Monday, August 2, 2010

The paradox of CA

Recently, an anonymous commenter said the following on a previous post:

A project I have been since it's inception is now under construction and my boss (licensed architect) has decided to make me project manager over construction administration. He talks about training me, but never makes time to do so, and I live in fear that one day the contractor will "find out" I don't know what I'm doing and "something bad will happen". (I know this sounds more paranoid than it needs to be, but I'm majorly anxious).
My boss makes me sign all the letters, transmittals, RFIs, Request for Change Orders, etc. The only thing I'm not signing are pay applications. I have repeatedly tried to talk to him about how I feel uncomfortable without being trained in this aspect of my job, even though I know the project, but his response is always "But you're doing well."

Maybe it's not the worst thing to have your boss trust you so much, but it makes me extremely stressed out and sick to my stomach to think I'm doing a job I have no idea how to do anymore, especially after he was so good at training me to do every other phase of architecture.

It's kismet that Anonymous is dealing with the anxiety-inducing construction administration (CA) process right now, as for the first time in almost three years, I'm finally getting to do CA again on a project for which I did the drawings. (Some of my projects since 2007 have been master planning, but the economy killed some of my other projects after DDs.) Even though I've been working in architecture for over ten years, and I've done CA at least a dozen times, it still gives me a twinge of anxiety. After all, CA is where the rubber meets the road; it's where the truth becomes clear about your drawings and even your abilities as an architect. Were your drawings and specs clear and thorough and well-coordinated? Are you able to make good decisions about RFIs? Are you really looking at an understanding the shop drawings and submittals? And are you able to do all of this in a timely and organized fashion? Even worse is that now your (and others') mistakes cost money and time. Ouchie.

The hardest truth about this process is what I call the paradox of CA: you only learn how to do it by doing it or having done it. When our anonymous commenter looks back on his/her CA on this project, s/he will have so much insight on how a building goes together and how to work with consultants and contractors and subs and so on. It's only after doing it that you know how to do it. And that's cold comfort for Anonymous and many others of you out there. Even though I can make a list here on the Intern 101 blog about what all the CA terms mean, there is no class in which I can teach you CA. You just have to do it.

Here's the thing about working with contractors on CA: if you're under the age of 30, your contractor probably already knows that you don't know everything and don't have much experience. But if s/he's any good, they won't rub it in your face and they won't abuse that fact. A good contractor won't insist that you give them an answer RIGHT HERE RIGHT NOW because they know that you have to go back to the office and check the code and look at the drawings (maybe even open the CAD plans or Revit model) and make double-sure and triple-sure that your response is in line with the drawings and specs and isn't messing up something else down the line or going to cause yet another RFI/CCD/PR/OMGWTF down the line. And sometimes, checking on something and doing the research to get the contractor an answer means asking your boss if s/he has ever dealt with this question or problem before.

I completely understand Anonymous' concern, stated at the start of this post. S/He has been well trained and supervised on every other task, but now s/he feels adrift on this, the most important of tasks in which mistakes are magnified and the stakes are even higher. Here's what I wonder as I read Anon's comments: is the manager/boss at least looking these documents (RFIs, PRs, letters, shops, etc.) over before Anon issues them? If so, then the manager's confidence in Anon to get things done is appropriate, if unsettling. But if the manager is simply not dealing with CA at all and is letting Anon go loose, then I too would be nervous, even as a licensed architect. Doing CA in a vacuum is a good way to make mistakes. You're better off bouncing questions off of people on a regular basis and learning from them, and they might catch something on a drawing that you wouldn't see or know because you hadn't dealt with it before.

There's much more to talk about regarding interns and CA. But in the meantime, if you have a question you'd like to ask or a topic you'd like to see discussed here on Intern 101, let me know in the comments or drop me a line via email in the sidebar. Thanks!

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