If you’ve followed my past series on small projects, of which the last one appeared in late 2016, it seems evident that we wrap it up with a post on a crucial service provided by architects, construction administration, or CA in our slang or vernacular. As always, here are the ground rules – first, I cannot speak to how this service plays out in a large firm and second, I can only speak to my experience in two previous small firms and my own. The invitation to converse about your experiences (if you are an architect) is always welcomed and if you’ve hired an architect, it would be even greater to hear if you’ve retained your architect throughout construction.
The next critical step in unraveling this misunderstood beast is distinguishing between how it plays out with residential projects versus commercial projects, or whether it exists at all. Several years ago, I wrote a post, a bit tongue and cheek, reacting to the public’s misunderstanding of this service and attempting to communicate through humor why every project designed by an architect needs, demands or requires that same architect to continue their services by overseeing or administering the contract, thus the term, contract administration.
Simply put, contract administration, often called construction observation or some other recapitulation of those terms, is the architect continuing their traditional role by offering a series of services with the goal of confirming that the process and construction work in place generally conforms to the design and contract documents. There are very formal and legal ways to describe it and there are simple, but practical ways to describe it. However, what might this look like for a small project where formality is fleeting and layers of protocol are rare, if non-existent?
After being in practice coming on 27 years with nearly 15 of that running my own firm, I can say that I’ve made policy decisions in the past few years, to all but refuse any residential project where the client simply wants “drawings” and has no intention of me performing CA services. This has permitted me to turn away many projects and I can say with experience, that has been one of the wisest things I’ve done. I’ve learned from past experience that more things go awry when the architect is absent or only permitted to be on call – called when a problem arises.
Next, there needs to be a contract for the architect to administer! People – please, oh please do not start work without a contract – and that too is a subject all to itself. Moreover, during construction of a residential project, I strive to maintain the same process I do for small projects (see below), but the meetings are generally informal, attended by the G.C. and the Owner. It takes tenacity to keep it going and many contractors don’t encourage or desire for the architect to be there. “Aw, do we have to have another meeting” (insert your own whiny sound).
Again, this relationship must be established at the earliest of interviews with a client; they need to understand our role and our value and our commitment to protect them from the very beginning to the very end. Otherwise, consider saying no – if for no other reason than to add emphasis to your point. It then needs to be established and enforced by the client with the contractor. During this phase, I have to be pro-active and hound the contractor for submittals, set up job meetings and force them at times to communicate only through me and not “yuck it up” with the Owner on the job site. It’s not for the squeamish.
Even though small commercial projects generally eschew formality much like residential projects, I find it important to establish the “rules” up front so everyone knows what to expect. Most of my clients are looking to me to maintain order and be the liaison between them and the contractor, knowing their own limitations and not wanting to say or do the wrong thing. I liken it to being a really good Kindergarten teacher. I’ll speak of my commercial clients who act as their own G.C. on another occasion.
Communication and organization are two critical components to maintain while establishing a process or protocol for exchanging information and for making decisions. As soon as a contractor is selected (early or through bidding), and before construction even begins, I explain how the process will play out and what I expect in terms of submittals, communication (RFI, ASI, Supplemental Drawings) and how job meetings will be scheduled and conducted. Many of the contractors in my world have never worked with an architect, so this process really throws them. Fortunately, I work with a few quality contractors repeatedly and we have this down. They prefer when I’m around for their own sake and we work very well together.
We generally meet every other week, I record and distribute meeting minutes and all decisions are in writing (often emails), but these meetings are often held standing up on the job site or standing around a make-shift table made of plywood and saw horses instead of a work trailer or conference room. I always have an agenda made from the last meeting minutes with additional items noted. The agenda starts with routine, “house-keeping” items first such as schedules, change orders, work in place, and other items like that. Then we move to specific discussion items and work through details and the scheduled work for the next few weeks. Sub-contractors are always invited, but they’d rather attend an opera before sitting through a meeting with an architect.
I spend the morning before meetings going through the drawings and specs looking for critical discussion items, and the afternoon is often full of follow up, clarification and typing up the minutes. This can continue for the next few days in some cases. Submittals are reviewed (that’s another topic to discuss later), and returned with our stamp and we expect the G.C. to devise a system for numbering them and we keep a log of submittals reviewed and submittals remaining. This occurs electronically these days, but I dare say, I run into contractors that may not even have an email address apart from their wife’s Gmail account, and they never check it.
This may sound formal to some, but not nearly as formal or lengthy as a large project, I surmise. The project is reasonably documented, we take photos and even the contractor can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that they can get confirmation on decisions and their questions. If the architect does it right, the contractor will see them as an impartial judge capable of keeping them on schedule and can shield them from the occasional indecisive building owner.
If you are a building owner, tenant or client, this is where you will be able to measure your architect beyond their art or creativity to design. This is where organization, authority and confidence in the design becomes evident while balancing that with their ability to establish communication, team-building and impartiality.
Any architect I know will say this repeatedly – you cannot afford to go it alone during construction without your architect unless you are an expert construction professional, and that too is questionable if the author is not present. I will say for fairness, that contractors (in my world) are not maliciously cutting corners or choosing to rob the owner (we vet them carefully), but they process this information differently than we document it, so an interpreter (the author – the architect) is the critical person(s) to have available to see that things go as intended. Ask yourself:
- How can you monitor the construction progress, interpret the quality and correctness of the work as well as review the expected exchange of submittals, shop drawings and sample selections on your own?
- How can you respond to technical questions that are answered only by an intimate knowledge and review of a stack of drawings you probably haven’t even flipped through let alone read?
- If the G.C. submits shop drawings, catalog cuts, or selection charts, do you know where to start?
- How do you know the G.C. has coordinated the work between the architectural, structural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, civil, fire protection, and so on?
- When something has been missed and an alternate solution is necessary, who determines if their solution is good enough when you’ve paid for a design – one that has characteristics that can only be confirmed by the designer?
- How can you enforce the correction to improper or sub-par work if you don’t know what is supposed to be there?
- Would you even recognize if something was wrong, whether unintentional or not?
If you don’t think this is important or if you don’t care, then don’t complain the next time you go to a restaurant, order the veal parmigiana with penne and red sauce and bread sticks, and they give you chicken parmigiana, a side spaghetti with marinara with burnt garlic bread and claim that’s close enough. Right now, my architect friends are thinking of hundreds of iterations to my joke.
Small projects require an architect; the only thing small about them is their size, not their importance.