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.

Continuous Insulation & Masonry Veneer Anchors

There’s something that architects need to be aware of as we use increasingly thicker continuous insulation behind masonry veneer cladding.

If the distance between the structural steel backup and the back of the masonry veneer cladding exceeds 4-1/2 inches, the masonry veneer anchor spacing must be designed by a structural engineer.1

Masonry veneer anchor spacing is not usually designed by a structural engineer; the code provides prescriptive requirements that we typically follow, and this spacing is most often indicated in the specifications by the architect or the structural engineer.2

Manufacturers of some types of masonry veneer anchors indicate that the legs of the anchors can accommodate up to 4 inches of insulation. But even these can’t be used without having calculations run by an engineer, unless you keep the distance between the structural steel backup and the back of the masonry to 4-1/2 inches. (This would leave very little air space. You need at least 1 inch of air space, per the code, and an air space of 2 inches is recommended by the Brick Industry Association.3)

By the way, these things aren’t spelled out in the text of the International Building Code. They’re in a separate document that is incorporated into the IBC by reference, the TMS 402/ACI 530/ASCE 5. This document is called “Building Code Requirements for Masonry Structures,” and is developed by the Masonry Standards Joint Committee (MSJC). Since it’s referenced in the IBC, it becomes part of the requirements of the IBC.4

So, architects, either stick with 4-1/2 inches or less between the structural steel backup and the back of the veneer masonry, or let your structural engineer know, as soon as possible, that you are exceeding 4-1/2 inches. If it’s too late for your project, sometimes the masonry veneer anchor manufacturer who gets the project will hire a structural engineer to check (or design) the anchor spacing. The cost of this service would get passed on to the general contractor and then to the owner (as an extra cost). Avoid a construction change order – deal with this on the design side, before construction starts.

Notes:

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  1. Chapter 12, section 12.2.2.7.4 of the latest version of TMS 402/ACI 530/ASCE 5 indicates that “A 4-1/2 inch maximum distance between the inside face of the veneer and the steel framing shall be specified. A 1 inch minimum air space shall be specified.” There are alternative procedures allowed by the code that can be used instead of these prescriptive requirements, but the alternative procedures are what require a structural engineer to design the anchor spacing.
  2. Chapter 12, section 12.2.2.5.6 of the latest version of TMS 402/ACI 530/ASCE 5 tells us the prescriptive requirements for anchor spacing: “For adjustable two-piece anchors, anchors of wire size W1.7, and 22 gage corrugated sheet-metal anchors, provide at least one anchor for each 2.67 ft2 of wall area.
    “Space anchors at a maximum of 32 inches horizontally and 25 inches vertically…”
  3. The Brick Industry Association publishes online Technical Notes on Brick Construction. Here’s a link to their Technical Note on “Brick Veneer/ Steel Stud Walls.” http://www.gobrick.com/portals/25/docs/technical%20notes/tn28b.pdf
  4. Section 2101 of the 2012 IBC indicates that “Masonry veneer shall comply with the provisions of… TMS 402/ACI 530/ASCE 5.”

“Or Equal”

equal symbol2“Or Equal” is the most confounding phrase in construction documents.1

It means something different to everyone. Sometimes it’s defined in the documents. Sometimes it’s not defined in the documents, which means that the documents are relying on a generally-accepted understanding of the meaning. The problem is that “Or Equal” means different things when defined on different projects so there’s really no generally-accepted understanding of the meaning.

If “Or Equal” is defined, the definition, or description of procedures, should be somewhere in Division 01 of the specifications. In addition, it’s likely to be somewhere in Division 00 of the Project Manual, usually in the “Instructions to Bidders” form.2

In Division 01, the most likely place to find the definition of “Or Equal” is Section 01 60 00 “Product Requirements.” That’s the place to start, anyway.

The major confusion that I’ve seen among people3 dealing with “Or Equal” is the question of when “equals” can be accepted.  The document that defines “Or Equal” should indicate when they can be submitted on, and how and when they can be accepted.

