Execution is the key factor that makes or breaks a project. Each project essentially has three main players: the client, the architect/designer, and the builder/contractor. As architects, we craft functional designs tailored to the end user in mind. The designs might look good on paper, but it is ultimately up to the contractor to execute on bringing the project to life through construction and the architect to coordinate to ensure design intent is met. This makes the Architect-Contractor relationship one of the most critical element to a project’s success.
At its worst, it can be a contemptuous dynamic akin to a broken marriage with all parties suffering. Architect may think builders lack design sense or neglect to pay attention to the drawings, and the builder may think the architect is ignorant about construction. Assumptions and decisions can be made on site or by sub-trades that could lead to project delays, cost overruns, and the end-result deviating from design intent. However, it doesn’t have to be this way.
At its best, the Architect-Contractor relationship is a symbiotic one seamlessly blending design and construction while successfully meeting the client’s objectives. Architects and contractors all want the same thing: a happy client, beautiful end-product, and a profitable job. It’s important to understand that the architect and contractor are essentially collaborators who bring lines on paper into built form – a feat that is unique to our industry. Choosing the right team for the job rather than the lowest bidder is the first step.
Choose the Right Team for the Job
In a stipulated price contract, the architect helps the client select their contractor during the tender process. Often times, the lowest bidder is chosen rather than the right team for the project. Each contractor brings to the table their own strengths, weaknesses and unique personality. We often recommend our clients to choose the right builder based on their ability to execute on the specific project rather than the least expensive. Inquire about every line item listed in a contractor’s quote. Since builders work with sub-trades, a fee that is marked-up could imply that anticipated supervision time is included or if it’s a lower rate, perhaps they have an in-house team that can handle the specific task. Further vetting can be done by calling their references, viewing their past work, and meeting them in person, preferable at their office or even at a job site – how contractors present themselves and treat their staff and sub-trades speaks volumes about their professionalism.
In a design-build contract, where the contractor is first selected by the client then the architect/designer is chosen after, it’s equally important to choose the right design consultant for the job. Does it make sense to bring on a firm specializing in highly creative work or a more established corporate one? Finding the right designer who is able to provide the best solution for the client should be the ultimate deciding factor.
As architects, we translate the design vision into an organized set of drawings communicated through renderings, diagrams, and construction documents that the contractor takes to execute into physical reality. It’s not uncommon for details to be misinterpreted or design intent to be lost in translation. Hence, regular communication is key. Assumptions can be made on site and when each line on a
drawing represents a dollar figure and functionality of the built form, it’s important for everyone to be aligned. An open line of communication should be maintained where questions can be addressed productively and regular calls should be scheduled between the Architect and Contractor to troubleshoot anticipated and current issues.
Solutions driven thinking & Accountability
Construction is a team sport. When problems arise, it’s not about pointing fingers, but about creating solutions. Unanticipated problems on site could occur, human error can lead to mistakes, and stressful deadlines can bring out the worst in all of us. When mistakes happen, it affects all stakeholders. Like in any team sport, a solutions driven mentality made objectively without ego is the best approach.
Another critical element in this team dynamic is accountability. It’s easy to spot: where there is accountability, things get done. When it’s absent, it’s obvious: site deficiencies are not addressed even months after the clients move in. Where an architect is asked to value engineer a specific detail or revise a design for ease of construction, it gets completed. When a contractor is asked to fix an issue on site, it gets addressed in a timely manner. Acknowledge people when they embody accountability and call it out when they do not. Making accountability a “non-negotiable” element by highlighting its importance at every level from the client all the way to the draftsperson 3d modelling in the studio or tradesperson hammering nail on site can ensure that everyone is responsible for their contribution to the success of the project.
When the “us-vs-them” mentality is removed by a results-oriented mindset that leverages each teammate’s strength, an open line of communication is maintained, and accountability towards achieving the best end result is established, the architect-contractor dynamic can become an unstoppable force in obliterating any obstacles onsite to deliver an exceptional project.