonstrate to your employees the importance of these documents, some of them may never understand that they are contractually obligated to perform the exercises required by these documents! 

Attitudes about the importance of following through on contractual obligations come from the top.  The attitudes of the principals shape the company culture of the firm.  Do you want your firm to be known for following through on obligations?  Or do you want your firm to be known for having employees who aren’t sure what the firm’s obligations actually are?

Architects, Let’s Get on the Same Page

Tara Imani’s excellent, passionately-written blog post, “Architecture – A Profession at War with Itself,” inspired me to comment, and then to take my comment and turn it into this blog post. 

Tara asks “Do you think it is important for Architects to be on the same page in order to take our profession to the next level?  If so, why?  And, on which issues must we find consensus?”  The post then goes on to identify a number of areas where architects disagree.   http://www.indigoarchitect.com/2011/11/10/architecture-a-profession-at-war-with-itself

Disagreement is a wonderful thing, which can test and temper individuals’ own arguments, and then shape a group’s stronger argument.  When a few members of a group disagree and argue and write and rant, the failings and weaknesses in the individual members’ arguments get exposed and culled out, and the main points get sharpened, and the group can bring a stronger argument to the table. 

Ultimately, architects do need to be on the same page about many things, so that our profession can be strengthened instead of being fragmented.

I feel the same sense of urgency to help strengthen our profession that Tara feels, and I know that many, many other architects do, too.  But not enough architects realize that we have a problem in the profession

Tara included a fantastic “Starter List” of issues that architects disagree about.  The following is the area that I, personally, feel called to act on:

“Learning how buildings go together” vs “Continuing to be the brunt of behind-your-back jokes as you leave the construction site or hang up the phone after a CM calls you for clarification of a detail.” 

This is the one issue that I feel that architects really, really need to be all on the same page about – we need to dedicate ourselves to learning how buildings go together, and we need to dedicate ourselves to teaching emerging professionals how buildings go together.  We shouldn’t need to argue among ourselves about this particular issue to get on the same page.  I think that the disagreements, or the different placement of priorities, about this issue (understanding construction technology), stem from a place of ignorance, rather than strong opinions. 

I come to this strong feeling (my unbending opinion that architects all need to agree that architects need to understand construction technology) from a place of not having known how buildings go together, and recognizing that as a weakness in myself.  I had this weakness not just before architecture school, not just after architecture school, but even after a number of years of working in architecture.  I had a lot of questions, and didn’t know where to go to find the answers.  I knew there were things I didn’t even know enough about to know what my questions were.  Now I write project specifications as a consultant to other architects, and I know way more about how buildings go together than I used to, and I know how to go about finding the answers to the questions I have. 

What many, many architects don’t seem to fully recognize is that architects are part of the construction industry.  The construction of buildings is the execution of our designs.  Our job, the job that we’re licensed to do as architects, is to prepare Construction Documents and to Administer the Contract for Construction.  Yes, we design, also.  And that’s the first step.  And it’s a very, very important step.  But the biggest portions of our fees on typical projects come from the Construction Documents phase and the Construction Contract Administration phase.  Schematic Design and Design Development are practically all we learn about in architecture school, and some people think that’s all that architects do… even some architects think that.   

I am answering this call to action.  I will continue to strive to educate other architects about the importance of understanding construction technology, and the importance of the huge part of our job as architects that requires us to document our design intent through technical construction details in the Construction Documents phase.  I will also continue to strive to encourage other architects to pass on the message of the importance of this understanding to emerging professionals.