Recommendation for the contractor team:

If “Or Equal” is used in the construction documents, look it up in the documents for the project. Find out its definition for each project. Make no assumptions on a new project. Understand that the definition may differ from project to project. A tip: use the “find” function in the software you’re viewing the electronic documents with, and search for “or equal” in Divisions 00 and 01.4

Recommendation for architects and specifiers:

If you are going to use “Or Equal,” properly define it in the construction documents. (If the owner uses it in the procurement and contracting requirements, you need to use it.) Use the definition the owner uses. If you can’t find one in the owner’s documents, ask the owner about this. Understand that you may have to expand on the owner’s definition in order to make it clear to the contractor team. Understand that if you are working on a project with a general contractor on board prior to completion of the construction documents, such as a Construction-Manager-at-Risk/Construction-Manager-General-Contractor project, the CM may be issuing instructions to bidding subcontractors, and you should make sure that these do not conflict with the owner’s definition of “Or Equal.” This is part of the architect’s job.

Recommendation for owners:

Figure out if you want to allow “equals” or not. Figure out if you want them to be treated as substitutions or not. Figure out if you want to allow substitutions-for-contractor’s-convenience after the contract is signed or not. (Remember that substitutions-for-convenience after the contract is signed are usually not allowed on public projects, because it’s not fair to the bidders who did not win the contract.) Then communicate this to the architect, whether the architect asks for this info or not.

The way I work (this is kind of long-winded, so you can skip from here to the bottom if you want):

Except where specifically included in an owner’s requirements (either in procurement requirements, in contract documents, or in instructions to the design team) I do not use the term “Or Equal” in my project specifications.5

For unnamed products by manufacturers that I name in the specs, I use the term “Comparable Products” and specify that submittals for these products are due at the time that the submittal for a named product would come in, during construction.

For unnamed products by unnamed manufacturers, I use the term “Substitution” and, except on projects in which the owner wants substitution requests to be allowed during construction, I indicate that substitution requests must be submitted prior to the bid and will be accepted in the form of an addendum, which will be issued to all bidders.

The latest project I had on which the owner used “Or Equal” in the procurement requirements was a project at Colorado State University. CSU uses State documents. The State’s definition of “Or Equal” includes “Any material or equipment that will fully perform the duties specified will be considered ‘equal,’ provided the bid submits proof that such material or equipment is of equivalent substance and function and is approved, in writing.  Requests for the approval of ‘or equal’ shall be made in writing at least five business days prior to bid opening.  During the bidding period, all approvals shall be issued by the Architect/Engineer in the form of addenda at least two business days prior to the bid opening date.”

Since that’s exactly how I treat substitution requests, in Section 01 60 00 “Product Requirements” I indicated “Or Equal:  For products specified by name and accompanied by the term ‘or equal,’ or ‘or equivalent,’ or ‘or approved equal,’ or ‘or approved,’ comply with requirements in Division 00 Document ‘Procurement Substitution Procedures’ for submitting a substitution request to obtain approval for use of an unnamed product.  These substitution requests must be submitted at least 5 days prior to the bid date.”

The full procedures were indicated in Document 00 26 00 “Procurement Substitution Procedures” in the project manual. That document again defined “Or Equal,” indicated that they had to be submitted prior to the bid, and also defined Procurement Substitution Requests as “Requests for ‘Or Equals,’ and other changes in products, materials, equipment, and methods of construction from those indicated in the Procurement and Contracting Documents submitted prior to receipt of bids.”

So, what does “Or Equal” mean? Whatever the contract documents say it means.

It comes down to this: Owners should define “Or Equal.” Architects and specifiers should explain it. Contractors should look it up. We just need to communicate.

Notes:

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  1. “Or Approved Equal” is equally confounding, and can be substituted for “Or Equal” in this post.
  2. The Colorado Office of the State Architect calls the form “Information for Bidders” instead of “Instructions to Bidders.” Sometimes these instructions aren’t included in the Project Manual, but are instead issued separately, either by the owner or by a Construction-Manager-at-Risk/Construction-Manager-General-Contractor.
  3. By “people” I mean the whole freakin’ team. Owners are confused. Architects are confused. Engineers are confused. General Contractors are confused. Subcontractors are confused. Vendors are confused.
  4. On your computer keyboard, hitting the Control key at the same time as the F key will usually bring up the Find function. It works in Microsoft Word, PDF readers such as Adobe Acrobat Reader, and web browsers.
  5. Sometimes engineers sneak “Or Equal” into the project specifications, though.

