Gripes for Architects

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As people who see over 100 drawing sets a year cross our threshold, you better believe we've found a few things Architects do that are pain points.

So this week, at the request of an Instagram follower who is an Architect, we dive into some issues that we commonly run into as modelers.  This isn't meant to slam architects, but to inform and try to spur conversation. 

The Instagram message that kicked off this episode -

"I think a fascinating topic would be your biggest gripes with architects. Things they do that make your job more challenging. Things they do well & things they do poorly in your experience, generally speaking. The topic isn't meant to be negative, but informative. I'm sure there are so many things I could do better on my end to make the whole process of getting something built easier/smoother, but if I'm not aware of a problem, I can't fix it." - @theobsessedarchitect via instagrame

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Tyler: Welcome to the Construction Brothers Podcast. I'm your host, Tyler Campbell, and with me like he is every week: My brother, Eddie Campbell. 

Eddie: What's up Tyler? 

Tyler: Not much, Eddie. Well, this week: Gripes for architects.


Main topic: (11:37)

Tyler: All right, so getting to the topic: Eddie, do you have any gripes that you could bring to us that might kick us off here? 

Eddie: Well, all right. Top of list is a gripe about coordination. When we get a set of architectural documents, many times there will be phrases like “contractor to coordinate.” And the difficulty with that statement is that it trickles down. The intention I think is that, like, you're looking at a set of docs and you see “contractor to coordinate” and you would think, all right, general contractor, right? Well, that's what the sub’s thinking, that the general contractor is going to coordinate. And so that, that might work out on some jobs, some occasions, some circumstances, but then a lot of times the general contractor’s looking downstream at subs going, “That's the sub’s job. You're a contractor, too.” And so it ends up being kind of a game of back and forth. And I think that an architect doing this, it feels like, “I don't have what I need to gather the information to explain how this is going to work, so I'll put ‘contractor to coordinate’ and I'll end up kind of passing the buck to somebody else,” which is a negative way of saying it. But it really is. It's kind of passing the buck, like it's saying, “I'm gonna draw a line in the sand. This isn't my job.” The difficulty with that is, you haven't really conveyed whose job it is. And though you say “contractor to coordinate” and it would kind of naturally fall down on the general contractor, I don't know that the architects always get out of this clean. I think that that might be not a gripe to an architect, but a gripe from an architect, is that all the RFI that come back—sometimes those RFI really gum up the system, and in bad cases, RFI can cause architects to lose money. I mean, that is a whole portion of the contract and the project. So I don't think that this is necessarily a productive statement. I think that staying away from blanket sweep statements that don't assign whose job something is would be a good path, right? If you say “contractor to coordinate,” maybe say “MEP contractor to coordinate” or “MEP subcontractor to coordinate,” or— 

Tyler: Be a little more specific.

Eddie: Be a little more specific with it, or, you know, I'm just looking for clear lines of who has what. And I do understand that general contractors have the job of coordinating and trying to bring all of the trades together. I get it. I totally get it, but this can create scope gap. This can create confusion over whose job something is. And it slows a project down because we don't know how to get the information to move forward. And that, for us, has been the main stopping point or tripping hazard in projects is just not having the information to do our job. We're very good at our job. We can move through our job, but I can't do that if I don't know what your intent is. Clearly define your intent and tell me what I have to do to find this information if you don't have it.

Tyler: Yeah. It ends up in a kind of a pointing match. You know, everybody's pointing at the other party saying, “Well, you're supposed to, and you’re supposed to.” So you can help your general contractor out by just assigning a task, really, to a sub, you know, like you said, that MEP contractor, just saying, “I'm going to put the ball in your court, talk to your general contractor and make sure everything's right, and I'm here if you need me.” Try to push them in that direction, help them organize their project. And it's a simple statement, too. It doesn't need to be that much more text on your page. 

