March 4, 2011 by: Eric Mac Inerney

My wife and I have been together for some 15 years and all of that time I have been an architect or at least an intern (Texas licensing laws have some restrictions on when the term architect can be used, perhaps a blog topic for a later date). I know this because it was my then boss and now business-partner’s wife who set us up—not a bad extra benefit from the workplace. Anyway, two recent events have me re-thinking things. No, not about my marriage, that is great and steady, but about my wife’s understanding of what I do.

First, as I have previously mentioned, we are building a house together. As per my usual habits, I have a binder of items that I am coordinating so I can have info on site if I need it. Karen took one look at the binder and said, “What is all this stuff?”

Construction Binder

My Construction Binder for Our House

Second, while I was driving home from Fayetteville, Texas, where we are designing a cool updated Texas farm home for a great client, she told me that she didn’t know what I did on site visits. Given that I have been talking to her on the cell phone for years as I drove home from construction site visits for various projects throughout Texas, this really surprised me.

Fayettville Ranch House, Foundation

Fayettevill Ranch House--Foundation Underway!

But if she doesn’t know what I do during construction, then I can safely assume that many of you don’t know, either.

First off, throughout the entire project, the architect’s role is part visionary (Howard York) and part coordinator (Peter Keating). It is interesting that Ayn Rand chose to separate these two aspects and set them against each other (it has been a long time since high school when I read the book, so I hope I am getting that right), when actually you must do both if you are going to get buildings built that are right for your clients. The architect is responsible for coordinating into the project all the necessary (and often competing) constraints such as client needs, client desires, budget, constructability, code, engineering requirements, environmental requirements, and design.

LDS Kyle Stake, Roof Trusses

Roof Trusses at the LDS Kyle Stake Center

This coordination does not stop during construction. There are many different contract models and different ways architects are asked to perform their services during construction, but the basic concept is that the architect is the representative of the owner at the site. Ideally, this means the architect works with the contractor to help ensure that the owner is getting the building they want and have paid for. Of course this can become quite contentious, and sometimes the architect is also supposed to be the neutral party to help resolve issues between the owner and contractor. In our experience and process, the highly contentious issues occur infrequently, so I will focus on the four basic areas of our responsibilities during construction.

Translating Design Intent and Dealing with Unforeseen Issues

Designing a complex 3D building with the tools we have, it is not possible to have every possible detail and condition thought out – well, at least not at a fee that anyone would be willing to pay. Therefore we draw general details and try to get our intent into the 2D drawings as much as possible. This also depends on what level of details we have been hired to complete. For example, ‘builder sets’ for homes have much less detail than a full construction set for a church that will be competitively bid. Even if the set is well-detailed, unforeseen conflicts and issues will arise during construction, so one of the main aspects of architecture during construction is working with the contractor and subs to get the details clarified. Some details are issued as Supplemental Instructions, which mean they are not expected to affect cost, and some are issued as Proposal Requests, if costs will change. This may be slightly less formal in a residential project.

Foundation United Methodist Church

Site Visit at Foundation United Methodist

Site Visits

Whereas it is the contractor’s responsibility to oversee his people and subs and warrant that the building is built according to the documents and good practice, the architect makes periodic site visits – the number and timing of visits depends on the size, complexity, and what is happening on site at the time—to review the work. At the visits the architect endeavors to review the construction to see that it appears to comply with the construction documents. While the architect is not on site as a full time inspector, and as such may not see every potential problem (particularly if it is covered by drywall or masonry), having an architect make site visits during construction is an excellent way to help ensure the quality of the workmanship.

Pay Applications and Changes

The architect reviews the Pay Application—the ‘bill’ submitted monthly (usually) by the contractor designating what work has been completed -- to make sure it s a reasonable representation of the progress made and to make sure the contractor is not billing ahead of what has been done. The architect then signs the Pay Application and forwards it to the owner, who then must pay the contractor directly. The architect also coordinates change order amounts, contingencies, and allowances to make sure that all parties are up to date on the cost of the work.

Translation

Perhaps the most important role for the architect is to take all of the issues and terms and concepts that come up during construction and translate them to the owner in terms that make sense to them, which is especially important to our residential and church clients who may not have much experience with the world of construction. The architect represents the owner because he or she is used to construction and understands what the owner is trying to achieve.

St. Albert of Trapani Catholic Church, Houston, New and Old

Site Visit at St. Albert of Trapani Catholic Church in Houston--Existing and New structure Coming Togther

Now that she’s read this, my wife finally understands why my project binders are so enormous, and why I work so hard at shepherding each of my projects to completion. In short, our role as architects is not only to translate our clients’ dreams into beautiful buildings, but to advocate for our clients and guide them through the complexities of the construction process. Architects do excel at design: but it’s our skills in project management and building that help ensure top-quality construction – and our clients’ peace of mind.

Church Design & Construction/ Residential Design & Construction/ Design Process