Construction Experience and Young Architects
This year has been the most eventful and educational one for my life as an architect. The biggest contributing factor to my experiences this year has been taking the managing role on a large 12 million dollar renovation project that’s currently in construction. This project is about half of the way to completion and is being fast tracked. After one year of being on this construction project, I’ve become more confident as an architect in all areas of the profession. Here’s why I believe construction experience is important for all young architects.
1. Understanding the lines we draw
One of the most common ideas that young architects have about architecture is that everything drawn in a set of construction documents can and will be fabricated and built according to the lines on the page. Sometimes, we get so comfortable with our BIM capabilities that we believe this world of perfect 90 degree angles and 1/16 inch tolerances accurately depicts what can be done in reality.
The moment that our construction documents enter the administration phase of the project, everything changes and we face the reality of how building components really come together. We see how contractors use their technology to setup guides around a site, stake the ground to locate the perimeter of our building, spray paint the floor to mark underground lines, and so on. We get a better understanding about how the lines in our documents reflect real life materials that come together to form the different components of a building. We also have to face the reality of building tolerances and material alterations over time like contractions and expansions.
Most importantly, we learn that every line we put on a page is a material that interacts with others. These materials have thicknesses, properties that allow them to bend or remain stiff, have varying fire ratings, and so forth. What we once thought was a simple line on a page that came together to form a beautiful drawing now has more meaning than we could ever imagine. We could never fully consider every possibility of each individual line that we draw. We could only understand what we know to be true, make our design decisions, and learn from construction experiences down the road. That’s what makes us architects.
2. Working with multiple personalities
Depending on the construction project we’re working on, there will always be varying personalities that we have to be able to work around. Sometimes, we’ll be working with educated owners who lead the construction sector of their business and other times we’ll be working with owners who are having us design their very first dream home. Either way, these people have different backgrounds and experiences that will inform how they interpret issues and outcomes of the project. We learn to read these different personalities and develop our best approach to bringing them up to speed on the project.
Similarly, we’ll have to work with contractors who will either follow the construction documents down to the size of every nail to be used, ones who have done things one way and will try to construct the project based on their past experiences, and contractors who are in between. Understanding which contractor will be building your project is important because you’ll be able to guide them towards strictly following your documents or allowing substitutions.
3. Seeing the cost implications of our design decisions
Once a construction document set is approved and enters the bidding stages, we get to see what a contractor’s best estimate to construct the building would be. When a contractor is selected and the construction is underway, we’ll inevitably receive questions about our documents and details letting us know if the details can actually be constructed the way that it’s depicted. In most cases, projects under construction will have a change order where an unforeseen condition arises that affects our design and we’re forced to alter it to work. Once our alterations are completed and approved by the owner, we get to see the costs of these changes from the contractor. Everything costs something.
4. Learning from our omissions
Unless we’ve somehow cracked the code of putting together the perfect set of construction documents, specifications, and contracts, we’ll never have a 100% error and omission free project. Human errors are inevitable and when we’re working around the clock to put a construction document set together, there’s bound to be omissions in our documents. Omissions are different from errors because they’re things that we didn’t think of at the time of design whereas errors are things that we depicted incorrectly.
As a project under construction moves along, there’s bound to be requests for information (RFI) that reveal these omissions to the design team. During this time, the contractor explains the issue(s) through the RFI to give the design professional a better understanding of the problem. As the architect working on the project, we get to review these questions against the drawings and understand the contractor’s perspective. In some cases, we’ll see that we missed something in our details and in the future, we’ll hopefully avoid making the same omission again.
5. Experiencing our design
The last point that I want to leave you on is that through construction, we get to experience the design that we developed from a small idea and sketches to a fully enclosed and inhabitable building. Throughout the construction project, we get to see our designs slowly come to life with floor slabs, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems, fire protection, wall framing, glazing, and so on. As all of these elements come together, we get to see spaces form and be enclosed. We get to see the custom and unique details that we worked through finally come together to form the spaces that we once imagined.
By working on an architecture project under construction and fully investing ourselves in the project, we quickly understand the realities of time, money, and design. Learning about these three things through construction allows us to think more efficiently and intelligently when designing our next project(s).
As I was writing this short blog post, I realized that there’s so much more that I’d like to share about the world of construction from a young architect’s perspective. So I’ll continue adding to this list over time and expanding on it so that it can hopefully help the emerging architects out there. Let me know how construction has influenced your career as an architect in the comments section below!