Eddie: Well, okay. So let's hit the majors. Like here are major offenders. And I think the architects that are listening to this, they're going to let out kind of a collective groan as well—‘cause it's like, ah, yeah, those do stink to try to coordinate: Elevators, curtain wall systems, mechanical units on a roof. Those are three that really cause a lot of pain and headache. The recommendation, so that we're not just bringing problems, we're bringing solutions—the solution as well would be to, I mean, I know we're all fighting for fee. That seems to be kind of the deal in that world. Like we're fighting to try to win the job for a fee, and if we harbor too much responsibility then we can't keep our fees low. But go ahead and do the diligence and do the availability research, do the cost analysis and try to help your owner understand the value you're bringing to the process, how you're giving them more. And I think that you can get paid for being a little better at what you do. 

Tyler: Well, I think a great example of that is one of the fabricators that we've come across. I saw one of their proposals by accident one time, and I was wondering how they got the job. The general contractor didn't do a good job of sorting their information, so they let all of their proposals out into the world. And so I was able to actually, I’d just kind of fallen into them one day just to see what everybody's bid was on the project. And the winner of the project was not the lowest, it wasn't the highest, but it was the most specific. 

Eddie: Yeah, it was the thorough guy. 

Tyler: It was the thorough guy. It was the person that knew the job the most. And you know, we ended up working with that person on the job and man, they had their head wrapped around it really well. So yes, I think you can command more fee if you're putting in those specifics. You can say, “No, I've really got my head in this job and here are the reasons why you need me to be on it.” You're not the person that's vague. You're the person that knows what's happening. It breeds confidence. 

Eddie: Well, and a lot of times, those three—elevators, mechanical units, and curtain walls—the reason they cause issues is because we don't want to commit to a vendor. So we figured, well, if I commit to the one, then the low sub is going to want to use a different one. You know, if I commit to Trane units or something like that, they're going to want to use something else. If I commit to this curtain wall system, they want to use that one. If I commit to this, you know, elevator, they're gonna want to use that one. But doing that cost analysis upfront would enable you to go ahead and specify and say, “I want this. This is what I want, bid that thing.” What that should draw out if you've got a good crowd of bidders is that the people that can provide that well will be the low bidders. And they’ll be able to provide that service kind of on par with what you expect. ‘Cause honestly, we're looking to meet expectations with the rounds of bidding we go through, right? No significant cost overruns. And one thing that can cause significant cost overrun is a lack of information that leads to RFI and change order. 

Tyler: Yeah, and those change orders, I'm sure a lot of you know, those things can rack up.

Eddie: A kissing cousin to this is “see structural drawings.” And what this tends to do, like when the structural drawings say, “see arc,” and the architectural drawing say, “see struc,” I see a lot of times that means they haven't really talked or coordinated because they don't know what's there.

Tyler: Have you ever seen the person that's like, “Oh, it's this way,” and they cross both arms and point in both directions? That's what it feels like when you run into this stuff. And I think it's a result of the engineer and the architect. Maybe, maybe it's the architect in some cases, not looking at the engineer's drawings for a very long time and kind of studying them like they should. And this stuff ends up kind of falling through the cracks.

Eddie: For an architect that has consultants working underneath them—or working with them, I should say—I would say it is your job to make sure that you've managed your consultants well enough to know what they're doing. And so, we see documentation where it's obvious that the different designers have mashed their Revit models up. And it's like, yeah, they're all occupying the same space. But I mean, there are times that things do not make sense at all. And it's obvious the drawings weren't reviewed before they were let go, they were let go of too quick, their QC QA process just didn't happen. And then these “see structural drawings,” “see arc,” you know, “contractor coordinate,” all of these just kind of like arbitrary notes that really kind of leave you open-ended, they just, they put that burden down on somebody else. And when somebody else has to do that thing, they're going to find a way to charge for it. It is kind of a running joke around the office that “see arc” on a set of structural drawings is almost like the structural engineer pointing a finger at the architect and going, like, “I couldn't find it. Why don't you try?” It's almost like a joke, like flicking the nose, like a flip in the nose, “see arc, it isn't there,” is what that means. I couldn't find it, therefore you won't be able to either. You'll understand why I don't have this information when I put “see arc” on here. 

