New Hampshire Chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute

Where Did The Good Drawings Go?
 By Jeff Potter, CDT, Specifications Writer, HMC Architects

I recently was listening to a construction podcast where one of the topics briefly discussed was how terrible drawings have become. More like copy and paste, drag and drop type documents. This isn’t the first I have heard this, but this time, I stopped to think why. Why has an industry that was known for perfection and being detailed oriented now being referred to by a Contractor of almost the opposite? Well, personally I think it comes down to several areas where Architecture has failed.

The first, and probably, the most unpopular, as I’ll get some disagreement across the board, is with Architecture school programs. Note, I am addressing what I see comes out of the local college Architecture programs, not everyone single one. I also didn’t go through an Architecture program, but I see what it is and what it focuses on and what it doesn’t focus on. Architecture school focuses on design and theory where students are almost suffocated with the amount of work they have to do. All the interns and recent new hires I ask say they get about one semester of professional practice, but that no one pays attention because it doesn’t matter and they have to spend more time on their design classes. Now design is great, it needs to be taught, it needs to be understood, because design gets you the “W”. If a firm puts out crappy designs, they are not getting Work. So design is a huge component.

However, I think the technical aspect of the profession is missing and contributing to the overall thought that construction drawings are terrible. These young students come out of school with no technical training. They are expected to learn this technical training, which is a huge part of the job, on the job from others. I have had conversations with PM level employees or employees who have been in this industry for a long time that don’t know what specs are, how to read them, or how they relate to their drawings!!! Are you kidding me!!!?? We expect these young professionals to be the production and the Project Architect to direct the technical aspects of the project, but what if the Project Architect has no idea either or is a poor teacher? How are these young professionals supposed to learn!? Many firms don’t invest in the training needed to learn and fully understand the implications of their Work. They have no idea that one simple mislabeled keynote could cost their firm thousands if not tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Personally, I think Architecture school should have two tracts. Those who are more design driven, and those who are more technical. I didn’t consider Architecture school because I am no artist, I can’t draw, I am a technical person. Now that I know what Architecture is, I would have thrived on a technical path, if it existed. This would partially solve the problem. It would teach those technical aspects of the profession and make it more real world. Especially when it comes to risk management. Something they also don’t learn until they get burned.

Second, we are in a transition period where the baby boomers are retiring with all this knowledge. Once they are gone, that knowledge of 30+ years is gone forever. As a profession, I think we are stuck trying to find out how to capture that knowledge so it can be kept and passed down. The world is moving digital, so how do we get all of this information and knowledge from human minds and documents from the last thirty years? I believe it starts with an information management system. Where communication between people can occur, documents can be kept and tracked, and all of this is search for future generations. I am not sure how many firms have a system like this, but it is one that my firm is attempting to do. It’s tough to get people on board because there is no immediate reward. It is a reward that comes later, and probably to someone else looking for the answer.

Without all this information stored from these career professionals, we could loose decades of it. That’s why, we as younger professionals need to engage and learn. It is on us to ask the questions, not for them to just give answers. We need to take the time to learn and understand, rather than be told the answer without understanding it. The younger professionals need to take advantage of these more knowledgeable people because one day they might not be there… and then what? Where do we go for information… GOOGLE.

GOOGLE, believe it or not, is an information storage system that is searchable. It has all the answers right! Most times I am never let down by the power of GOOGLE. So why are we, younger professionals, not setting up our own GOOGLE within our firms that is SPECIFIC to our firm and its’ history. GOOGLE doesn’t know why we don’t use a certain product, but someone at our firm does, and we need those answers. What if we use a product or detail that ends up in a lawsuit? In which, we have had history with that product or detail and didn’t use it for certain reasons. How are we supposed to know this? By capturing knowledge and information on a firm specific information management system.

Third, understanding the cost of a mistake. One simple word, such as “galvanized”, being omitted can have huge ramifications on a project. I think young professionals need to understand that the production work they are doing can have a huge negative cost attached to it if done incorrectly. Yes, QA/QC procedures are there for a reason, to check the work, but nobody is perfect.

If people don’t understand the costs of mistakes, then the thought process is, oh, they will just figure it out in the field. The contractors and tradesmen / tradeswomen are experts at putting it together, so they will know, or they will ask an RFI. Let me tell you, if that is the case, figure it out on the field, it costs a lot more money to answer an RFI or receive and approve a Change Order, than figuring it out during DD or CD and having it detailed and specified correctly.

Most production level professionals don’t see the bottom line, they don’t see the change order costs, or the average cost to process an RFI. They should, so it scares them, and shows them the importance of their work and also gives them a sense of responsibility. It holds them and everyone on the project team accountable for a good set of contract documents.

Finally, better training. Young professionals coming out of school get training from more experienced staff, but what if this more experienced staff is not a good teacher or teaches bad habits? I firmly agree that all young professionals should have a mentor and go through a training program at their firm. The more experienced and knowledgeable staff need to step up and train the younger generations to be just as capable as they are.

My firm recognized this and has invested in training programs. It’s something that every firm should do, if it can afford to. We want to fix this industry, but we can do it if we don’t train. Otherwise, Architects will lose their grip even more, and Contractors will take advantage of our mistakes more often with greater cost.

Are there other reasons why drawings suck, yes most likely, but I firmly believe in these four. These four contribute in some capacity, no doubt in my mind. No matter how popular or unpopular some of my thoughts are above, we all have to recognize that drawings or simply contract document are not what they used to be. It will take time, but together, as an industry, can change this perception.