Illogical (part two)

Here are some possible solutions to the unsustainable situation outlined in part one of this post:

Colleges and universities could stop increasing the price of tuition, or even decrease it.

Parents and high schools could stop pushing all kids towards 4-year college.

  • A 2011 Harvard University study, “Pathways to Prosperity,” points out that of the 47 million new job openings projected over the decade ending in 2018, about one-third will need people with bachelor’s degrees or higher, one-third will need people with associates degrees or occupational certificates, and the last one-third will go to high school grads and lower.
  • “Pathways to Prosperity” also stated that “nearly 70 percent of high school graduates now go to college within two years of graduating. But… only about 4 in 10 Americans have obtained either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree by their mid-twenties. Roughly another 10 percent have earned a certificate… Only 56 percent of those enrolling in a four-year college attain a bachelor’s degree after six years…”
  • So, two-thirds of the jobs out there will be for people who have less education than a bachelor’s degree. Almost half of those who enroll in a four-year-college don’t finish. This tells me that not everyone should be going to college.
  • When student loans are thrown into this mix, it becomes really obvious that many kids are being guided down the wrong path.

Back to architecture: The profession of architecture could change a lot.

1.  Architects could charge higher fees, and pay employees more.

Other professionals manage to do this, but architects don’t anymore. Why can’t architecture firms charge enough to keep their employees from being crushed by their student loan debt? If I look at it as a supply-and-demand issue, I have to conclude that either architects aren’t delivering what owners expect and need (there’s not much demand), or there are too many architects (there’s too much supply).

To be able to deliver what owners expect and need, and to be able to charge fair fees for these services, architects need to get more technical.

Architects should keep technical expertise in-house or under their umbrella. I am not talking about computer software; I am not talking about Reviteers. I am talking about building code expertise. I am talking about an understanding of building technology (knowledge of the technical processes and methods of assembling buildings). I am talking about comprehension of building science. (“If architects did their job there wouldn’t be any need for building science.” – Joe Lstiburek.1) I am talking about effective construction contract administration.2

A building owner has just one financial “pie” of a certain size for each project. Everyone involved in the design and construction of the building gets a piece of the pie. Architects keep giving away profitable tasks (usually just by not doing a good enough job at them, so the owner hires someone else to do that part next time) and keep receiving a smaller piece of the pie. Owners sometimes hire code consultants, and sometimes hire building envelope consultants. Sometimes contractors hire building envelope consultants. Owners often choose Design-Build, or Construction-Manager-as-General Contractor, or IPD project delivery methods, all of which give the contractor more of the pie.

Why are owners making these choices? Architects haven’t been delivering. Architects’ piece of the pie gets smaller, because they’re doing less of the essential work; they’re doing less of the technical work. That work still has to get done. If architects take back the technical work, and do it properly, architects’ piece of the pie can get bigger.

2.  States could bring back the apprenticeship path to licensure.

Tuition at NAAB-accredited architecture schools often costs a lot of money. But only a small percentage of what accredited schools teach actually contributes to students’ knowledge of the instruments of service that building departments and owner-architect agreements require. Accredited schools generally place most of their focus on design and theory, and barely touch on building codes, construction documentation, and construction contract administration. They don’t teach much building technology or building science.

Tuition at technical schools  and community colleges is much more affordable. Their curricula usually focus on drafting, modeling, construction detailing, building materials, and construction techniques. Basically, they focus on production, documentation, and building technology. Many firms looking for new employees are looking for production people. Building departments are looking for clear documents that include code-required details. Owners are looking for buildings that won’t leak or get moldy (we prevent these things with an understanding of building technology).

So why does an increasing number of firms refuse to hire people without professional degrees? The focus in schools offering professional degrees is design (the work that firm owners and current employees want to keep to themselves). Why not hire some people with associate’s degrees, who are trained and ready to do production, and probably understand how to draw roof and wall details much better than newly-minted BArch’s and MArch’s?