Tyler: I think it's worth saying, too, and often we've run into this with some other— Like, there's a very specific project that we'll work on that we never get a “for construction” set of drawings. Because they're so quick, they're trying to push it down everybody's throat and get them to move. So in a lot of cases, I feel like the architects don't have a chance to really finish their job.

Eddie: Oh, fair. We’re one of the upfront trades, too. I mean the concrete, the structural elements of the job are the things that you got to lean into. You got to get all of that stuff there. 

Tyler: Yeah. And so I think there's a little bit of understanding that we can kind of reach an olive branch out there and be like, listen, we get it. You know, everybody's coming at you and saying, “We need it yesterday.” So here's some of these things and hopefully, hopefully some of these things can spark some ideas to make some of these issues go away or make it a little easier on the people downstream. One of mine is not getting your dimensions right. Using nominal dimensions versus actual dimensions. CMU, or concrete block, is a great example of this. 

Eddie: You mean it's not eight inches, Tyler? 

Tyler: It's not eight inches. It's seven and five eighths. 

Eddie: Okay. The next thing you're going to tell me is that a two by four is not two by four. 

Tyler: Ha ha ha, it's not. So some of these materials that you're specifying, you're not actually using the real dimensions. Be aware of that. You know, and I don't know if they're going to teach you this in architecture school, but you know, you'll learn this if you get out in the field, is that this stuff is not the real dimensions. It's a funny thing that happens. So pay attention to some of those things. This can be really annoying and it can cause a lot of busts in your layout when these dimensions aren't correct. If you're using an eight inch, that means you’re three eighths off of what is actually going on there. Think about that. That's going to be an issue.

Eddie: Yeah. Well, here's another one: When you're dimensioning things, don’t just go with a nominal. So use the seven and five eighths instead of the eight inch for a block wall, right? But then when you do that, tie those dimensions back to a grid line. Don't just run a string of dimensions that never tie back to a grid line. The grid lines are the control that we use to lay things out, you know, structurally. But then, I mean, your walls inside the layout of those inside, those are the things that are controlling on that site. So, I would really press for, hey, tie dimensions back to grid lines. They will help the guys that are doing the layout.

Tyler: Kind of a mental thing, a little thing that I use when we're detailing structure, and especially on either drawings or even shop drawings, is I always make sure that I have horizontal dimensions and vertical dimensions. Now, for an architecture drawing, you want to make sure that you're tying a vertical dimension to a grid line or a horizontal dimension to a grid line. So you're dimensioning across and up to grid lines. If you've got a, let's say a shaft, where you've got some stairs—that's a great example, because that just kind of falls on sometimes on the exterior and the interior, it kind of bumps out. It can be a little odd. Just make sure you’re dimensioning across and up and always put a dimension to your grid line if you can. And even if it could shift, even if it could shift, just go ahead and put it there. And you might even throw a note and say, “This could change, be aware, but for now, this is where it sits.”

Eddie: You know, on the grid line thing, make sure that you coordinate them. 

Tyler: Oh my, yes.

Eddie: Architects, please, when you set a grid up, make sure you coordinate them—and, when you dimension grids, don't dimension half of a grid on one side of your sheet and the other half of the grid on the other side of the sheet.

Tyler: Oh, please don't do that. Please don't do that anymore. Oh my gosh. 

Eddie: Because when you do that, now I'm having to do addition. So if you take the grids that are pertinent to the left side of the job and dimension up that side, the dimensions that are pertinent to the grids that are closer to the right side of the job and you dimension up that side, but you never quite tie the two together, well, guess what? I can't close the grid. So make sure that you are giving dimensions that will allow me to easily close the grid for layout. 

Tyler: Yeah, I would say 99% of the grid busts that we run into is where they're doing that, where they've got grids on either side of the building and they never meet the two in the middle or give us something to tie them in. So it, and it can even be one grid crossing all the way over to just give yourself just a baseline, give yourself a control point to dimension from.

