A lot of people hate architects. This became apparent to me while dodging dinner rolls at a recent conference related to the production of documentation for construction projects. Attending were architects, engineers, contractors, and owners. The seminar was valuable but the classes only hinted at this undercurrent of animosity for my profession. The “arrogant architect” exists and, apparently, really can get away with it. Amazingly, they are tolerated, even by the same owners who so quickly reminded me of the Golden Rule: “He Who Has The Gold Makes The Rules.” What most concerned me was that the tension, the discussion about the tension, and the jokes about the tension, all seemed to be the fuel that that kept the life of the conference going. Without it, breaks and meals would have been subdued, and dinner rolls would have been eaten instead.
History has shown that our industry thrives on tension. Certainly there are necessary tensions that keep the parties honest and serving the best interest of the client. These can be healthy and good-natured. The cancer is the irreparable bad feelings that emerge in so many client-architect-contractor relationships. After all these years, why haven’t we gotten it right?
There are ways to go through the process with minimal tension, and with all parties happy and intact. All parties can contribute to minimizing problems. University clients have special challenges and opportunities. But the size and make-up of colleges and universities are as diverse as the architecture firms that infuriate them; it is difficult to be too specific. Consequently, the information that follows may serve to help others not hate their architects. We may soon have a movement on our hands.
There are steps that university owners can take to contribute to a successful job, and good communication is the common thread among them all. Most people understand the importance of good communication – they just don’t think it’s worth the time to discuss it. Timing is the key. Honest, frank, and clear discussions are useless if they happen two weeks too late. Ask the tough questions before you hire your architect. Notice that the office layout will never work before construction documents begin. Find out why there is a urinal in the lobby before construction documents are completed. This requires active participation and review on the part of the owner.
The first party involved in a university project is the university. It is incumbent on that party to do the front-end work. This must be done as thoroughly as possible. Items that need to be addressed are:
1. What are the requirements of the project, generally speaking?
2. What is your schedule?
3. What is the source of funding, and how do any fund raising efforts fit into the schedule?
4. What is the anticipated cost, or what is available?
5. What will be the project delivery method?
6. Are there land development or ownership issues that need to be addressed?
7. If the site is known, is there a current survey? You will likely need a geotechnical report (soil borings) shortly after the end of schematics. Your architect and civil engineer can assist with this, but the owner usually hires the geotechnical engineer.
8. If there are existing buildings, is there an asbestos issue? Architects typically do not get involved in asbestos abatement at the request of their insurance carriers.
9. Who are the key players/decision-makers on your team?
10. Every campus should have a masterplan. This is a living document that is your map to how the campus will be developed. Contract with a good, experienced architect who can help guide you through this process.
Your architect may be able to help you make some of these decisions. That expectation must be made clear from the very beginning. In some cases, a feasibility study may be appropriate. Feasibility studies are useful for examining options for approaches to a project, and to help decide which direction to take, or whether to go with a project at all. It is also a good opportunity to test-drive an architect.
Once the front-end work is done, you should have a clear idea of what you want, what you have to spend, and when you’d like it done. This then needs to be tested against reality. Architects can be like Aunt Bea. They really believe that they can make everyone happy. But sometimes Andy needs to hear the truth. You need an architect that will tell you can’t have it all. And you need to hear it before you start – not halfway through the project. So, ask your architects to pick apart your front-end work – unless they’re the ones who did it – analyze your program, and offer an opinion of how realistic it is.
The day you hire your architect should not be the last time you smile at each other. Don’t feel held hostage by your own architect! Believe it or not, this happens. Think about your architect in terms of these three aspects of any project:
1. The process leading up to project completion.
2. The finished project.
3. The service following project completion.
Depending on the school, the criteria for these may vary. For example, some universities may be looking for a signature building from a well-known architect. There are distinct advantages to this approach. However, there may be distinct drawbacks about which you must educate yourself. If you enter into contract with a big name architect that has a history of doubling the project budget, add an appropriate contingency, and don’t be surprised when it gets used.
The interviewing process can be useful in discovering what the values of the potential architects are, but it mostly tells you how well the architect interviews. The best way to find out the real story on any architect is to check references. Ask questions targeted to address your own values as an owner: Were problems dealt with fairly? Did the architect respond to your wishes? After the project was complete, was the architect there, or did they vanish? Find an architect that shares your values as both a designer and as a businessperson.
During the design and documentation phase, focus on communicating your desires clearly to your architect. If there are any questions in your mind, you can be certain your architect either doesn’t know, or thinks she knows but doesn’t.
1. Develop a written program. This is a list of spaces with associated square footages, and points out important spatial relationships. If there are still decisions to be made, your architect may be able to assist. If you require this type of service, be clear about that up front, and find an architect who has experience with programming. Depending on your project, this can be a complex process involving many meetings and interviews. He should be able to make suggestions about how to economize, interpret, and prioritize the needs expressed by the many groups he may talk to. He can provide information about how needs affect the budget and schedule. With his input, the owner must make final decisions. The program will serve as the roadmap in the schematic design phase. At the end of programming, both the architect and the owner should share the same clear idea of what is needed in the building, and what the implications are.