Colorado is one of a handful of states that still have the apprenticeship path to licensure (in Colorado, you don’t need any college degree – you just work for 10 years under the supervision of a licensed architect, and then you’re eligible to sit for your licensing exams). I think this is a good alternative to the professional degree path.

If a professional degree from an accredited school isn’t required for licensure, architect-hopefuls wouldn’t have to borrow huge sums of money for school. They could go to technical schools or community colleges, and then get work experience, and then get licensed.

3.  NCARB could make its alternative route to certification less expensive.

NCARB requires each certification candidate to have a professional degree from an accredited school. There’s an alternate route to NCARB certification, through the Broadly Experienced Architect Program. However, a dossier review fee could be as high as $5,000 if an architect who is licensed in an NCARB member state, but who didn’t go to an accredited school, wishes to pursue NCARB certification. This makes it tough for many people who wish to get licensed in additional states.

4. The AIA could Reposition in a different direction.  

The AIA launched its “Repositioning the AIA” initiative earlier this year. The goal of the initiative is to “determine how the Institute should reposition architecture, architects, and how to reflect current client and public perceptions.”

From the strategic marketing firm working on the repositioning: “One of the great kind of a-ha moments for us was understanding that architects are no longer those who specialize in the built environment… a lot of people who now call themselves, and are trained as, architects are not building physical things anymore, you’re building design solutions that address societal problems. It’s not bricks and mortar; it’s systems, it’s constructs, but in all these things that you’re building, you’re creating something that matters.”3

If architects are “no longer those who specialize in the built environment,” who is? If we no longer specialize in the built environment, what, exactly, do we do? Why would we want our work to differ so extremely from the way our states legally define the work of an architect? Why would the AIA wish to reposition its members in such a way that not only do we no longer do the work that the states license us to do, but we do something else, something that is not regulated, and does not require licensure, and which, therefore, legally, anyone could do?

Architects should be focusing on getting better at what we are licensed to do. Once we’ve perfected that, we can add other services to our portfolios. We should not be throwing away what we are licensed to do, doing something else instead, and still trying to call ourselves architects.

Some owners who wish to build buildings think of architects as just a necessary evil. I suspect that government requirements for licensed architects to stamp and sign construction documents are the only reason that most architects who were employed during the Great Recession kept their jobs.

Design is not regulated. Architecture is not only Design. And if we start treating architecture as if it is just Design, but is the design of anything we desire (and can sell to someone), the profession will be lost, fees will go even lower, and those young architecture grads will never get out of debt.

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Notes:

  1. Read the whole Inhabitat interview with Joe Lstiburek of Building Science Corporation.
  2. CSI, the Construction Specifications Institute, can help with building technology education and with effective construction contract administration. CSI is working on a Building Technology Education Program, and has a well-established education track for Construction Contract Administration in its CCCA certification.
  3. Watch the whole Repositioning (the AIA) at Grassroots: 3/21 General Session video.

Illogical (part one)

I don’t know what to call this besides illogical:

  • The cost of a college education has been increasing more each year than the cost of living has.
  • Wages, particularly in the last few years, have not been keeping up with the increasing cost of living.
  • Therefore wages are falling way behind tuition inflation.
  • A college degree is becoming more essential to employment every decade, but the process of earning it seems to be teaching graduates less and less applicable knowledge.
  • A rule of thumb generally preached to prospective college students who need student loans is that they should borrow a total of no more than their annual starting salary after graduation.
  • So many college freshmen don’t actually know what they’ll be doing after graduation. But architecture students do.
  • So many college students have no idea how much they’ll be making after graduation. But architecture students can find this out pretty easily.
  • The 2013 AIA Compensation Report came out last month. Click here for an article about it, that includes some of the data.

What do entry-level architecture graduates make? I’m going to spell out some of that data from the report.

  • Nationwide, mean (average) compensation for an “Intern 1” position is $40,000. (“Intern 1″ is a person who has graduated from architecture school, works full-time in an architecture firm, and is on the path towards licensure.)
  • Compensation for these new grads a little higher in some places. (In the Mid Atlantic Region it’s $41,800.)
  • And it’s a lot lower in some places. (In the East South Central Region, it’s $34,800.)
  • Remember – these numbers are just averages.
  • According to the rule of thumb, architecture students should borrow a total of no more than $40,000 in student loans, since they’re likely to make no more than $40,000 in their first year after school.

