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How to Improve Contractor and Architect Relationships


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Thoughtful architects and contractors talk today about how building is becoming a commodity, and the way that change is affecting the relationships between architects and contractors. 

Construction as a Commodity

Before the second World War, it was common for the architect to own the construction process, according to Michael Beck, architect. The architect was the central figure in the construction project, and in many ways fulfilled the role of a master builder, a person who served as architect, engineer, and builder. 

But, the demand for housing after World War II changed everything, and the one-of-a-kind construction process disappeared, giving way to a mechanized business with cookie-cutter designs, subdivisions laid out by developers, and infrastructure installed so builders could quickly erect a large numbers of homes.

Over time, people started buying and selling construction more like a commodity, rather than one-off specialized projects. With the advent of the Internet, more educated consumers, automated CAD programs that anybody could learn, artists becoming draftsmen, and the rise of the residential designer, control of the project moved away from architects and into the hands of a distributed network of participants.

At the same time, architecture schools stopped teaching architects about the construction process, and fewer and fewer architects spent any time as apprentices to general contractors. Therefore today, many architects don't know the details of how to build what they draw. And, because of the move to construction as a commodity, and working at a distance from the job, architects’ understanding of costs can tend to mirror that of the general public, canned, per-square-foot numbers.

Contractors have undergone their own transformation in response to the changing construction market. The prevalence of DIY messaging has created a perception that anyone, working with the right tools, can build anything. That’s led to a dearth of less-experienced contractors skewing prices in local markets. Today, owners expect contractors to deliver finished projects using generalized design documents with cut and paste specifications, and to do it all within price confines that challenge margins and profits. In many ways, today's construction environment, and the way construction unfolds, sets up a perfect environment for disputes between the contractor and architect.

Can I Get a Little Respect?

There are many hallmarks of effective business relationships that can help out to not only minimize disputes, but to also resolve them quickly and with the least amount of ruffled feathers. Of course, these hallmarks begin with communication, and effort on behalf of both parties to respect to the other.

To set up and maintain effective communication on a project between contractor and architect, you have to go back to the contract documents and make sure there is a clearly defined process for resolving design inconsistencies. 

Delivery Matters

Perhaps more than anything else, the project delivery method can have a big impact on the contractor-architect relationship. When the contractor is involved very early in the project scoping phase, and works closely with the architect to formulate not only the best design, but also the most constructible design, much of the potential friction between the parties is short-circuited and never arises during the course of construction. Handling the scoping phase of the project in this way comes under the heading of several different types of delivery methods, the most popular being design bid build, and the more progressive, integrated project delivery. But, regardless of the name of the delivery method, when the builder and the designer have a meeting of the minds during the design phase, conflicts between the two are minimized.

Are Things Perfectly Clear?

Part of involving the contractor early on in the scoping of the project is the requirement for clearly defined roles for both the contractor and the architect. Within the contract documents, there should exist a clearly defined scope of services for the architect. On some projects, everyone could benefit from keeping the design team closely involved on an everyday basis. For example, as ground is broken, there are often unknown site conditions that come to light. When the design team stays engaged through that period, they are readily available to solve issues, and prevent stops and starts in construction activities.

High Marks for Teamwork

When defining the contractor role it's important to account for the means and methods expected when receiving guidance or seeking approvals for changes from the architect. These well-defined processes help to reduce friction between the contractor and the architect because they establish the expectations of the relationship, and how the two should conduct their business together. It's also very important for the contractor to have assurances that the design documents are complete, and that errors and omissions within them don't require the contractor to suffer losses without restitution.

At the heart of some of the best contractor and architect relationships is teamwork. When an owner fosters a team environment using collaborative delivery methods, fair contracts with well-defined responsibilities, and contracts with clear rules of engagement, the potential pain points between contractor and architect evaporate. From then on, they are not only working together for the best project outcomes, but are also looking out for each other.

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