Volume 38, Issue 8, September 2003
The Architect Dilemma
Bringing the Architect into Our World
by Dez Farnady
I started my career in the construction industry shortly after some Egyptian kicked sand into the fire and discovered that he could make glass. Back in those days my job was called architectural sales. I actually made daily calls on architects’ offices. Making architectural sales calls for the purpose of developing business just does not happen anymore. They call you when they want to talk to you about their specific and immediate needs, and after that you are permitted to leave. Back in the old days we could actually present new products and update catalogues without resistance. Sometimes they even treated us as if they were interested in our product information. Sometimes our product even got specified, and it was a tight spec—with no “or equal” attached to it.
We still respond when we get the call because we are civil and it is still easier to do the work if it is drawn correctly. But there are a lot of people who will no longer make the actual sales call to the architect’s office, even when requested. The cost of the call seldom justifies the time, the effort or the strength of the spec.
Over the years, architects have isolated themselves from the salespeople in the construction industry out of what they believe to be necessity. They claim that their offices are too busy to bother with vendors taking up their precious time. In the process they have eliminated their primary resources for up-to-date product information. They have become generalists, drawing pretty pictures and writing voluminous, often meaningless, specifications.
The drawings usually are pretty, but often a lot of the critical details are missing, or incorrect. Sometimes the job can’t even be built the way it is drawn. The specs are usually extensive and frequently wrong, sometimes to the point of being ridiculous. I once saw a two-page mirror spec that must have been from a prehistoric encyclopedia. It is not likely that a mirror manufacturer running a line with thousands of feet of mirror per shift would stop the line to accommodate a special spec—even for a Vegas casino. The endless pages of specifications seem to be no more than an attempt to flex the design professional’s authority muscle, even if concluded with the traditional cover-your-butt or equal clause.
As for float glass, in the last 25 years I don’t recall ever seeing a set of float glass specs from a float manufacturer. Architects use ASTM-C 1036-01 for glass quality and I know that the big boys couldn’t even sell stock sheets much less truck loads of stoce if they could not do a whole lot better than this standard. That means that there is little sense in trying to specify glass, yet architects do it all the time and forget to tell you what color or how thick.
In order to re-connect with the construction industry, architects, as a group, must want to do it. But first they have to realize how disconnected they are. They cannot continue to treat everyone in the industry like poor relations they must tolerate because someone has to do the work of actually building what they draw. Unfortunately for them, the absolute autocracy of the Frank Lloyd Wrights of this world is long gone. Architects only retain absolute power over public work or large corporate jobs where some committee has delegated away the power to make decisions. Owners and contractors are no longer afraid to overturn or ignore architectural decisions and the new watchwords—value engineering—sometimes leave them out of the loop all together.
Bringing architects back to the realities of the construction business and reestablishing effective communications is up to them. I am not about to try to solve their problem, but I can tell them that a little more humility would help. A greater respect for the expertise of the product specialists who sell glass, storefront, windows or any other construction component would be a step in the right direction. A constructive system for allowing access to architectural offices without the arrogant, written proposal and buy-my-office- staff-lunch requirement routine would also help.
Over the last few decades most of us have discovered that architects specify everything with the “or equal” butt cover. They do not issue purchase orders or actually buy anything. They duck most responsibility with skillful disclaimers and certainly never pay for anything. They continually put us into difficult positions and expect us to cover their respective behinds.
So, what do we do? Do we bid the bad spec and try to add our own butt cover? Do we bid plans and specs and spend half the job writing RFIs for clarifications or corrections or changes? Do we just eat the bad spec and bad drawings because we think that the architect is still the boss of the job? Or, do we faithfully respect the architectural design intent and bid it the way we know it works, but not per plans and specs?
I guess it is all of the above.
And, if you thought you were going to find an easy answer here, I am sorry to disappoint you. I can’t help you. I have the same problems as you.
Dez Farnady serves as general manager of Royalite Manufacturing Inc., a skylight manufacturer in San Carlos, Calif. His column appears monthly.
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