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August 8, 2000 10:44 AM CDT

The Contractor and the Architect

...and the lost art of communication

By

If you've been a contractor for any amount of time (like me), it's likely you've come into contact with an architect. If you tend to do a lot of commercial work, this likelihood increases even further, where indeed it can be hard to swing a dead cat without hitting an architect. But regardless the circumstance, the architect is an integral, dynamic cog in the building industry wheel and - most of the time - enjoys a positive, proactive working relationship with the contracting community.

Well, that sounded good to me - so we walked off the job.

Ten days later - and after a week and a half barrage of letters, phone calls, and faxes (mostly from the architect - to whom we didn't respond) and an occasional plea from a now very-exasperated owner, we received a written apology (from the owner) along with a humble entreaty for us to please return to the job. The letter assured us that there would be no further petty interference. We went back the following day - never heard from or saw the architect again (he'd mysteriously disappeared) - and finished the job on schedule. The project was inspected by another A/E firm (along with the applicable governing bodies) and everything was fine.

Searching for Common Ground
Unfortunately, I have other stories similar to this - and though admittedly extreme - the one above is not entirely unusual. There are design professionals out there who do take their responsibilities to rather absurd extremes at times. Now, this is probably an excellent time to mention that I remain fully (and painfully) aware that we contractors have our own malicious cast of characters with whom to contend. I'm further sure that there are architects out there who'd be delighted to regale me with the many failings of the contracting community, but that's not where I'm going with this piece.

Rather, I'd like to address a larger and - what I believe is a more looming danger - to our industry: communication ... communication that I watch degrade and disintegrate on an almost daily basis between the building and design professions. More and more, it seems that all I do is lock horns with architects or engineers over issues that (most often) end up being paltry, petty, ego-laden arguments that inevitably offer little good and offer little assistance to the fulfillment of our (supposedly) collective, ultimate goal: the delivery of a quality-constructed, cost-effective, and punctually-built project to the owner.

Questions
This breakdown in communication concerns me. In the building industry, communication is critical to efficiency. So, before the situation erodes further, let's take a moment to examine the contractor-architect relationship, as it happens in a typical competitive-bid situation, and explore some possible reasons why the architect and contractor often don't find themselves communicating on the same level. Let's begin our discussion by posing a couple of questions:
  • In a typical construction project, aren't the contractor and architect on the same team?

  • What hampers communication between the architect and contractor?
Well, certainly if the answers were simple there'd be no need for this discussion. But they're not. As a matter of fact, they can grow downright complex - so let's break down our argument into manageable components. Now, it's important to state that - admittedly - my thoughts and reflections spring from a contractor's point of view. A design professional will almost certainly see the matter in a different light. But in an effort towards enlightenment, someone has to start, so let's examine the contractor/architect relationship ... and explore some of the ways we communicate (and don't communicate) with one another.

The Contractor (And the Importance of Being First)
Let's look at the contractor. Now, when I say contractor, I'm referring to general contractors, subcontractors, some suppliers (who install their own products) ... and pretty much anybody who performs the physical construction of a project. They're the one's who get their hands dirty; who interpret the working drawings and specifications; and who - in the overall timeline on the project - are the last one's to arrive at the party.

What do I mean? Well, it goes like this: in the typical competitive-bid scenario, the owner of the project probably first came up with the idea. He's hosting the party, so he's first. Next, an architect is brought in and - after some negotiation - a deal is struck between those two parties. The architect is the second one to arrive at the party and now represents the owner. They basically become co-players; team members. So far, so good.

The contractor has yet to come on board. The owner and architect conceive a strategy and the architect prepares the bidding documents (the plans and specifications). Much of the specification - particularly division 1 - "General Requirements" is preconceived and is merely adapted to the project. This includes legal documents, agreements, indemnifications, and jargon (formed over the years) that is slanted (in my opinion, arrogantly) toward the architect and owner - and away from the contractor.

