Another Case for Licensure and Regulation

Last week I had an experience that makes another good case for the licensure of architects and the regulation of use of the word “architect” and its derivatives.

I was chatting with a parent outside our kids’ after-school activity. She asked what I do for work and I gave my standard brief initial answer, “I’m an architect.”

She immediately told me her story. Her family is building an addition on to the house they recently bought. But they’re months behind with getting going on construction because of the first architect they hired.

After 3 months of working with the first architect, the drawings that they received for bidding to contractors couldn’t be built from – one bidder after another said he couldn’t build from those and needed other drawings. The night before the architect was planning to submit for permit, she checked the code, and found that the addition she’d been designing extended 5 feet into the setback. They’d have to redesign. My acquaintance went back to her with what the contractors said, she replied defensively that she “could do this,” she could submit the drawings and get a permit, this is what she does.

They fired her, and began looking for another architect.

Do the services provided sound like the services of someone who has worked for at least 3 years under the direct supervision of a licensed architect?

Not to me. But imagine the confusion of someone who has never hired an architect before.

Many single-family residential architects and designers draw more-constructible details, and are more familiar with building codes than many commercial architects (who have much more to learn about, and often, much bigger buildings to work on). They learn from working with experienced residential architects or designers, and from time spent on the jobsite. Less documentation is required for residential builders – contractors who do houses are used to building from pretty sparse documents. If they couldn’t build from what my acquaintance had given them, then those documents were pretty bad “construction documents.”

The services provided to my acquaintance sound to me like those of an unlicensed designer who hasn’t done any building envelope work, only interiors, and had no idea that she wasn’t competent enough to design an addition. She probably hadn’t worked under a licensed architect for very long, if at all.

(Only if you’ve worked for at least 3 years under the direct supervision of a licensed architect, and have passed your licensing exams, can you legally call yourself an architect.)

Knowing that my new acquaintance had moved to Colorado recently, I figured she didn’t know that in Colorado, you don’t actually need an architect for single-family residential work. Many Colorado home designers are not architects. Unfortunately, some of them imply to the public and to their clients that they are architects. Many of them did go to architecture school, and have degrees in architecture. However, a degree in architecture means only that you learned a lot of design and theory, and not much of the stuff you need to know in order to get buildings actually built. That’s why you have to work for at least 3 years under the direct supervision of a licensed architect (and pass your exams) before you can go out and offer architectural services to the public on your own. It’s actually possible that the designer my acquaintance hired is an architect, but just a really incompetent one. In my opinion, it’s much more likely that she’s not licensed.

I feel bad about the money and time lost by my acquaintance. But even more than that, I’m embarrassed to be associated with this “architect” in the mind of my new acquaintance, and in the mind of all consumers who have similar experiences. I’m embarrassed for all architects. People who are not competent at architectural services, and who call themselves architects, bring down all architects in the eyes of the public. Incompetent practitioners in all professions create a bad name for those professionals, of course. But in Colorado, we have a lot of people who are not competent at architectural services simply because of the fact that they do not have enough experience working under someone competent to actually take their exams – but they go ahead and call themselves architects anyway.

Why does this matter, beyond my personal embarrassment? I believe that consumers should be protected, and so do the people of Colorado. That’s why the profession of architecture in Colorado is regulated by the Department of Regulatory Agencies. That’s why the Colorado Revised Statutes (our laws) require that a person be licensed to practice architecture in Colorado in order to be able to use the titles “architect,” “architects,” “architecture,” “architectural,” or “licensed architect.” In addition, our laws require that a person be licensed to practice architecture in Colorado in order to use the words “architect,” “architects,” “architecture,” “architectural,” or “licensed architect” in any offer to the public to perform architectural services (this includes marketing materials and websites). (A person who is working under the supervision of an architect and is in the process of completing required practice hours in preparation for the architect licensing examination is explicitly allowed to use the term “architectural intern.”)

Residential designers are perfectly within their legal rights to design houses and additions to houses. Many of them are very good at what they do. But unless they’re licensed architects they’re not allowed to imply to their clients that they are architects. Licensure does not guarantee competence, but it sure can weed out the least competent.

