Journey of an Architect is a blog started by Tim Ung to document his journey to design 30 projects by the age of 30 (May 2020). His posts focus on his design process, thoughts, struggles, and successes throughout his journey.

10 Lessons Learned from Construction Administration

10 Lessons Learned from Construction Administration

Photo by Randy Fath at Unsplash

Continuing from my post last week on construction experience, I wanted to stay on the topic of construction and offer 10 lessons that I’ve learned through the construction administration process. There’s so much to learn from every project during the construction phase and these lessons will often change with the circumstances that we face. Here are the 10 lessons that I’ve learned this year.

1. Perception is Key

No matter what project we work on as architects, the moment it enters construction, we immediately enter a world where we work with multiple people from different walks of life. Some are acquainted with construction and understand all of the nuances that come when a project is being built. Others are unaware of the processes involved with construction and believe that it could be progressing at a faster rate.

Whether we’re dealing with the owner of the project, the construction manager, or the contractor, there will always be expectations of our performance both in the field and off. Managing the way that the various parties perceive one another and ourselves is not necessarily a responsibility that we have as architects, however, it allows us to maintain good working relationships and keep the projects moving forward.

It all starts with listening and understanding the reasons why one party perceives the other in a particular way. Sometimes, it’s helpful to speak to both parties apart from one another to hear their concerns and then bring them together to talk it through. During this time, our role is to guide both parties to a mutual understanding of the issues at hand and to come to an agreement that works for everyone.

Sounds like we become lawyers, doesn’t it?

Seeing a project through construction as the design team usually comes with unforeseen responsibilities like translating construction jargon into layman’s terms for everyone to understand, redesigning a small area of the project to resolve conflicts, or to reduce the construction schedule. In other words, we get better at improvising by quickly resolving issues that hopefully arise from field conditions and owner requested changes. By improvising, I obviously mean finding the best possible resolution for the issues.

2. Communicate with Clarity

At any stage of a project under construction, it’s important to always stay ahead by understanding the next part of the construction sequence and dealing with any issues before they’re discovered at the last minute. We should always have a clear line of communication with our owner, contractor, sub consultants, and others where everyone is aware of the current status of the project and potential issues to resolve.

As more questions arise and bulletins begin to be issued, it’s often helpful to have a great working relationship with the contractor where we can call them and ask if they can give some additional information for a problem that we’re trying to resolve. In many cases, our contractors have resolutions in mind that they can offer for the issue.

Although there’s often a perception that the contractor is trying to make more money out of the project, there will be moments when the request for information and change order are reasonable. This might be hard for some of us to swallow, but we need to start trusting our contractors and allowing them to offer their insight during construction. In fact, having a good working relationship helps the project continue to move forward and the more we can trust our contractors, the more they’ll trust us as well.

3. Get Everything in Writing

During construction, any discussions related to the project should always be documented in some way and form so that everyone has a clear understanding of what was discussed and actionable items that is the responsibility of each party. After every project meeting, minutes should be written to document the key points of the discussions and issued to all attendees. All phone discussions to discuss issues with the contractor and the resolutions that were decided on should be followed up with an email that summarizes the discussion and is sent to all parties.

Although this sounds tedious, it’s important to have decisions in writing so that everyone understands the agreed upon solutions. If something is done incorrectly after these decisions have been made, it will be clear whose responsibility it is to fix the situation. Similarly, it allows everyone to always stay on the same page, even if they weren’t in attendance. This allows the owner to stay up to date with the project and know how small issues have been resolved. It also gives them an opportunity to speak up and offer a different solution or to let everyone know if it’s unacceptable.

Sometimes, people have short term memory or mishear the solutions to problems. Therefore, it’s important to summarize the conclusion of the discussions in a short written email that clarifies any misunderstandings that might’ve come from the discussion.

4. No Document is Perfect

Just like writing and reading a book, the more we see something time and again, the more we lose sight of errors. During construction, every drawing and detail that we put in our construction document set and/or specifications will be scrutinized by the contractor. They will study the drawings to get a better understanding of how we want them to bring different materials together to create the building that we designed.

During construction, every minor detail that we missed on a page and in our specifications will eventually be caught by the contractor who is reviewing our documents for the first time in their life. As each error is discovered, we’ll have to react as swiftly as possible and correct the issue immediately. Most of these corrections result in a change order where we truly learn the impact of our errors and omissions.

At the time of design, we’re able to make adjustments to details and add additional information as necessary to ensure that we have complete assemblies to create our project. We always hope that our errors and omissions are minor in nature, but sometimes, these small things will add up and become a larger issue. Although no document is perfect, we should always do our best to show the essential elements for every project to avoid costly changes and lawsuits.

5. Less is More

After working on several projects where the specifications are the size of the entire Harry Potter series combined and the drawing sets are too large to physically carry around a project site for a small building, I’ve quickly learned the importance of only including the critical information for a project. Whatever drawings, details, and specification sections are necessary to convey the full design intent and material assemblies for the project should be included in the documents. Any additional “typical” details that are essentially copied and pasted from the manufacturer’s website without any modifications are unnecessary to include in our project.