So, as I wrote on a forum recently, if you have to borrow money to go to school, keep these things in mind:

  • To get a professional degree (a BArch or an MArch) in architecture, school takes 5 or 6 years.
  • My alma mater’s current tuition is over $44,000 per year, not including room and board. My alma mater has a 5-year professional degree (a BArch).
  • Tuition alone for the state university in my state is over $10,000 per year, and you’d have to go for a total of 6 years to get a professional degree (4-year degree plus a 2-year MArch).
  • In most states, you need a professional degree if you want to be able to pursue licensure.
  • A growing number of architecture firms won’t even hire you unless you have a professional degree. (According to the AIA report referenced above, 20 percent of firms do not hire employees without a professional degree in architecture, up from 15 percent in 2011.)
  • You might need to borrow money for room and board, or for living expenses, in addition to tuition. If, while in school, you have a job, or live with parents or a spouse who supports you and pays for living expenses, and you get in-state tuition in my state, you’ll likely borrow something like $60,000.
  • If you go to my alma mater, don’t have a job, live on campus, and borrow money for tuition, room and board, you might need something like $285,000, unless you get “gift aid” from the university, in which case you might be borrowing “only” $142,000.
  • You’d never make $142,000 in your field as an architecture grad in the first few years after school.
  • In fact, that figure is close to the mean of what architects top out at right now.
  • The mean salary for CEOs of architecture firms in New England (the highest-paid region in the country for architecture CEOs) is $151,500. That is the highest number on the whole survey.
  • And nobody gets to that compensation level very fast – the mean compensation for “Intern 3″ is $49,200. (“Intern 3″ is a person who has graduated from architecture school, has three to six years experience, works full-time in an architecture firm, and is working towards licensure.)

If you have to borrow money to go to architecture school, the math just doesn’t work out.

  • Check it out for yourself – figure out how much tuition and room and board and fees and books and supplies cost at the schools you’re looking at. Then figure out what you might make in each of your first few years in an architecture firm in the city you want to be in. (To do this, go to the local AIA office and ask to look at the latest compensation survey results for that city. Do not search online for “architect salary;” the internet thinks you mean “software architect,” or some other IT field, and they make more. ) Then use an online calculator to see if it’ll work. Here’s one.

Something’s gotta give. So what can be changed? I have some thoughts that will be in part two, later this week.

“The Strangest Way To Do Business”

Purchasing for construction projects isn’t like purchasing in our personal lives.

When we buy things in our personal lives, we go to a store, or go online, find exactly what we want, and buy it. Sometimes we ask someone else to get something for us. The very particular among us might attach a photo of exactly what we want when we send the email or text message request for the item. (To end up with the right container of anchovies, I might need to send my husband a photo of the jar.)

On construction projects, the architect finds out from the owner the general idea of what is required, then the architect, through the drawings and specifications, tells the general contractor exactly what to provide. OK, so this is complicated, but it still makes sense.

What happens next is where it gets weird…

The bidding general contractors solicit bids from subcontractors and vendors, each of whom is a specialist in his or her area. These are the people who read the documents and actually provide what the drawings and specifications require, and the general contractor who is awarded the project coordinates all of that work. These bidders may submit bids on the specified items, or may submit substitution requests, requesting that different products be approved by the architect.

Last week I was talking with a product rep at my CSI Chapter meeting about specifications for toilet partitions and lockers. The rep represents several different manufacturers. She currently has someone working with her who is new to the construction industry.

The new person looks at specifications for all projects that have just hit the street, to see if the specs include manufacturers they represent, or products that they might be able to meet the spec for, even if their manufacturers aren’t specifically listed. If their manufacturers aren’t listed, but they can meet the spec, the product rep will prepare a substitution request and submit it to the general contractor for him to submit to the architect, to see if they can get approved, and therefore be able to provide a bid.