 

Specs, Lost in Translation

Do you ever see funny notes in completed construction drawings? I’ve seen notes on CDs out to bid that said things like “Match Lakeview storefront” (when Lakeview must have been an old project), and “Complete sill detail” (pointing to an incomplete sill detail). These notes simply make no sense to the people using the drawings (the contractor and subs). But you and I know that what happened is that a brand new architecture school grad was given sheets of drawings that were marked up in red, and she just incorporated the redlines verbatim as if they were drawing notes to add, instead of instructions to the person picking up redlines, and then her work never got checked before issuing.

You and I know what happened with those redlines because we made the same mistakes when we were intern architects, and later, we saw the same sort of thing show up on redlines we prepared for someone else.

In my work as an independent specifications consultant, I prepare the architectural specification sections for the architect, based on the drawings and the architect’s design decisions. I ask some questions. I make some decisions based on my experience and technical knowledge. I give the specs to the architect for review.

I partially prepare the structural-related sections based on the drawings, and pass them on to the structural engineer for editing, completion, and review.

I receive the completed Mechanical/ Electrical/ Plumbing (MEP) engineering spec sections from the engineers and incorporate them into the project manual with the other sections.

At the MEP firms, I sometimes deal primarily with administrative assistants. Sometimes the project engineers prepare the sections in Word and give them to the assistant to turn into PDFs and send on to me. Sometimes the assistant prints out the office masters on paper, the project engineers mark them up with red pen (or red pencil, for some reason), and the assistant does the word processing, turns them into PDFs, and emails them to me. And sometimes… I’m not sure exactly what happens over there.

This practice of handing off specs to an administrative person to process has been going on forever. Sometimes, in the olden days, the secretaries in an office were the only people who knew how to type, so this hand-off of specifications preparation was a very natural practice. Also, people used to actually cut (paper) and paste (with glue) to produce construction documents, including specs. It would be silly to have a project architect spend time doing this type of work for specs, so secretaries used to do this work. After many years of doing this, some assistants gain an incredible amount of technical knowledge.

There’s nothing wrong with this hand-off practice, when you have a careful engineer and a good assistant, or you have an extra-conscientious engineer and a decent assistant, or you have a decent engineer and a truly fantastic and experienced assistant. There’s nothing wrong with this practice when an experienced design professional is reviewing the work. Sometimes, I think, we have less-ideal situations, though.

Sometimes, the MEP specs have funny mistakes in them – things the engineer would know weren’t right, but an administrative assistant wouldn’t. Whoops – looks like the engineer didn’t do a final review after the assistant did the word processing. This is kind of like the situation with the intern architect and the redlines. When someone without technical knowledge (an emerging professional or an administrative assistant) is inputting markups, the person who created the markups ought to be reviewing the final document before it’s issued.

An administrative assistant may or may not have any idea what’s going on with the markups on the MEP specs. With specs, maybe even more than with drawings, if you mess up one word, you can totally change the meaning of the document.

As I heard an engineer say last week in a presentation, “If you’re only looking at the drawings, you’re only looking at half the project.” The contract for construction, a legal document, is made up of the owner-contractor agreement, the drawings, and the specifications. Who prepares your architectural specifications, which are half of the contract? How much time is spent on them? Are the right people working on them, or reviewing them? If you’re not giving input, and answering the specifier’s questions, are you at least reviewing the specs? Are experienced people with technical knowledge (and knowledge of the project) making the decisions and preparing or reviewing the final specification documents, or… not?

Minor incorrect items in drawings can be funny (“complete sill detail” pointing to an incomplete sill detail). But minor incorrect items in specs have the potential to cause major problems. There’s greater risk when your spec redlines get lost in translation. Review them, like you review your drawing redlines, or have them prepared by an experienced specifier who will know what all your markups mean.

Missing Scope

David Stutzman of Conspectus wrote a blog post last week about his experience finding construction document scope omissions and other issues in a set of progress construction documents. These omissions and issues would have amounted to lots of scope of work missing from the construction documents (leading to change orders), and some potentially serious construction and building performance problems, had he not commented on them to his architect-client.