Eddie: Well, and work points. If you're going to put something that has a radius in, make sure you define the work point. Make sure that you define angular dimensions in plan when you have angled grids or things like that. And make sure, this is going to sound just ridiculously simple, but make sure that your grid and your consultants' grids agree. And that's, I mean, I'm telling you, this happens way more than we all want to admit. 

Tyler: This can be as simple as, you know, exporting a DXF out or, you know, just sharing files back and forth. This can be a 2D check. It shouldn’t have to be 3D. This is very easy. You just need to share files, put them together, overlay them and look at them and check. 

Eddie: And the point being, like, yeah, we don't feel like we're unearthing anything real significant or groundbreaking with this statement. What we're telling you is that going through hundreds of sets of design documentation a year from a lot of different designers and consultants, we can tell you that the thing that you think is normal probably isn't, because the other people have their normal. 

Tyler: And that goes for everybody. 

Eddie: That goes for everybody. But also that we see many examples of where people don't talk. The consultants don't talk. And as a result, the busts happen, the grids are different. Just like the simple things. Get the simple things and make sure you're talking.

Tyler: All too often, you know, we'll see this in fabricators, we'll see this in GCs, and they’ll be, “This is the way we do it, because this is the right way, you know?” And I'm sorry, you're going to stub your toe. Like it may not be the right way. So be humble and always be looking at it, and learn. One thing that a lot of people don't understand is, yeah, we as detailers, as structural detailers, we see a hundred drawings, you know, a hundred sets of drawings a year. We're building from these sets trying to make everything work. 

Eddie: And there's a lot of different normal out there. 

Tyler: There is a lot of different normal out there.

Eddie: And there's a lot of weirdness too. 

Tyler: But yeah, when we run into problems is when we ask for something and somebody says, “Well, I've always done it that way,” and you get pompous about it. Don't be pompous. And I understand, some people will come after you. Like some people will, and it's really hard to hold your tongue. But try to take it for what it is and just use that criticism as a place to get better, to grow. 

Eddie: Yep. 

Tyler: I've got one more before we leave grids. 

Eddie: Let's hear it.

Tyler: Actually use grids. 

Eddie: (laughs) Yeah. 

Tyler: I mean, this is, this sounds really stupid I'm sure to a lot of you, but this happens at least once or twice a year for us that there are no grids on any of the drawings. Oh my goodness. Like just throw some grids in there, give us some control points. That's going to help us out so much. And if you don't give grids, dimension the ever-loving crap out of it. 

Eddie: No, but give grids.

Tyler: But yeah, still, just give us some grids please. Alright. Stairs.

Eddie: Stairs. Did you know that the structural elements, they're usually called channels, that hold up a stair—they’re the stringers in a wood stair—did you know that those actually have volume? Like that they have width? 

Tyler: They do, yes. 

Eddie: Many times they don't on architectural drawings. And this is significant because what do we care about architecturally? Path of egress, right? So we're trying to create a path of egress that works for the equation we're using for the building. If you don't take into consideration the fact that my channels or my two by’s have a width to them, that's going to mess with your path of egress. If you don't take into consideration the fact that that channel can't sit inside of the wall… A lot of people will draw the risers and just, they go all the way over to the wall and just die right into it. If you've got a steel stair, that's not going to happen. No, there's a channel next to the wall, and that channel next to the wall is probably an inch and a half, two and an eighth, or three, depending on what you're using. And it's going to have to sit with a little gap off of the wall, too. And if you just take a dimension right off the inside of the wall and then go to like maybe the inside of the stringer on the inside of the stair, well guess what? You don't have the true four feet, your stair corridor’s not large enough. And you got a problem. 

Tyler: Yeah. And all too often, we'll put these things in there and we'll get dinged from an architect saying, “Hey, this isn't wide enough.” And then we go, “You don't have a choice, bud. That’s the way it works.”

Eddie: Your stair corridor will now grow, and here comes the ripple. 

Tyler: Exactly, yeah, it ripples out. So it's what you don't actually draw in that will bite you. And a lot of these things are not hard to find. You know, you can look up structural design on a stair and figure out some basic sizes for channels or stringers if you're designing for steel. That's pretty common and you can find some details for that.

