expectations and disappointments


I’ve nothing new to share or teach about the profession today.

What I’m doing is at worst venting, at best being transparent. Today, I’m simply sharing that I’m thinking about disappointment.

For those of you who are not architects, but who might use our services, you need to choose an architect who can communicate clearly. Have high expectations of us.

Today’s prompt relates to the production of our work and in this case would be our documents – or what some call drawings. Everyone knows architects create drawings – in some cases you might call an architect to “get some drawings made.” What are you buying? Well, actually you’re not buying drawings, but you ARE paying for a service whose result culminates in a set of documents. These need to be clear, concise, and correct. They need to demonstrate that WE know how to construct the crazy things we’ve imagined.

Without sharing sources, last week I had interactions with people that shared stories where architects failed (in my opinion) to deliver a quality service to their client. No I don’t expect anyone to be accountable to me. I just hold a high standard for our profession; one for which I can only reasonably hold myself.

This story goes back decades, but what sparked my rant is an instance about an architecture firm that is deemed as a “good design firm” (supposedly validated by their plethora of awards), yet on more than one occasion, more than one person involved in a project of theirs relayed to me what poor construction documents they produced. I don’t just mean a bit untidy, I mean lacking important engineering content, missing very specific information and those involved in the construction end have had to recreate or re-engineer key parts of the project. In fact, I believe the expectation was for others to “figure out” the specifics of what they “designed.”

Personally I can’t have that said about me or my firm. If you call me, I pledge to give you so much more.

I’m not perfect and no one expects that as a standard, so let’s not falsely develop an unrealistic expectation. Let’s also not go down the path about indicting contractors for their sins either. That’s not what I am looking for from any of us. However, it eats at me to see architects get adulation when the end result on which they are judged was successful because someone else saved their…

I started my career in an era where digital tools were in their infancy. I drew by hand and was mentored how to create a set of documents. I learned early to make a one to one correlation between a graphic and the reality.

For years now, I have had several contractors share with me positive feedback about my drawings and documents being clear, thorough and containing necessary content. They’ve typically shared this when the “current set” on their desk if full of inconsistencies or are simply unclear, and in some case lacking critical information.

I’m sure I have some fluff at times, over detail the wrong part of the building and yes,  I even miss things on occasion.  I’m guilty as anyone and it upsets me when I miss even the smallest thing. However, I consciously work at providing drawings that are more than pretty images. They need to be first of all clear and communicative. After all, they are a graphic language, mixed with actual language to communicate a complex series of instructions and intentions to someone who is a stranger to the project. Then we expect them to construct it to the exactness imagined in our minds. That is not being professional.

Maybe the relevant question is do we even know how to build it? Don’t answer that if you’re an architect.

Architects need to produce clarity regardless of fee, regardless of schedule, regardless.



photo 1 credit: perfect clarity is oftentimes overwhelming : snail on glass pane condensation (2009) via photopin (license)
photo 2 credit: Expectation 2 via photopin (license)

expectations and disappointments

25 thoughts on “expectations and disappointments

  1. Lee,
    I’ve been reading your blog for over a year and thought to comment several times, but this one really hit home. I took a job as an estimator out of college and it wasn’t long before I knew which design firms I would hire (if I ever won the lottery) and those I would not go near. The frustration and time-consuming RFIs would drive me crazy working with plans from some firms.
    Having said that, I was schooled as a structural engineer. Almost all my design classes emphasized adding enough detail to be responsible but not so much as to be liable, if that makes any sense. Your thoughts?

    1. I’ve always been of the impression that you will not get what you don’t specify. If one cares about design all of the way down to the details, then one has to detail and specify appropriately. Some things and some assemblies can have less detail and less risk if they are well known in one’s area, but with custom work or unique design features, we cannot be too clear in my opinion. If it scares people off, then that’s OK.

  2. i just want to stand up and slow clap.

    YES!!! Awesome.

    I have heard from multiple contractors on projects ranging from the small to the very large and high profile. The complaints are the same – lack of detail, lack of coordination and lack of accuracy, leaving multiple issues to be solved by the contractor. And these are seasoned architects who rely too heavily on production staff who are not adequately trained and mentored in practice. It’s a systemic problem.

    1. I understand the argument from the other side. However, that’s another post, another day. We seems to be caring less about architecture and we just put poor drawing sets together and then who loses – the client and the community.

  3. Amen Lee! Excellent article. Over detailing is way better than under detailing.

    Design-bid and design-build project designers are both guilty of under detailing due to economic “fears”. Another cause is resting on the laurels of “experience” of the project team (“qualified bidders that know how to build out our designs”, “we’re a design-build firm so we don’t need very many construction docs/drawings because we know how to build what we design” – add another “hype” statement). These scenarios are partly true at face value but simply don’t provide the quality control of full and proper detailing and extensive daily construction inspection.

    1. I suppose I should say that there has to be a limit at some point where we must stop drawing and detailing. Common sense has be in place as an assumption. What really got me was hearing about basic fundamental elements missing with no care or shame.

  4. I also started my career when a lead holder was the method of producing a drawing. Thought went into a drawing before it was begun and the thought continued until the puzzle was completed. I agree that too many firms produce eye wash without understanding if what they have created is going to stand. “Leave it up to the contractor” seems to be a mind set today that diminishes our profession. We are to set the example, we are to know how the pieces fit together, we are to understand the systems. We don’t have to build the buildings, but we shouldn’t leave the details up to the workers in the field to figure out how the puzzle pieces should fit together. The sign of a great architectural firm isn’t always the number of awards on the wall, but instead the smoothness by which their creations are built.