Dave asked, “So why is the specifier finding this? Well given the time, finding stuff like this and asking questions is all part of the job. This is what goes on in the background and owners are never even aware. Most owners don’t know if a specifier is involved and rarely, if ever, know who it is. Yet it is often the specifier who keeps the projects out of trouble and all without the owner knowing.”

The reasons specifiers often find problems such as Dave found are because of Dave’s reasons above, and also because of the way specifiers approach their work in the planning stages. Like Dave, I prepare a table of contents to include with my fee and services proposals. Sometimes I have the architect’s DD drawings to look at, sometimes I just have a concept design narrative.

The reason I do a table of contents with my proposal is because I approach the project from a point of view of the whole picture. I want to consider every spec section we might possibly need. Then I remove from my list what we don’t need, and there’s my table of contents – my scope.

Instead of gathering up my scope bit by bit, and building up my table of contents, by adding each section I think we’ll need, I consider all of the potential scope, and then delete what I know we don’t need, subtracting from my master table of contents to get down to my project table of contents.1

For me, creating a table of contents is not like building with Legos, it’s like sculpting stone; in creating a table of contents, I just chip away all that is not part of the project.

Like Dave does, in my proposed table of contents next to the sections that I expect to be someone else’s work, I indicate that. I’ve never had an experience as extreme as the one described in Dave’s post, but I regularly have similar experiences on a smaller scale, where some necessary project scope is just missing from the work of architect/consultants/specifier. I’m often the first person to notice the omissions in progress sets, even though I don’t ever see other consultants’ proposals.

As most design professionals who have worked with specifiers know, we are extremely detail-oriented people. We get deep into the details. However, in order to know where to go to dive deep, we have to lay out our plan of action first. We see the big, big picture. That’s partly because we often prepare Division 01, which prompts a whole lot of questions about procedures during construction, and a whole lot of questions about what is in the Owner-Contractor agreement. It’s partly because we lay out our project road map (table of contents) very early, so we don’t get burned, fee-wise.

I never approached projects in this manner when I worked as a project architect. There was no listing of all the drawings that I might need anywhere in my office or anywhere else that I knew of. I actually don’t know any architects who approach projects in the same way most specifiers approach projects.

However, this approach would be a good way for an architect who is the owner’s prime consultant on a project to approach the division of design work, and to verify that all design work, and the production of all construction documents required for the project, is assigned to someone, and is accounted for in consultants’ proposals if the architect isn’t doing it. This would help ensure that the owner is getting what he thinks he’s getting for the contractual design fee – a completely designed project. This would also help prevent massive change orders due to missing scope during construction.

If an architect can’t take this approach, he or she should at least note all explicit exclusions by consultants in their proposals, then verify that the architect or another consultant is covering that work, and if not, verify that the owner does not need that work to be done. If the owner does require that work, the architect should get that work added into someone’s scope before construction begins.

 

Notes:

1. CSI’s MasterFormat is the Master-Master Table of Contents, but I usually just use MasterSpec’s complete Table of Contents as my Master Table of Contents, plus some additions of my own.

Shoegnome Hit the Nail on the Head

Jared Banks (you might think of him as Shoegnome, as I do) hit the proverbial nail on the head in his blog post yesterday. His post “You graduated from Architecture School and want to be called Architect” illustrated for me the main reason that I am so displeased by the formal use1 of the word “architect” to describe people who are not licensed architects.

Jared points out in his post that the question in the profession about who gets to use the term “architect” may be “just the symptom, not the illness,” and that “Perhaps the real problem isn’t who should be allowed to be called an architect. It’s actually that the value of architects has eroded.” Building owners are finding architects to be less valuable than they used to find them. I hate to be reminded of this.

When “architect” doesn’t mean much anymore, because architects provide less value than they used to, there are fewer objections to broadening the field of people who are eligible to call themselves architects.

Compounding yesterday’s displeasure, that morning I had read the text of the National Design Services Act, which was written by the AIA and the AIAS “to try to help alleviate this massive accumulation of debts for architecture students.”  It’s being sponsored in the House by Ed Perlmutter, a Congressperson from my state, Colorado.