All of this bidding information is assembled and delivered to the bidding contractors as basically a "take it or leave it" ultimatum. The contractor, in order to generate enough proposals required to secure the necessary amount of revenue (in the form of construction work) to support his cause, takes it. The contractor is the last one to arrive at the party and - after reading the specification - feels anything but welcome. This is where things begin to go awry - and where our answer to question number one above begins to materialize: no, it appears that the architect and contractor are not on the same team.

Rolling Along
But, let's assume we get past the bidding stage (as we so often do) and the contract is awarded. From the successful contractor's viewpoint - particularly if he's recently made the leap from residential to commercial construction - forming a new relationship with an architect can be perplexing. Suddenly, there are new rules - lot's of new rules - and there's far more pomp and formality than before. Alien phrases like critical path, submittals, shop drawings, liquidated damages, and mockups find their way abruptly into our contractor's previously blissful blue-collar daily routine and - to make matters worse - one morning, after the construction has started up, he arrives to find the following memo resting on his fax machine. It's from the project architect (* Author's note: this is an actual memo that I received on a recent project.):

Memo: (To the contractor)
"From this point on, we (the architect and his firm) will no longer be accepting direct phone calls from subcontractors or suppliers on this project. All future correspondence shall be submitted, in writing - via the general contractor - for the remaining duration of construction. Upon receipt of this correspondence, we will respond in writing within 3 business days. Thank you." Our contractor is now mortifyingly aware that he's not in Kansas anymore.

The Architect
But perhaps there's no need for our contractor to panic just yet. After all, architects do have their purpose - and a tremendously difficult and complex task to perform. So, it's understandable that they must be careful. Just for a moment, consider the scope and logistics of compiling and creating a discernible and logical set of working drawings and specifications for - say - a $1,000,000 office building construction. Then, consider further that the entire project probably found it's genesis as no more than conceptual conversation between the owner and the architect; with preliminary variables running wild (when, where, who, what, and how much?) - and you begin to see the enormity of such an undertaking.

The detail is staggering - and so is the responsibility. The architect must not only create - but must also relay to the average trade person - a set of documents that explains the structure, use, aesthetics, and so much more, in a way that is understandable, economic, and expedient. Often, he accomplishes this with outside assistance (such as mechanical, electrical, or structural engineers), but may - particularly with larger firms - perform all of the work in house. Regardless, with such a tremendous amount of information to be relayed to paper, it's no wonder that often times it can appear to the average contractor that the architect is cold, clinical, analytical, and (often) aloof in their everyday dealings (ever heard of "an engineer's mentality").

Communication
But therein may lie our answer to question number two. Running the risk of sounding stereotypical, it's been my experience that most contractors prefer to perform the majority of their daily correspondence and interaction verbally - be it briefing the crews, negotiating the next job, or reprimanding a slow worker. At the same time, architects tend to shy away from verbal commitment or explanation, fearing both misunderstanding and liability. The architect simply finds that written instruction is solidly more concise, understandable, and legally binding ... and, for the most part, that's true. That is of course, assuming that the written communication doesn't spin horrifyingly out of control.

Like the following. This is an actual transcript from a specification manual for a job I'm bidding right now - and the cause of this article. Now, it's important to note that I didn't go looking for this and that - unfortunately - I've seen many more like it over the years.

It reads:
Imperative language is used generally in specifications. Except as otherwise specified, requirements expressed imperatively are to be performed by Contractor. For clarity of reading at certain locations, contrasting subjective language is used to describe the responsibilities which must be fulfilled indirectly by Contractor or, when so noted, by others.
Well, that certainly clears that up! I'll call the architect to get a translation, but don't wait around for me ... because it'll be three days before I know anything!


About the Author

With over 25 years in construction, primarily as an estimator and project manager, Steve Saucerman now writes, speaks and consults for the construction industry. He also teaches part-time in the Building Construction Technology division for Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill. He has published two books and over 350 articles to date and his writing is featured in construction periodicals all over the world.

 

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