  5. I completely agree with everything said.

    I’m a registered landscape architect with over 30 years of design, hands-on installation and landscape contracting experience. My landscape architectural design-build firm has a very particular design-build process and when we’re considered for conceptual design & budgeting and I insist upfront, as a landscape GC, on comprehensive construction documentation for each particular installation phase and daily inspection, or I will not take on a design project.

    I wonder how many architects are considering the model of an architect-led or multi-discipline-led, GC-based design-build practice that serves with very high and strict standards? To me, the client’s experience of the design and installation process, the short-term construction results and long-term durability/quality of construction are paramount.

  6. wmello1934 says:

    The absolute basis for incomplete documentation is: “How soon can I have the drawings?”
    CAD has made the expectation of a faster delivery of the drawings.
    The earliest critique of the use of computers was: “Garbage in garbage out.”
    Not even today is there really true “Design Software”.
    Challenge : Develop one!

    1. I use the greatest design software ever developed. It’s between my ears. Everything else I use is nothing more than a tool, a very sophisticated pencil, used to document the output of that software.

      And lets just put something to bed here. “CAD” has been around for creeping up on 40 years. If after that many years Architects can’t pull up their panties and teach their clients the realities of the design and construction process and simply TAKE the adequate time to properly document and detail a set of drawings then they have bigger problems. CAD is not a sufficient scapegoat.

      I give all my clients a realistic expectation of time. And I will tell them quite frankly that if they want it faster it will be less detailed and will take more time and money during construction to work out what is missed. That usually hits them close enough to home to see the light and let me do my job. If not, they’re not the kind of client I need to work for.

      1. wmello1934 says:

        “And lets just put something to bed here. “CAD” has been around for creeping up on 40 years.” CAD came after the “promised land” of CADD (Computer Aided Design and Drawing).
        “CAD is not a sufficient scapegoat.”
        “Amen” as it is only a tool without a brain. CAD (Computer Aided Drawing) But: “Drawings”, “Blueprints” (Found only in archives and some governmental project requirements give documentation an allusion of authenticity and precise thinking, are the expectation of the “vulgari”( Lat.?). Lines once drawn on the earth are now drawn in cyberspace.

    2. Good challenge – I am not the person to do it. I don’t see any excuse for doing poor work. I understand why people get things out quickly, therefore poorly, but it’s not an excuse. I don’t think any software will fix this.

  7. I think you make an excellent point here Lee.

    I would, however, like to share something interesting that happened to me recently. It in no way takes away from the general truth of your rant / transparency. But i had a contractor call me regarding a project i currently have out to bid with the city. They said the drawing sets were very detailed. Even “too detailed”.

    Now i am not exactly sure what to make of that other than one of two possibilities. One they were hoping for some short cuts that the level of detail did not afford them. Or two, they were hoping to be able to low ball the bid and gouge the city on change orders due to missing information. Either way, i took it as a kind of back handed compliment. Even the plan reviewer commented on how detailed the drawing set was.

    Anyways, i really think you sold yourself a bit short at the beginning. You certainly did have something to teach about the profession with this post.

    1. Matt, I have had that same experience with multiple contractors. I even had one contractor tell me flat out that he doesn’t like working with architects because the drawings are too specific and too detailed. Basically they have to stand behind the drawings and likely they think they can’t measure up.
      For public work, what I see most is a desire of the contractor to have a more vague set of drawings and specs so that they can price the “cheap shtuff” and hopefully get in lower than the other guy. But we all know that if a project is well designed, well detailed and well specified, there is no wiggle room and the client gets a near apples to apples comparison. Contractors really don’t like that, especially for public work when the low bid automatically wins.

      1. Lee, I completely agree that there is a great deal of responsibility on our shoulders as Architects. And far too often we shrug off what should be our duty to the client during design to the contractor to “figure out” during construction. I have worked with other architects that have told me specifically not to provide certain details because they did not want responsibility/liability for it. Just little things like…..weatherproofing. No big deal, right? The contractor can take care of that in the field….. *facepalm
        The good news is that there is a small but determined guard of architects coming into the fray that genuinely love their profession and want to see it lifted back to a position of power and prominence in communities all over the country. It’s a slow moving train but it’s MOVING.

      2. I agree. The problem here is we are all “the choir.” The other thing I’ve learned is no one can make someone else care. I’m glad you think the train is moving!

    2. This is the other side of the argument – the contractor. There’s truth to what you’re saying and I too have many stories. However, today, it’s on our shoulders.

    1. Thanks Liz. It seems obvious that some parts of a building do not require a ton of details. Therefore, as architects we “ought” to know to what degree details are required. My story, with names and details withheld to protect the guilty, involved flagrant (IMHO) elements missed or elements needing re-engineering on a signature building from an extremely well known architecture firm. Hubris, that’s all it was.

      1. Lee, it’s not hubris. It’s “we spent all the fee on design and now need to get it out the door so it doesn’t cost the firm money”. I’ve worked for a number of firms that are in that boat on every single project.

      2. I guess what I meant to explain was the architect’s response to the Owner or CM was one of arrogance, CYA and a spin on it that somehow exonerates themselves.

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