The new employee described this process as “the strangest way to do business.” It is very odd, from a manufacturer’s or distributor’s point of view. The building owner, through the architect, asks for something specific, or maybe says “provide one of these 3″ or maybe says “provide this, or something equal.” Then the manufacturer, distributor, or subcontractor goes through a process which looks a bit like begging to be allowed to play, too.

This isn’t actually that strange when the documents are clear.

The intent, and the outcome, of this process is that the design team can research one, two, or three products that will work on the project, indicate the important characteristics of the desired products, and allow competitive bidding through the substitution request and review process. This can result in a fair price for the owner, set up clear quality requirements so that bidding is fair for contractors, and allow the open competition that is usually required for government projects.1

But when the specifications are poorly written, this process actually IS one of the strangest, most inefficient, ridiculous ways to do business.

Sometimes subs and vendors have to play a guessing game, trying to figure out exactly what products are desired or allowed. Sometimes, bad specifications call for discontinued products, or worse, products by manufacturers who went out of business years ago. Sometimes, bad specifications are uncompleted master specification sections, with multiple options (that were intended to be deleted) indicated. (That looks something like this, with brackets and bold text:  Toilet-Enclosure Style: [Overhead braced] [Floor anchored] [Ceiling hung] [Floor and ceiling anchored].) Sometimes, bad specifications indicate a mix-and-match monster of a product that isn’t available, such as when “manufacturer’s standard polymer integral hinge” is specified for steel toilet compartment doors. (A sub knows the architect doesn’t really want polymer “integral” hinges for a steel door, because there is no such animal, but has no idea if the architect wants hinges that are stainless steel, aluminum, or “chrome-plated zamac.”)

Now, toilet compartments aren’t a huge percentage of construction cost for a whole building. But it’s an easy example. Imagine the confusion and wasted time when errors like this are made in the masonry spec section for a large brick building with CMU backup. For a project that’s bid by several general contractors, there could easily be 3 bidding subs for each of 3 bidding generals – so there could be 9 confused subs who have gone back to their 3 generals, who have gone back to the architect (another confused person) who goes back to whomever wrote the spec. And the person who wrote the spec now has to do what should have been done in the first place – figure out exactly what is needed, and clearly communicate that to the bidders. It’s easier for the specifier to do it right the first time, but it’s not only his or her own time that’s wasted – there could easily be more than a dozen additional people who are all trying to figure out the same thing.

That really is the strangest way to do business – trying to figure out something that lots of other people are also trying to figure out, merely in order to submit an accurate bid that would allow them to deliver what is required, at a fair price, and to make a fair profit.

Bidding for, and building, a construction project shouldn’t be a guessing game in which one tries to interpret documents that make no sense. When the documents are good, and clearly indicate the requirements for a constructible building, bidding goes more smoothly because there are fewer addenda, bids are closer to each other (demonstrating that the owner is getting a fair price), and construction goes more smoothly. Less time is wasted on the design team side and on the construction team side. The design team should get it all figured out in the design phases; changes made in the design phases cost much less than changes made in the construction phase. When the documents are good, both the design team and the construction team have more profit, and the owner has fewer change orders to deal with and pay for.

Isn’t this what we all want?

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Notes:

  1. For further reading on the substitution process, check out this great article by Ron Geren, “Substitutions: Flexibility within Limits” http://www.specsandcodes.com/Articles/Keynotes%20No.%208%20-%20Substitutions.pdf and the article he cites, “Prior Approval, A Specification System,” by H. Maynard Blumer http://lizosullivanaia.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/prior-approval-a-specification-system2.pdf  As Ron Geren points out, the Prior Approval System was the first formalized substitution procedure. (Yes, we’ve had a formal substitution procedure for decades now. I know, this is news to many.)

Avalanches & Construction Project Teamwork

The Colorado mountains were host to a tragedy last month, on April 20th. Six skiers and snowboarders triggered an avalanche that killed five of them.

These guys were experienced backcountry travelers; their collective knowledge and experience made them a group who knew, better than most, what they were getting into, and how to avoid triggering an avalanche. But that didn’t actually translate into making them a great team.

Weird group dynamics often contribute to disaster. The larger the group, the less likely people are to speak up with dissenting opinions. An interesting study on data from human-triggered avalanches supports this statement in the context of avalanche danger.