What does this mean?

If we’re designing a building where several manufacturers’ building components are coming together and interacting with one another and/or other building systems, we want to include the essential details that show these conditions. Let’s learn to narrow down the amount of “fluff” that goes into our construction documents and make it very clear to the contractor that they are to provide and install items per the manufacturer’s standard installation and keep our drawing documents concise.

6. Be Responsive

When we start the construction administration process of any project, we need to always be aware of all the information being passed around to all parties and responding to the ones that pertain to the design team. Whenever a request for information comes up or a submittal is received from the contractor, we have to work on reviewing, responding, and returning them as promptly as possible to keep the project moving.

Oftentimes, this is difficult on larger projects where our design team consists of multiple sub consultants who we rely on to respond to any items pertaining to their trades. At the onset of any construction project, it’s important that we let all our sub consultants know that the project is underway and that our expectation is to respond to any issues within a set amount of time. Generally, I focus on getting responses from our consultants within 3 to 5 days at most so that we have at least a day to review the response before returning it to the contractor.

Never let any information go for a long period of time without any correspondence. Whenever we need more time to get a response together, we keep the contractor updated and ask them for any additional information that we need from the site. We let everyone know that we’re working through the issue(s) and once we have a definitive response, we share it with the team.

7. Take Responsibility for Errors and Omissions

This is probably the hardest part about working on a construction project for most architects, but whenever an issue arises on the project and it’s clearly an error or omission by the design team, we have to take responsibility, resolve the issue, and keep the project moving forward. Nothing is worse than having to point fingers at everyone else in an attempt to protect ourselves and ultimately waste time, energy, and strain our relationships.

We have to be willing to take ownership of our design documents and also let our client know that something was missed in our documents. We’ve gained and fostered their trust throughout the project, so it’s important to continue sharing information with them throughout the entire project.

When taking ownership of an error or omission, we have to make sure we don’t begin to doubt our construction documents. Be strong, have poise, and immediately work on correcting the issue. Otherwise, the contractor and/or owner may begin to doubt the construction documents and team as well.

8. Know Your Documents

Throughout the entire construction phase of the project, we should be able to recall information from our construction documents or quickly find the information in the set. Whenever an issue is brought up by the contractor, we should be aware of the location that they’re referring to, recall the design intent of the space, and understand the issue. If we don’t have an answer, it’s okay to let the contractor know that we’ll get back to them when we have a definitive response.

It’s also important that we know our specifications just as much as our drawings because they’re meant to support one another throughout the project. In many cases, questions can be answered through the specification sections that relate to the issue. For example, although many architects don’t show selective demolition of small areas of a wall to connect new plumbing to existing plumbing in a renovation project, the selective demolition section of the project’s specifications should provide the necessary information to the contractor.

9. Answer Only When You’re Sure

When the construction reaches a point where multiple activities are occurring simultaneously, there will be more questions coming to the design team for clarification and additional information. Sometimes, the contractor and/or construction manager will bring up discussions about these issues at construction meetings and push for an immediate response.

Without knowing the right answer, it’s important that we let the construction team know that we have an idea of how to resolve the issue, but we want to be sure before giving an official response. We have to follow this up with a date and time when we will get our response to the team.

Never brainstorm a resolution out loud and propose a solution without taking the time to think it through. This will only lead to sleepless nights and more issues down the road.

10. Don’t Be Pushed Around

Although this one might sound like an intuitive one, most construction projects reach a point where other parties attempt to push one another for more money, time, and so on. In some cases, it starts out with small issues where one party blames the other for not providing something. Eventually, similar issues start coming up at every meeting until fingers are pointed and tensions rise.

Never be the party that gets pushed around by others. There are times when we have to accept that we omitted information and have to stand tall while others instigate the issue. There are other times when we’ve done nothing wrong and others are searching for things to put against us. There’s nothing worse than being in this position where everyone uses our team and us as a punching bag to protect themselves from their own issues.

We need to always be ready to provide information to support ourselves and shut down any minor issues that are irrelevant to moving the project forward. Never let the little problems fester at a meeting to a point where they seemingly become larger issues that can lead to a delay claim. Shut these minor ones down, close them out, and keep everyone’s focus on the biggest goal; finishing the project on budget, on time, and with everyone happy with the results.

Conclusion

Being able to work on an architecture project during the construction administration phase has been one of the most beneficial parts of my career. As a young architect, there’s so much to learn about architecture and the best way is to see the lines that we’ve drawn on paper come to life through construction. I’m sure that this list of 10 lessons I’ve learned from construction administration will constantly evolve and grow into a list of 100 lessons with more time and experience, but these are the ones that immediately came to mind.

I hope this list of my lessons learned helps you in some way through your career as an architect. Let me know what else you’d add to this list in the comments section below!


Patience

Patience

Construction Experience and Young Architects

Construction Experience and Young Architects