Construction Administration – Where the Paper Meets the Road
Construction Administration is a balancing act between the design team and the contractor, while keeping the owner squarely in the middle. At this point in the project, the design team has hopefully satisfied the program. The temptation to continue to design has finally ended and the drawings have been coordinated to avoid any potential problems that will arise once the contractors begin work. During this phase the architectural firm designates a Construction Administrator to facilitate the design with the contractor.
Coordination is affected by whether the building is a new structure or a renovation project. New buildings allow the opportunity to start fresh on a site. Renovation projects, however, must go through a separate filter to mesh new systems with old by relying on the original documents. Unfortunately, older buildings rarely conform to the initial drawings due to the contractors’ deviations during the original construction and the years of owner modifications. Extra investigation is therefore required to avoid major surprises on these renovations.
In either case, Construction Administration is the one phase of the design process, where “the paper meets the road.” Here are five tips to help this phase go more smoothly:
1. Know your drawings, know your building
A good set of documents should have a clear order to them to help the contractor navigate through the design. Towards the end of the construction document phase, when extra hands are required in the office to get those last details on the drawings, it is a challenge to keep a set well-organized. And during the addenda phase, even more details are created. That is why the design team should always add a Miscellaneous sheet so that last-minute details can be placed together.
Either way, when discussing an issue with the superintendent, the Construction Administrator (CA) needs to be able to quickly recall the location of a specific detail in the drawing set. It is equally important to memorize the column grid for immediate referencing. A contractor wants to rely on this person to understand the problem that needs to be resolved as quickly as possible. The contractor will feel more assured that the CA knows the building better than they do, at least in the beginning of the process. When a good relationship is formed, it becomes a bit of a contest to have an ongoing tally between the CA and the superintendent regarding details that were bought in the set versus ones that were not anticipated.
2. Be honest
While protecting the firm’s reputation, it is still important to acknowledge if a drawing has failed to address a building condition. For instance, when wood blocking is drawn to secure a window, but physically does not connect to anything substantial or the location cannot be accessed, then the detail has failed. This occurrence fuels the reputation that contractors think architects do not understand construction. At those times, the architect needs to acknowledge that the detail is insufficient, and they should work together with the contractor to find a better solution. And when it comes time to review the change order with the owner, the contractor will appreciate the architect admitting that the drawing missed some important information.
As a bit of an aside, during the construction document phase, it is best to work out the most common connections first and allow the unusual ones to be resolved at the end of the phase or during the addenda. If a common connection is not shown or does not work correctly, it will cost the owner a lot more to fix it at multiple locations rather than paying for the one oddball detail.
Contractors do not like to see the detail note, “As Required.” Do the research up front to verify that no expensive requirement is missing from the drawing. The design team will never win an argument on just that note alone. For instance, there may be a proprietary condition associated with a “basis of design” product whereby a component needs to be installed a certain way. However, if the contractor can prove that no other manufacturer has that same installation condition, the detail shown may be missing information which turns into another change order.
3. Respect the contractor
Every time an architect goes to a jobsite, there is an opportunity to learn about the construction process. There are many times when a question to the contractor will show respect to the people who do the work. The proper process though, is for the architect to avoid speaking directly to the subcontractors or at least to do it when the construction manager is present. In the beginning of a project, this is strongly followed. As the project moves along, opportunities may occur where a foreman will try to forge a bond with the design team to have obstacles resolved quickly. This is a tricky situation, but with careful communication and constant checking with the superintendent, these conditions can work to the advantage of the project. Comradery is achieved when bartering work can be negotiated. Perhaps allowing to simplify one detail for the subcontractor can turn into some other unforeseen situation being hidden by a no cost change somewhere else in the building.
These project team relationships do not have to end once a project is completed. When figuring out a detail on a future project, take the opportunity to contact a foreman from a previous project and request their advice on detailing a component more efficiently. These relationships are very valuable in fostering a level of trust and shared respect in a field that can sometimes be extremely adversarial.
4. Work as a team
Never approach a contractor with the idea that you know more than they do. An architect’s main mission is to state the design intent and observe that the work is being performed per the documents. However, if there is a discrepancy or lack of information within the drawings, ask open-ended questions to the contractor on how they would economically propose a solution. Stay away from means and methods but assist in the discussion as a partner in the process. Parse out the important elements of the design from the frivolous parts to reach an easier solution.
On the construction site there tends to be a belief that most designers are lacking construction knowledge. When possible, use a bit of self-deprecation to disarm any negativity and build a team approach. At other times, it is important to speak one’s mind, especially if information from the contractor seems not to ring true. For example, if it has been made clear that the owner is interested in altering an area, and yet the sub has continued to do work that they know will need to be changed, it is time to say, “Hold it! You knew we were making this change.” It is not fair to the owner to have to pay for redoing new work on top of potential design costs from changes. Always frame discussions that the project is a team effort, and that everyone needs to work together to achieve goals.
5. Enjoy the construction process
Designing in the office engages architects in the world of expressing creativity while serving our clients to solve their program in physical form. However, spending more time in the office removes architects from the experience of watching and learning more about the construction process. And, it is a privilege to share this experience with the people that build the building. If the contract allows, and if the GC/CM feels it is required, attend the daily contractor meetings. On fast-paced projects this may be the only way to move things along at the required speed needed to complete a project by the deadline. This is the best way to show that you are an active participant in the process.
After months of working together, it is a pleasure to receive accolades not only from the owners of your projects but from the contractors as well. It should be a goal of our profession to increase our knowledge as well-rounded students of architecture as well as of the construction process. These five concepts will help with this purpose.