Eddie: Oh, and we've covered this before, you know, the stair thing—stairs, a lot of times, are three separate efforts by an architect, a structural engineer, and then the stair detailer. And each one cares about a different thing. And so the drawings can vary greatly, and trying to marry all of those up without ever having really been in the same room can be kind of difficult. There's nothing more frustrating beyond the shop drawing in than just drawing the whole thing out, sending it in, and then have it shot down after you've got everything done, and then you're costing me days. You are costing me days while I have a fabricator breathing down my neck that says, “I gotta have this going. I need it in my shop. I expected these back right away. Why did these things come back? Why can't I have them now?” 

Tyler: And the GC’s pressing on us.

Eddie: Yeah. GC’s pressing on them. 

Tyler: GC’s pressing on them and they're pressing on us. Or in some cases, the fabricator, they're just trying to fill up their shop slot. 

Eddie: And it's a stroke of a pen. It's a, “No, not that.” And there are many times, you know, because of having to guess at things. 

Tyler: Ooh, I've got another one. On rails. Did you know that we use inch and a quarter pipe to meet your inch and a half OD spec on handrails? 

Eddie: That is true. 

Tyler: That is true. Because inch and a quarter pipe is actually closer to inch and a half—

Eddie: It's actually over an inch and a half, outside diameter.

Tyler: —than it is inch and a half diameter pipe. Look it up. Look up inch and a quarter schedule 40 pipe versus inch and a half schedule 40 pipe, and look at the outside dimensions and you'll see what I mean. And if you really want to impress a fabricator, a steel sub of any form or fashion, you can say “use inch and a quarter schedule 40,” and you will blow their minds. They will think you’re the best.

Eddie: Yup. No, that's a good one. How about, have an idea of what things cost, right? There's nothing worse than going through a whole design and then going out for pricing and then having the owners say, “We can't build that.” And then maybe a lesser tier of that is just having an owner that's really mad. And then what happens? We're going to strip the building of all of the cool. Through a VE process that everybody hates. 

Tyler: And that building's not going to look at all what you thought it was going to look like. 

Eddie: Right. Have an idea of the cost of what you're building before you actually get out there, and just ask people to verify your costs. Another one that gets preached a lot, particularly by a lot of trades organizations, is, well, call the trades. And I'm not saying that's not useful. That is useful, but keep in mind that the person that you get on the phone is not always the most experienced person. 

Tyler: It's usually the sales person. 

Eddie: Well, and okay. So little anecdote here. We were having issues with some documentation, some structural documentation back in the day. It's probably been about 14, 15 years ago. John was working with us at the time. He'd been with us a week, and we had him working through some base plates and we're getting him on a call. You know, it was kinda like a, “Hey, let's get your feet wet,” and all that. You need to call somebody and let them know, I don't know what to do with this, I need you to tell me what to do with it. And the person, the structural engineer on the other end of the line straight up said, “Well, what would you do?” And John's like, I've been here a week, I have no idea. And straight up was like, “Make the base plate bigger?” And the engineer said, “Yeah, that sounds like a good idea. Let's go with that.” And if the conversation sounds silly and stupid, it’s because it was. Just, know who you're talking to, know who you're getting information from. Deferring to the experts is not always a great idea unless you actually have an expert. 

Tyler: Yeah. Just because they're in the trade doesn't mean that they're an expert. 

Eddie: Verify the expert. Make sure that when you're going to a subcontractor for help— Man, I'm sure they are more than willing to throw their arm around your shoulder and say, “Yeah, let me help you out. I will tell you all the ways to design your building.” And it will probably go in favor of how they do things. So maybe take more of a swath and poll of different subcontractors and see how two or three of them do something, rather than just cozying up to one. 

Tyler: Well, I've got another one here that was actually done on our Instagram story. It is Brianwvu08 and he's on Instagram. So he said, “Copying and pasting details that are generic and not site-specific to the project.” 

