Monday, July 6, 2009

Five words you should use in the field

Going to the field to do site visits and punch lists is an important part of an architectural intern's career development. One of the top five (if not number one) best ways to learn in this profession is to do CA (construction administration) on the drawings that you drew. You have to learn how what you draw gets built; how you draw something isn't always the best way to build it, and sometimes a detail that looks great on paper and even in your head looks cruddy in real life. Going to the field allows interns to learn from the contractor, the people that actually have to build the stuff you draw. Much of what I know about how buildings go together I have learned from good superintendents who would show me things in the field, compare them to my drawings, and then explain the problem as they understood it. We could work through issues and solve problems, and it really has made a difference in my professional experience and abilities. I still learn from them, even as a licensed architect.

Answering questions in the field can be a tricky thing. On the one hand, you can solve a contractor's problem quickly and keep the project moving. On the other hand, you can make decisions that sound good at the time but actually are a bad idea, once you've had time to think about them (if you had a second thought on them at all). Some if not most questions asked in the field need to be thought about twice, but having a contractor (who obviously has more experience in the field than you do) staring you in the face and waiting for a response, tools and personnel at the ready, can be intimidating. No matter how much a contractor stresses the need to have an answer "right here right now", resist the pressure. If you have to choose between a fast answer and a right answer, go for the right answer. A fast but wrong answer means everybody gets to do it twice...and if the wrong answer is your fault, guess whose pocket it comes out of?

The first step in answering questions from the field is having a clear, agreed-upon process for answering them. Usually, this means an RFC (Request For Clarification) or an RFI (Request For Information) gets sent from the field to the architect in his or her warm, dry office. The architect usually has seven or so days to answer the question (or get the question to the engineers or other consultants and back, then check their answer against any other concerns), but occasionally the contractor needs an answer in fewer days. If you get asked something or work out a solution in the field, make sure with the contractor that any and all of those questions get a follow-up RFI or RFC, saying something like "Per discussion between Architect and Contractor on xx/xx/xx in the field...." The follow-up RFI/RFC will allow you one more chance to check the answer, plus it provides a record of the decision that can become a part of the contract documents and leave less room for ambiguity.

If you're working with a general contractor who will be managing subcontractors, make sure you have a clear understanding with the GC on how, if, and when you can talk to the subs. Conversations with the subs without a GC present another good reason to use follow-up RFIs/RFCs; it keeps the GC in the loop and gives them a chance to voice an opinion if there's a problem with a solution that you and the sub figured out. It has been my experience that subs more often than GCs will press you for an answer "right here right now"; again, don't fall for it. Commit the following five words to memory: Let me check on that. Write down some notes, take pictures (you did bring a digital camera, right?) and formulate some kind of question in writing that you can go back to the office and check on. Then, tell the other party that you'll check on it and get them a response by noon/5pm/3pm/Tuesday. If they press with the old "I really need to know right now! This is holding up everything!", do the old broken record: "I understand, man, but I need to check the code/run this by my boss/look at the plan in CAD before I tell you something. I don't want to give you a bad answer, man." The contractor or sub may lean on you six times; lean back seven.

If you are ever uncomfortable answering something in the field, err on the side of caution and say, "Let me check on that." Some contractors and subcontractors will throw up their hands in disgust or talk smack about you, call you names like you're the goofy wet-behind-the-ears architect that your firm sent out to the site because everyone else was too busy, blah blah blah. Again, don't fall for it. If you take the question back to your boss and express why you were reluctant to answer the question in the field, he or she will generally appreciate it and may also give you some feedback that will help you better decide what you can decide in the field and what should come back to the office for closer inspection. Most contractors and subs will respect you for wanting to check before you give them an answer--you're witholding immediate answers in the service of the job. You'd rather give them the right answer than the fast answer. And your boss will repsect you for that too. Your bad answers come back to haunt your boss and the firm at which you both work, so he or she will be glad that you're watching out for everyone with a bit of caution.

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