Architecture’s Identity Problem? Nope. (More on the Importance of Licensure)

There’s an article out there that keeps popping up on my radar screen (ok, on my Twitter feed).  It’s about “Architecture’s Identity Problem.”  The article is by John Cary, and is published by GOOD.1  

John Cary says that “the profession and the public are measurably worse off because of “the fact that “more than half of architecture school graduates don’t enter the profession” and “fewer still get licensed.”  I disagree.  In fact, I think that the profession and the public are bad off enough because of how many people are out there designing and working in architecture firms without demonstrating, through examination, that they’re qualified enough to be licensed architects.2

John Cary seems to suggest that people who graduate from architecture school should be able to be architects without having to endure an internship or the Architect Registration Examination.  As part of his protest against the long internships and examination requirements that architects have to undergo before being able to call themselves architects, the article compares architectural internships to medical residencies.  This is not a good comparison.

The article points out that medical school graduates are legitimately called doctors before completing their residencies.  That’s true.  Medical students graduate from medical schools as M.D.’s, medical doctors.  However, first they graduate from undergrad.  They they apply to, and have to be admitted to, med school.  They take their first round of national board exams after their second year of medical school, then during the last 2 years of their 4 year medical school programs, their training is all clinical, in hospitals, under the direct supervision of doctors.  Then they take their second round of national board exams.  Then they graduate.  Then they do their internships (the first year of their residencies) and take their third round of national board exams.  Then, finally, they’re allowed to practice without having to be supervised by other doctors.  And then they go on to finish their residencies.  And take more board exams.  Then many do fellowships, again learning from other doctors.  So it’s not as if medical students just go to school, sit in classrooms for 4 years, and graduate as medical doctors.  They are thoroughly tested, by national exams, 2 different times before graduation, and they also have 2 years of practical experience before they graduate from medical school.  (And then most continue their training.)    

But the biggest difference between medical school and architecture school is that med students are taught by doctors – licensed doctors.  And the students are practicing clinical medical work, in hospitals, during the last half of med school.  They are observing and helping doctors treat patients, before they graduate as M.D.’s.  And when they go on to practice medicine unsupervised, they are regulated and licensed by the states they practice in.  NOT EVEN HALF of the professors teaching in accredited architecture schools are LICENSED anywhere in the U.S.  In a 2009 study by the NAAB, only 34% of faculty at NAAB-accredited schools of architecture were licensed architects.3  

Therefore, architecture students are barely being taught by actual architects.  And, very little of what is actually taught to these students is information about “making sure buildings don’t fall down.”  School curricula are very heavy on theory and design and very light on building technology – the stuff architects need to know to make sure their designs don’t fall down. 

Another important thing to consider is that many architecture students never work in architecture offices before they graduate from architecture school.

These are very good reasons for the fact that, as John Cary says “Earning a diploma from architecture school isn’t enough to be awarded the title of ‘architect.'”  The heavy focus on theory and design in school is the reason the architectural profession has the requirement for an internship (apprenticeship) period.  In some states, you can still sit for your exams and get licensed after a certain number of years of practice under the direct supervision of a licensed architect, even if you don’t have a degree of any type.4  This demonstrates the importance that regulatory agencies place on experience and demonstration through examination over schooling.  I personally believe that, more than a degree in architecture, the combination of practical experience and successful completion of the examinations is a better indicator of a person’s being properly qualified to design buildings that will not fall down.   

Not everyone makes it through all those steps that medical students have to undergo, and not everyone makes it through all the steps that architectural interns have to undergo.  These applications, exams, and grueling hours weed some people out.  Think about it – do you want the guy who didn’t pass those national exams, and who doesn’t have malpractice insurance, operating on YOU?  No, you want the guy who had the intelligence and the perseverance to get through all these barriers to being a doctor.

Do you want the person who didn’t feel like taking the Architect Registration Examination designing your office building?  You shouldn’t – and your lender, your insurer and your attorney don’t – because that designer doesn’t have professional liability insurance because he doesn’t have a license to practice architecture.5 

John Cary wrote, “It’s a long, arduous road that many in the field are either unable or simply unwilling to travel.”  It is.  But why would you want those without the ability or the willingness to travel this road taking the professional responsibility for preparing the construction documents for YOUR buildings?

