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: 


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.”  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”:  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.

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.