Eddie: Ugh, man, canned details are the bane of our existence. I hate canned details. You know why? ‘Cause they only work in one little perfect scenario that never happens. So you put them on there and they don't represent reality. And then I don't know what to do. 

Tyler: They're close, but no cigar.

Eddie: Yeah. Well, and here's the problem with that. They're close, but no cigar and you go, okay, well yeah, but does it convey intent? Well, yes, sorta. And that's the problem. The sorta is where the change order comes in. And so, if you get what— I'll let you let you in on a little secret. We were in 45 jobs, they were repetitive jobs that we did some early detailing on. And so we ran through all this, and we built them all over the country and encountered all sorts of subs. And there was a name for one type of sub that we had that I came up with. It's called the opportunistic sub. There are subs, and I know you guys know this, that are laying in wait for that canned detail that's going to create airspace for them to go ahead and change order. There are subs out there that straight up know they will make their profit on a job through change ordering the crap out of it. And that's why they'll go ahead and take it at a low bid on the front end, because they know your documents suck and they're going to exploit that for everything it's worth. 

Tyler: Yeah. They'll see it. They won't say anything—

Eddie: And they’ll wait. And even though your documents say, hey, in good faith, if you see something you were supposed to inform the architect and the engineer, and you have that written down and everything—go prove that. They’ll go, “Oh, we didn't see it until now.” And now it's going to cost a lot of money to fix. And now, what do we do when we bid and we get the award? As general contractors or subcontractors, we essentially bid to win the rights of becoming a monopoly on the job. And so, who are you going to go to? You're going to go to the person that has the contract and say, “How much?” And you're at their mercy for what they're going to charge you. 

Tyler: Yeah. All right, man. Well, let's put a nice little bow on this conversation for everybody. So what are some of our takeaways from this? 

Eddie: I think “be a builder,” as we always say, applies as much or more to architects today than it ever has. Architects were the master builders of years gone by. And I think that, I mean, this is, man, I'm really going to enter opinion here. But architecture schools have gotten away from teaching building as a part of architecture, and have fallen more into teaching architecture as art. And as a result of that—

Tyler: And it can be, it can be.

Eddie: And it can be. Especially though, especially though, in architecture that's trying to be art, you have to know how you're going to build the thing. So just coming up with some, pulling the Frank Gehry and wadding up the piece of paper and throwing it down on the table and saying, “That's going to be your Disney concert hall.” And people going, oh, whoa, and then making it everybody else's problem to figure it out—no. You do need to go through and learn how to build and know what you're doing, know how the materials work, how they go together, what sizes they are, what they cost. Be a builder. 

Tyler: We will throw a link to a video of an Eric Reinholdt conversation. Eric was one of our previous guests. And if you haven't listened to that, and you're an architect, I highly suggest you go listen to it. But in the video that he did, he was sitting across the table from his engineer, and they were sitting there and they were having a conversation.

Eddie: Mindblower.

Tyler: Mindblower, yeah. You can then take this to each sub that you think of. And it doesn't need to be on every job, but over time, you know, sit down with a glass and glazing subcontractor, sit down with the person that runs in all your stud work and does your bricklaying and puts in your steel and does your roof. Like, talk to these people. They are there, and a lot of them would be tickled, tickled to death to be able to tell you what they think. ‘Cause I promise you, what we have to say is the tip of the iceberg. This is just from our perspective, and some of y'all’s perspectives, that we kind of generated a lot of this content. And so yeah, back to that, be a builder, and part of being a builder is build the relationship. Build the relationship with the subs, go out there and learn from them. They have something to say, too. 

Eddie: Good notes, man. 

Tyler: Heck yeah. I hope that we stayed out of the muck on this one and that we didn't really sully any of our reputation or anything like that. But I felt like we tried to stay on task here and bring some valuable stuff y'all’s way. So let us know what you think. Again, text us, let us know. We'll actually get these, read these, and we can talk to you guys back. So again, text us at (478) 221-7009 for our community number. And yeah, we'll just have a conversation. Let us know what you think about this and we'll catch you in the next one. Go build something awesome this week.