2. Provide timely information. Most architects are bad mind readers. Let your architect know what you want before its too late. However, it is possible to tell too much too soon. While trying to work out spatial organizations, for example, its is a little premature to point out that you’d like one of the receptacles mounted four feet high in the commuter lounge. Your architect may make a note of this, but it might get buried in a set of notes that he won’t look at when she sits down with the electrical engineer four months later. If possible, write these detailed issues down and give them to the architect at the appropriate time. This can be the start of a manual for other projects, especially for items that you know you always want.
3. Understand that buildings are complex. Even small projects require decisions about hundreds of details (large projects will have thousands), in which the choices are many and the solutions not always obvious. Be prepared to participate in meetings with your architect to discuss these details. Be as specific as possible regarding your preferences and avoid generalizations such as “quality like my living room” or we want a “Chevy not a Cadillac” since statements like these will be easily misinterpreted. While meeting notes that record decisions are useful, the ultimate documentation of any project is the drawings and specifications. Make sure you understand them. If there are symbols, terms or notes, which are unfamiliar, insist that your architect explain them to you. Insist on your right (and also make time, usually several weeks) to review and criticize the documents before the project is bid.
4. Identify the decision makers. In universities, committees tend to rule. There are often so many parties involved that design meetings need to be served lunch in shifts. If possible, have a single point of contact. This person should be responsible to the architect for providing the vision, and responsible to the university for getting the vision right. When a question arises, there should be one person to call. That’s a lot of heat for one person. Someone who can do this well is a valuable asset to any university.
5. Have periodic reviews to evaluate the design, the budget, and the schedule. Perform value engineering throughout the job. Your architect should have a sound method for achieving cost estimates throughout the design process to avoid surprises. If the design needs to be reviewed by upper-level university officials, have your architect present to them as early in the process as possible once all the active parties are satisfied with the progress. Some universities have a process in place for such reviews. These are helpful in that they necessitate that progress has achieved certain levels at points along the timeline. Review the progress of the documents as frequently as feasible to be sure the project remains on schedule. However, remember this about reviews and meetings: they tend to interrupt the flow of the daily progress of the job in the office. If possible, arrange to visit the architect in his office during this phase in the interest of minimizing meeting time.
6. Stomp out “scope creep.” This occurs when requirements for space, or services increase during the course of the design and documentation. It occurs a little at a time, but ultimately has a large effect on the final project. Sweeping, wholesale changes can be dealt with at once, and the changes to the budget, schedule, and fees are usually clear. Scope creep is insidious because each change is thought of as relatively small, the overall impact cannot be understood easily, and the effects to budget, schedule and fees are not often discussed. This leads to surprises at the end of the project.
7. Include an appropriate contingency. A small percentage of the contract amount should be set aside to cover unexpected problems during construction. If this money is available, change orders will be covered and headaches reduced.
8. Pick your battles. Problems and changes will arise. If you feel the need to nail the design and/or construction team to the wall every time, you may make discussions of everyday, common issues so distasteful that the lines of communication will whither. Be firm, but also be fair. Remember, if your contractor feels he can be honest without penalty, you will benefit financially. Contractors are in a good position to hide information. If he is being treated fairly, he will not need to hide anything. Understanding the process will help, and your architect can educate you about what to expect.
9. Think twice before “value engineering.” Value engineering is the term used for chopping things out of a project after bids are received in order to get the cost within budget. True value engineering occurs throughout the job with a cost estimator or contractor. If you approve changes to the contract drawing at the end of the job, expect the amount of money you think you saved to shrink significantly. End-of-the-project changes are frequently bid quickly and are not well thought out. A better way to control cost is to get several cost estimates throughout the process, and design alternates into the job, either to add things you may want or to eliminate things you can forego. The advantage is that the architect prior to bidding thinks through the alternate, and the effects of the addition or deletion is designed and understood.
10. Stay involved. The role of the university in a project does not end once the project enters the construction phase. There will be decisions that only the owner can make, and that decision usually needs to come fast. Look at the paperwork coming in to see if your response is required. Your only indication of whether you are expected to answer could very well be nothing more than a box checked next to “For Review and Comment.” Turn paperwork around fast, because its journey only begins with you.
The third and final party added to your team will be your contractor. Be aware that you have a variety of choices when it comes to project delivery. Construction management, design-build, and design-bid-build (the traditional method) are the most common, but not the only ones. An architect can educate you on different delivery methods, and will likely offer an opinion on each. The reality is that the best delivery for you will depend on the university, the building type, and the experiences of the university personnel involved with the job. It’s ok for your architect to have an opinion, but look for flexibility.
Don’t hate your architect. An architect has everything to lose and nothing to gain from an unhappy university client. With organizations like ACUHO-I, APPA, etc. you have a vast network available, and reputation for an architect is everything. If you have chosen your architect well, she will be genuinely interested in giving you an excellent building and quality service. On a good project, the architect will make some money, the contractor will make some money, and the owner will have a project that meets, and hopefully exceeds expectations. This really is possible when all parties remember this goal, pursue the project with fairness, and keep the lines of communication flowing freely. Architects everywhere will be able to hold their heads up high without the fear of simply become a better target.
Submitted by Ted Sottong, AIA, who is a principal in the firm of Noelker & Hull Associates, Inc