The Contractor and the Architect
...and the lost art of communication
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.
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.
- In a typical construction project, aren't the contractor and architect on the same team?
- What hampers communication between the architect and contractor?
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.
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").
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.
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.