Consider the contractor

Architects’ cocktail-napkin sketches may be more glamorous than request-for-information documents, but aesthetic inspiration is only one step in the complex process of creating a building. Over a structure’s lifetime, many different people — project managers, engineers, specialty designers, building operators, and more — impact its appearance and functionality.

In my experience, the contributions of one group in particular — contractors — are too often misunderstood. There is too much friction between clients, designers, and builders. In recent years, the situation has been exacerbated by a number of major buildings that have come in millions of dollars over budget and several years late.

Until the design profession acknowledges and addresses the issue, I believe that the consequences will only become more serious.

Getting past “us vs. them”

From my perspective, the problem is one of process and communication rather than an inherent divide between the disciplines. Clients (and sometimes designers) sometimes don’t understand exactly how contractors translate a drawing into a built environment. They frequently assume that builders skimp on quality, working as quickly and cheaply as possible in order to pocket the extra savings.

However, this kind of thinking only hurts the overall effort. After all, clients also want to build cheaply — or, rather, as cheaply as possible without sacrificing quality. And good contractors, like good designers, are only too happy to take on challenging projects that demand careful attention to detail. Rather than starting from a position of suspicion and mistrust, all parties would be better off setting shared goals and working together to realize them.

Better coordination, sooner

One of the most effective ways to improve the situation is to involve contractors throughout every phase of the project. Although different contractual arrangements bring in the various team members at different times, they almost never include builders in important conversations until close to the end.

This makes little sense. Even if a client hires the best design team in the world, the architects, engineers, and consultants don’t actually construct anything themselves. The people who will build the project should be included in important decisions from day one.

Early coordination becomes even more important in the presence of strict budget or schedule limitations. When everything needs to be done right the first time and synchronized like a ballet, it’s critical to get all parties on the same page long before the groundbreaking ceremony.

Clients hold the key

Communication is the key to everything — including team members getting along. Clients hold the power to harness communication for the good of their projects from the earliest phases. When selecting designers, consultants, and contractors, they must clearly convey the project’s drivers and priorities. This will positively influence the selection process, helping to bring together companies with compatible cultures.

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