We need more architectural interns pursuing licensure.  In these very troubled times for our profession, we need to be pushing to raise the bar of professionalism, not to lower it.  As John Cary says, many people do “have a romantic view of the architecture world.”  That’s fine, but it’s not reality.  And it’s time for those of us IN the architecture world to WAKE UP to reality, and push for more quality, not less, in our profession.  

 _________________________________________________________

1. Here’s the link to the article: http://www.good.is/post/why-architecture-s-identity-problem-should-matter-to-the-rest-of-us/

2. With such high unemployment levels among architects right now, how could the profession and the public possibly be better served if everyone who wants to be an architect is legally allowed to just say that he is an architect?  We have too many unemployed licensed architects, who, generally, are more qualified to practice architecture than all the unemployed unlicensed architectural designers.  

3. This 34% figure includes professors, associate professors, and assistant professors.  Only 31% of actual professors are licensed.  Here’s a link to the website NAAB: http://www.naab.org/news/view.aspx?newsID=52 where you can get the report.

4. In Colorado, that period is 10 years.

5. In Colorado, you can’t get errors and omissions insurance if you aren’t licensed in the state.  Sophisticated clients will not hire an architect who doesn’t have this professional liability insurance. 

 

 

 

“Architect” Magazine Actually Asks “Does Licensure Matter?”

I got my “Architect” magazine in the mail today (you know, “The Magazine of the American Institute of Architects”).  There’s an article called “The Problem with Licensure” or “The 50-Year-Old-Intern” that is all about “… a decline in registered professionals…  And should we care?”

Outrageous. 

Here’s a link to the article: http://www.architectmagazine.com/architects/the-50-year-old-intern.aspx  It’s about the so-called “philosophical debate” about whether licensure matters.  It matters.  

Without licensure and regulation by the states, the public has nothing reassuring them that people practicing architecture are qualified to do so.  The Colorado Revised Statutes state that the regulatory authority of the Colorado state board of licensure for architects “is necessary to safeguard the life, health, property, and public welfare of the people of this state and to protect them against unauthorized, unqualified, and improper practice of architecture.” 

Without architects’ professional liability insurance, their clients don’t have much recourse in the case of errors and omissions by an architect.  When I obtained my architect’s professional liability insurance in the state of Colorado, the first question my agent asked me was whether I was a registered architect in Colorado.  I told him that I am, and he said, good, because you can’t get insurance without being licensed

This is telling.  The stuff that floats to the top when the lawyers and the insurance companies get involved tells us that licensure matters to the public, licensure matters to the governments, licensure matters to the courts, licensure matters to the insurers, and licensure matters to sophisticated clients.  And it should matter. 

Ron Geren’s recent blog post, “Towards a More Irrelevant Architect” http://specsandcodes.typepad.com/specsandcodes/2011/10/towards-a-more-irrelevant-architect.html touches on this issue when he says:

“In an effort to protect its members, and the profession in general, from undue risk, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) inadvertently reduced the influence of the architect by minimizing the liability to which the architect may be subject.  This shirked risk was quickly snatched up by other members of the construction industry—namely by contractors and members of the growing construction management profession.” – Ron Geren

Risk is often carried by the people who are willing to be grownups, and risk is often shirked by those who are less willing to step up and take responsibility for their own actions (like, well, children).  Remember that whole risk-reward thing?  When architects are willing to take more responsibility for their own actions, they’ll have more freedom, and will earn more respect. 

Architects, we need to protect ourselves.  But we don’t do it by ducking responsibility, and we don’t do it by having the magazine that is the so-called voice of our primary professional organization practically condoning design professionals’ remaining unlicensed. 

First, architects need to have very good agreements.  Don’t sign Owner-Architect agreements that have the potential to screw you over.  

Second, architects need to have very good construction documents.  Don’t issue bad documents.  Have good drawings, have good specs, have coordinated documents.  If you have interns doing most of your drawing production, review carefully before those documents go out with YOUR stamp on them.  