The Denver Post had a great article on this tragedy, and how the “pack mentality” contributed to it.

From the Post article:

In 2004, avalanche researcher Ian McCammon released a seminal study “Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications,” in which he looked at 715 U.S. avalanche accidents from 1972 to 2003. The study found that people traveling alone and parties of six to 10 exposed themselves to significantly more hazard than groups of two, three or four.

McCammon identified six human factors in more than 95 percent of the accidents and concluded that they have the power to lure almost anyone into thinking an avalanche slope is safe. They are:

• Familiarity, which McCammon said “relies on our past actions to guide our behavior in familiar settings.”

• Consistency, which sees people sticking with original assumptions and ignoring new information about potential hazards.

• Acceptance, described by McCammon as “the tendency to engage in activities that we think will get us noticed or accepted.”

• The Expert Halo, which sees group members ascribing avalanche safety skills to a perceived expert, who may lead the group without those skills.

• Social Facilitation, which sees groups tending toward riskier decisions.

• Scarcity, or the “powder fever,” that can overwhelm backcountry travelers hunting for deep, untracked snow.

Many of these cues were clearly evident April 20 when the six skiers and snowboarders were buried in the 800-foot wide avalanche that slid 600 vertical feet off the north-facing flank of Mount Sniktau.

Hey, architects, does any of this sound familiar to you? Working on a team with an owner who listens to the contractor more than to you, because she’s worked with that contractor before, even though you have to stamp the drawings? Keep working on what you designed with an original budget in mind, although the budget has changed? Don’t want to rock the boat because you hope to work with this owner again in the future? Let the contractor select a roofing assembly because you perceive him to be more of an expert on roofs, even though you don’t actually know that he is? Willing to specify a completely new untested product because someone else on the team recommended it? Willing to take on a client, or work with a contractor, who has proven unreliable in the past, just because there’s not much work to be had?

From the study: “In hindsight, the danger was often obvious before these accidents happened, and so people struggle to explain how intelligent people with avalanche training could have seen the hazard, looked straight at it, and behaved as if it wasn’t there.”

We can’t do this design and construction thing alone. But when teams get too big, it’s human nature to speak up less. Architects, keep this human tendency in mind as more and more projects become contractor-led. Don’t forget that, although your life isn’t in danger due to not speaking up when you know better, as it is in the mountain backcountry, your reputation and liability are. You may be part of a pack, but you’re the team member who stamps those construction documents. You’re responsible for their content, no matter who contributed to them. You don’t have to go along with the pack on everything.

Earth Day Thoughts on Green Building

There’s an apartment building under construction near my office. The building’s marketing materials tout “Green Features” such as energy-efficient windows, low-e glazing, and energy-efficient lighting. That’s good, that’s all good.

But for some unknown reason, the juncture of the building wrap and those energy-efficient windows has been constructed using an inexpensive and outdated technique that does not produce an air-tight seal. In other words, those window units themselves may be energy-efficient, but the parts of the building enclosure that include those windows are likely to let hot air in during the summer and let warm air out during the winter. Not energy-efficient.

So, here’s some stuff I’ve said before, but am saying again:

Construction industry professionals cannot become “green skilled” without first becoming generally skilled. Being generally experienced in one’s field is a prerequisite to being “green” experienced.

A person without considerable experience in general architecture, engineering, or construction cannot be an effective “green skilled” employee for an architecture, engineering, or construction firm.

“Green” design and construction skills are icing on a cake made up of plain old experience and hard work. That icing cannot stand up by itself. You can’t just learn “green” design and construction skills and not bother with general design and construction skills.   

Without an understanding of basic building technology, we can’t contribute much to green building initiatives.

Just as the IgCC (International Green Construction Code) is an overlay to the other ICC codes (such as the International Building Code), green building technology does not replace, but enhances, basic building technology.

A building that has green features such as energy-efficient windows, but that does not meet current standards for basic construction of the building envelope, is not a green building.

Yes, I contacted someone who might be able to do something about that weird window/building wrap juncture. He confirmed that it’s weird – informed me that it’s outdated, and also informed me that that installation is likely to void the building wrap’s warranty. I hope it can be fixed. I really, really care about buildings.