The bill currently defines an eligible participant in the loan relief program as an “eligible architect” and defines “eligible architect” as an individual who “has completed an accredited masters program in architecture; or is an intern architect who has completed an accredited masters program in architecture and is enrolled in the Intern Development Program of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.” Here’s the text of that bill.

In other words, the bill defines “architect” as a person with a masters degree in architecture. Even the AIA, this country’s primary professional organization for architects, misuses the word “architect.”

The AIA is writing legislation that misleads our legislators and the public by ignoring the fact that under state laws, a person can’t be called “architect” without a state-issued license to practice architecture. (Oddly, the AIA also doesn’t seem to believe that a person with a 5-year professional degree, a BArch, should be eligible for loan forgiveness – the bill currently only addresses masters degrees.)

How is THIS advocating for architects?

This doesn’t help with the perception of the value of an architect. If everyone who finishes school gets called “architect” by the AIA and our federal lawmaking bodies, while under state law only those of us who have licenses can call ourselves architects, mixed messages are being sent. “You just have to get through school!” “You have to get through school, actually get some experience, pass some tests, and be willing to take on some professional responsibility!” Which is it? State law is clear. I believe federal law is silent on the matter, but will no longer be if this bill passes.

As I wrote to my senators and representative, the profession has problems, and one problem is that many grads have huge debt, but this bill is a bad idea that may further the problems of the profession by allowing schools to continue to charge more tuition every year, and deliver less of value to architecture students every year. Schools turn out architecture graduates who are nowhere near equipped to produce construction documents that buildings can be built from, but schools seem to be telling their grads that they’re ready to practice as full-blown architects upon graduation. That’s simply not true, and it’s not how our profession is set up.

Internship, the years between graduation and licensure, is an essential part of our training in this profession. Schools teach lots of design and theory, and a tiny bit of building technology and construction documentation. We are supposed to learn these practical things on the job. Producing construction documents is absolutely essential to the job, to the profession, as described in state licensing laws. But schools gloss over that, and some lead students to believe that they can just hire someone to do technical things like construction documents for them.

This National Design Services Act bill indicates that people straight out of architecture school can do a number of things, including “Assessment of the safety of structures that are in disrepair or have been damaged as the result of natural or manmade disasters.” I don’t want people right out of school doing this type of assessment in MY community. They are simply not qualified. (I may not be qualified. I’m an architect [licensed for over a decade], not an engineer.)

It’s not too late to find ways to return value to our profession. And I know where to start. Architects need to get more technical, and architecture firms need to keep technical expertise in-house or under their umbrella. By “get more technical,” I mean that architects need more building code expertise, an understanding of building technology, comprehension of building science, and expertise in effective construction contract administration. These things are no longer emphasized in many practices, and are rarely addressed in schools, but this knowledge and these skills are where the value lies for owners, for communities.

This knowledge, these skills, and the responsibility and liability that come with a license are what separate competent licensed architects from designers, architectural graduates, and kids with software programs. And we shouldn’t all be called by the same name.

 

Notes:

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1. By formal use, I mean use by newspapers, professional organizations, local government candidates, and architecture firms. I do not mean use during cocktail party conversation, or use by 19-year-olds explaining their college majors.

 

Product Representatives Helping Architects… Or Not

A great way for construction product representatives to get to know architects and specifiers is by offering technical assistance in the form of reviewing specifications and details during the construction documents phase.

A great way for architects and specifiers to feel comfortable that they’re properly incorporating a particular product into the project design is to ask a person who represents that product for the manufacturer to review specifications and details during the construction documents phase. This is appropriate when there’s a specific product that the drawings are based on, a basis-of-design product.

This informal review process is great when it’s done right. No one can possibly know a product better than a good product representative. Knowledgeable product reps can be tremendous resources for the design team. Some reps observe construction and advise contractors on installation for purposes of warranties. Some do forensic work on their products. Many are very familiar with their products’ limitations and proper construction details and specifications.

Not all representatives are technical experts, though. A rep doesn’t have to be the most knowledgeable in order to be a good rep, but a good rep does need to know when to ask someone else for assistance with reviewing details and specs.

Architects, be suspicious if you’re told by a rep that all your specs and details “look great!”