Third, architects need to have very good insurance.  (Oh, yeah, and you need to be LICENSED to get that.) 

Then work hard.  Do your best.  And encourage your employees to follow in your footsteps and get licensed.  Maybe you can’t give them raises for getting licensed, but at least give them verbal encouragement to take their exams, and praise them when they pass all of their exams.  We are in this thing together, and the interns are the future of our profession.  And interns need to be on a path to licensure!!

If It’s in the Specs, It’s in the Contract

I’m going to say it again:  If something is required by the Specifications, it’s required by the Contract

A procedure or item specified in the Specifications is part of the Contract, just as much as if the procedure or item were specified in the Agreement.  (The Agreement is what many people usually think of as the “Contract,” because it’s the particular document that gets signed by the Owner and the Contractor, and it has the Contract Sum indicated in it.  But the Agreement is only ONE PART of the Contract.)

The Contract is made up of the Agreement, the Conditions of the Contract, the Drawings, the Specifications, etc.  AIA Documents state this requirement most clearly; Owner-generated Agreements and Conditions of the Contract sometimes fall short of being explicit about this.  (This is one of many good reasons to use AIA Documents instead of Owner-generated documents.)

This requirement is SO IMPORTANT that it makes up ARTICLE ONE of AIA Document A101-2007 (Standard Form of Agreement Between Owner and Contractor where the basis of payment is a Stipulated Sum), a very commonly used Agreement.

“The Contract Documents consist of this Agreement, Conditions of the Contract (General, Supplementary and other Conditions), Drawings, Specifications, Addenda issued prior to execution of this Agreement, other documents listed in this Agreement and Modifications issued after execution of this Agreement, all of which form the Contract, and are as fully a part of the Contract as if attached to this Agreement or repeated herein.”  – from Article 1 of AIA Document A101-2007

I don’t think I can say this any more clearly. 

But somehow, there are a number of Contractors out there who don’t seem to realize that the Specifications are part of the Contract, and there are even a few Architects out there who don’t seem to realize that the Specifications are part of the Contract that they are supposed to be administering during construction.  An Owner agrees to pay a Contractor a certain sum, the Contractor agrees to provide the Owner with certain things indicated by the Drawings and Specifications and other Contract Documents, and, in a separate Agreement, the Architect and the Owner agree that the Owner will pay the Architect a certain sum, and the Architect will administer the Contract between the Owner and the Contractor.  We all have contractual obligations during construction, and we all need to understand, and follow through on, all of those obligations. 

Remember, if it’s in the Specs, it’s in the Contract.

Contracts, and My Hope for the Day

I hope that today is the last day in my life that an architect-client of mine tells me that the Contractor will not be providing the project record documents required by the project specifications because the requirement to provide record documents “is not in their Contract.”

Remember, per AIA Document A201-2007, (which is the General Conditions of the Contract that I most frequently work with) the Contract Documents “consist of the Agreement, Conditions of the Contract (General, Supplementary and other Conditions), Drawings, Specifications, Addenda issued prior to execution of the Contract, other documents listed in the Agreement and Modifications issued after execution of the Contract.”  Specifications are part of the contract.

For more of the basics like this, check out my informational website, www.specificationsdenver.com

To better days!

Construction Product Reps – NOT Just Salespeople

Denver CSI had its annual Symposium today – technically, it’s the Education Symposium and Product Show.  There were about 35 different product reps (my estimate) representing hundreds of construction products.  Unfortunately, I only managed to visit 6, because I spent a very long time with each one I got to talk to…  I always have lots of questions.  I hope to be invited by a product rep again next year, and catch up with the rest of the reps I didn’t get to visit with! 