Product reps, if you don’t have the technical knowledge to review specs and details in which your product is the basis-of-design, pass this work on to someone on your team who does have the know-how.

Manufacturers, make sure that your reps know who to turn to when they need technical info.

Fixing things during construction, rather than during the construction documents phase, is a lot messier and more painful for everyone involved.

Cheerleaders, Mentors, Colleagues

One of my biggest cheerleaders recently passed away. I never got to meet him in person, although we corresponded via email occasionally, and talked on the phone sometimes.

Ralph Liebing was 78 years old, but still worked every day. He was an architect and a specifier; he did the same work that I do. I subscribed to his weekly newsletter; he frequently commented on my blog posts. We often wrote about the same topics: construction specifications and the education and training of emerging design professionals. He had a long history of teaching in architecture and technical schools. We worked together on a volunteer effort for CSI, for a Building Technology Education Program.

Ralph encouraged me in my blog writing, and in our efforts on the Building Technology Education Program. He really reached out to me, sending me an occasional little quiz on some building assembly or another, telling me about his family, congratulating me on mentions in CSI publications, and emailing me the occasional “Have a great weekend,” or forwarded curiousity. I own 2 of the 11 textbooks that he authored. I tried to teach him a little about social media, updated him on Denver’s weather, and told him about my family.

He worked for an architecture and engineering firm; I am independent. I don’t work with other specifiers; I don’t even work with other architects in my office. This is part of why Ralph was so important to me. As an independent, I am on my own in my work. But when I joined CSI, I found that I’m not really alone. CSI brought me Ralph, and other people who have helped me along the way in my career.

I had been writing specs for over a year when I joined CSI. I knew about CSI, because I’d taken the CDT exam before I started writing specs.

When I started writing specs, I worked as an independent contractor to a specifications firm that had employees and independent contractors, but I did my work mostly at home. My kids were little, 2 and 4 years old. I hadn’t worked for 4 and a half years. My husband’s business was a major source of stress for me at the time. I was busy BEFORE I started working in specifications, but I fit the work in. CSI wasn’t emphasized by the spec writer I worked for, and joining a professional organization was NOT on my to-do list. I barely had time to sleep, sometimes.

After 8 months of being an independent contractor, I was fully on my own. One day, one of my clients mentioned something about my being “in the loop” with CSI, and I realized that I needed to GET in the loop in order to be my best at my work. I owed it to my clients. So I finally joined CSI, but it was months before I made time to get to a Chapter meeting!

After I started going to meetings, and meeting other CSI members, I quickly realized how important my CSI involvement is to my work. I’ve found a network of colleagues, with technical knowledge about construction, that is essential to me. I’ve been extremely lucky to find mentors in CSI all across the country who have offered me various types of challenging and rewarding opportunities that have helped me in my career. And I found a very special cheerleader in Ralph Liebing. Ralph was important to many other people in the same way. He will be greatly missed in our CSI community.

I never expected these relationships that I’ve found through CSI. These relationships are the main reason that CSI rocketed from being something I made myself find time for, to being something vital to my career.

Inconvenient Assemblies

I’ve dealt with some inconvenient exterior wall assemblies lately.

Although two recent projects had to comply with the 2012 International Energy Conservation Code, the nature of their exterior wall assemblies made achieving continuous insulation difficult in both projects, and made achieving a continuous air barrier difficult in one project. Energy calculations indicated that we did need continuous insulation on both; there was no getting around it.

In these projects, the insulation and air barriers were afterthoughts.

So the construction documents for both projects show some unusual applications of rigid insulation, and for one project, show an unusual application of an air barrier coating. It can all work, it can all meet the code requirements, but these situations may not be ideal for construction.

How did we get here? I believe that the exterior wall assemblies were dictated by the owner in one case and by the design-build contractor in the other case.

Owners and contractors aren’t required to be familiar with building codes. The person responsible for interpreting the building code and making sure that the construction documents comply with the code is the architect.

Whether the architect or someone else initially selects wall assemblies, the architect needs to verify code compliance, early in the project. And don’t forget that IECC! The earlier in the project that you take all code requirements into account, the more convenient for everyone, from architect to cost estimator to insulation installer.