The Product Show component of today’s event reminded me of a comment I made on someone else’s blog a couple of months ago.  The blog is written by a young architect and the intended audience is intern architects.  The post that prompted me to comment was entitled “The gentle art of product-rep self-defense.”  I’m not the only one who commented – actually, the blog post started a truly excellent discussion among commenters and the blog author.  Here’s the link to the blog and comments: http://architectureintern101.blogspot.com/2011/01/gentle-art-of-product-rep-self-defense.html

It’s somewhat embarassing to admit that only in the last few years have I come to understand the importance of the role of product reps in construction projects.  These people can be tremendous resources throughout an entire project, from schematic design through the warranty period. 

Copied below is my comment from the discussion:

“I was just discussing this issue yesterday with a product rep, and fellow Denver CSI member. I’m a spec writer, and a licensed architect, and I practiced as an architect for years before I started writing specs. As soon as I started writing specs, I realized how hugely important product reps are. But when I was working as an architect, my opinion of product reps was the same as yours.

“Product reps know their products better than anyone else could ever hope to – they know them better than architects, spec writers, contractors, owners, and users do.

“These people aren’t just salespeople – many of these people do forensic investigations on their products, when failures occur on projects. Failures usually turn out to be due to improper installation. Sometimes improper installation is a result of poor or incorrect project specifications written by the project specifier, or poor or incorrect details drawn by the project architect. We, as design professionals, may have more to learn from failures than from anything else. These product reps are tremendous technical resources for specifiers and for architects who know how to tap into them.

“My recommendations to your readers: Get to know a product rep for a product you frequently use. Ask this rep to review your project specifications and details that include their product – you may surprise yourself and learn something about a product you thought you knew well! Then you’ll see how much product reps have to offer.”

Ummmm, What is He Thinking? AIA chief economist Kermit Baker suggests that architects should do what they do best—design—and hire paraprofessionals to do the rest.

This month’s Architect Magazine has an article about using design “paraprofessionals,” written by the AIA’s chief economist, Kermit Baker. 

“AIA chief economist Kermit Baker suggests that architects should do what they do best—design—and hire paraprofessionals to do the rest. Try it. Your profitability might just skyrocket.” 

http://www.architectmagazine.com/business/add-a-layer-the-case-for-paraprofessionals.aspx

I think Mr. Baker is misguided, or misunderstands how our profession works.  Here’s my response, which I posted on the website.

“In this scenario utilizing paraprofessionals in architecture firms, who would train the interns?  What would they learn?

“Since interns who want to become licensed someday have to work under the direct supervision of licensed architects, what would they be learning if the licensed architects aren’t doing anything technical?

“The best way to learn how a technical detail is supposed to look is to draw that detail from scratch.  If interns never learn that, we would be very, very poorly training the future leaders of the firms.  What we are licensed to do is to design safe and sound buildings.  We are not licensed to just design whatever we want. A good start to designing safe and sound buildings is to understand building technology.  We are not training architecture students in building technology in architecture school, and if we stop training interns in building technology, we are headed for much tougher times for the profession.”

Medical students receive 2 years of clinical training, working in hospitals, while they’re in medical school, before they graduate as M.D.’s.  Architecture students have no official training working in architecture offices while they’re in school, but they don’t graduate as Architects.  They go to work as architectural interns after they graduate.  They receive their training on the job, before they’re allowed to sit for their licensing exams and, if they pass their exams, become Architects.

In school, we do not train architecture students in what they need to know to become licensed.  If we quit training them them in technical matters on the job, how will they even become licensed?  And if they do become licensed, how will they be able to oversee the paraprofessionals working for them, if they actually have no technical understanding themselves?  Who will do the construction contract administration?  The licensed architects are the ones who need to seal the drawings and specifications.  The licensed architects are the ones with the professional liability and obligation to design safe and sound buildings.  That’s what they are licensed to do.   

It’s not all about profitability.  Unless the system of architectural education and training completely changes, architects have an obligation to train interns in practical and technical matters.  We can’t shift that responsibility to paraprofessionals.  Soooo… if we have paraprofessionals doing the work that interns and young architects usually do, why would anyone hire an intern?  And if there are no interns, who will be the architects of the future?