Where Did the Good Drawings Go?
Contributed by Jeffrey Potter
I recently was listening to a construction podcast where one of the topics briefly discussed was how terrible drawings have become. More like copy and paste, drag and drop type documents. This isn’t the first I have heard this, but this time, I stopped to think why. Why has an industry that was known for perfection and being detailed oriented now being referred to by a Contractor of almost the opposite? Well, personally I think it comes down to several areas where Architecture has failed.
The first, and probably, the most unpopular, as I’ll get some disagreement across the board is with Architecture school programs. Note, I am addressing what I see comes out of the local college Architecture programs, not everyone single one. I also didn’t go through an Architecture program, but I see what it is and what it focuses on and what it doesn’t focus on. Architecture school focuses on design and theory where students are almost suffocated with the amount of work they have to do. All the interns and recent new hires I ask, say they get about one semester of professional practice, but that no one pays attention because it doesn’t matter, and they have to spend more time on their design classes. Now design is great, it needs to be taught, it needs to be understood, because design gets you the “W”. If a firm puts out crappy designs, they are not getting Work. So, design is a huge component.
However, I think the technical aspect of the profession is missing and contributing to the overall thought that construction drawings are terrible. These young students come out of school with no technical training. They are expected to learn this technical training, which is a huge part of the job, on the job from others. I have had conversations with PM level employees or employees who have been in this industry for a long time that don’t know what specs are, how to read them, or how they relate to their drawings!!! Are you kidding me!!!?? We expect these young professionals to be the production and the Project Architect to direct the technical aspects of the project, but what if the Project Architect has no idea either or is a poor teacher? How are these young professionals supposed to learn!? Many firms don’t invest in the training needed to learn and fully understand the implications of their Work. They have no idea that one simple mislabeled keynote could cost their firm thousands if not tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Personally, I think Architecture school should have two tracts. Those who are more design driven, and those who are more technical. I didn’t consider Architecture school because I am no artist, I can’t draw, I am a technical person. Now that I know what Architecture is, I would have thrived on a technical path, if it existed. This would partially solve the problem. It would teach those technical aspects of the profession and make it more real world. Especially when it comes to risk management. Something they also don’t learn until they get burned.
Second, we are in a transition period where the baby boomers are retiring with all this knowledge. Once they are gone, that knowledge of 30+ years is gone forever. As a profession, I think we are stuck trying to find out how to capture that knowledge so it can be kept and passed down. The world is moving digital, so how do we get all of this information and knowledge from human minds and documents from the last thirty years? I believe it starts with an information management system. Where communication between people can occur, documents can be kept and tracked, and all of this is search for future generations. I am not sure how many firms have a system like this, but it is one that my firm is attempting to do. It’s tough to get people on board, because there is no immediate reward. It is a reward that comes later, and probably to someone else looking for the answer.
Without all this information stored from these career professionals, we could lose decades of it. That’s why, we as younger professionals need to engage and learn. It is on us to ask the questions, not for them to just give answers. We need to take the time to learn and understand, rather than be told the answer without understanding it. The younger professionals need to take advantage of these more knowledgeable people, because one day, they might not be there… and then what? Where do we go for information? GOOGLE!
GOOGLE, believe it or not, is an information storage system that is searchable. It has all the answers, right?!? Most times I am never let down by the power of GOOGLE. So, why are we younger professionals not setting up our own GOOGLE within our firms that is SPECIFIC to our firm and its’ history. GOOGLE doesn’t know why we don’t use a certain product, but someone at our firm does, and we need those answers. What if we use a product or detail that ends up in a lawsuit? In which, we have had history with that product or detail and didn’t use it for certain reasons. How are we supposed to know this? By capturing knowledge and information on a firm specific information management system.
Third, understanding the cost of a mistake. One simple word, such as “galvanized”, being omitted can have huge ramifications on a project. I think young professionals need to understand that the production work they are doing can have a huge negative cost attached to it if done incorrectly. Yes, QA/QC procedures are there for a reason, to check the work, but nobody is perfect.
If people don’t understand the costs of mistakes, then the thought process of, oh "they will just figure it out in the field as the contractors and tradesmen / tradeswomen are experts at putting it together, so they will know", or "they will ask an RFI". Let me tell you, if that is the case, figure it out on the field, it costs a lot more money to answer an RFI or receive and approve a Change Order, than figuring it out during DD (Design Development) or CD (Construction Documents) and having it detailed and specified correctly.
Most production level professionals don’t see the bottom line, they don’t see the change order costs or the average cost to process an RFI. They should, so it scares them, and shows them the importance of their work and also gives them a sense of responsibility. It holds them and everyone on the project team accountable for a good set of contract documents.
Finally, better training. Young professionals coming out of school get training from more experienced staff, but what if this more experienced staff is not a good teacher or teaches bad habits? I firmly agree that all young professionals should have a mentor and go through a training program at their firm. The more experienced and knowledgeable staff need to step up and train the younger generations to be just as capable as they are.
My firm recognized this and has invested in training programs. It’s something that every firm should do, if it can afford to. We want to fix this industry, but we can't do it if we don’t train. Otherwise, Architects will lose their grip even more, and Contractors will take advantage of our mistakes more often with greater cost.
Are there other reasons why drawings suck? Yes, most likely, but I firmly believe in these four. These four contribute in some capacity, no doubt in my mind. No matter how popular or unpopular some of my thoughts are above, we all have to recognize that drawings or simply contract document are not what they used to be. It will take time, but together, as an industry, we can change this perception.
(Editor's Note: You can view this blog and more on Jeffrey Potter's blog, In My Element.)
2/18/2020 07:52:55 am
Jeffrey, great article! Last April I was asked to be a substitute lecturer at a local university and speak to those seniors that would graduate that May. As I began my lecture I realized that my audience had no idea what I was talking about, i.e., continuous insulation, thru-wall flashing, window flashing, air barriers, waterproofing.
2/18/2020 10:45:35 am
Job security Roy! I honestly don't see the trend of worsening drawings changing very quickly. Each of the 4 reasons above are correct. But there is another major factor to why drawings are bad lately and that is competition between architects to meet modern clients' demand for bottom dollar pricing. As the project fees are driven lower, the average architect needs to spend less time on the project to make a profit and keep the doors open.
2/20/2020 04:39:23 pm
Great article, and yes, Adam, you identified another critical aspect of the problem. Our industry is becoming increasingly commoditized, especially with more Design/Build and CM firms becoming our 'clients', and as true owners/agencies become less informed about what we do and the liability we have to shoulder.
2/18/2020 11:47:41 am
This is a timely and oft-discussed subject. 95% of all projects need good construction documentation (drawings, specs) and not high-concept design. We do a lot of work for Theme Parks, so we're conversant with both. Most to all published projects seen online and in our magazines are in that 5%, but the heart of any project is good documentation.
2/27/2020 08:52:47 pm
I'm a technical design professional and have been teaching construction documents in a design program for the past ten years. I have to disagree with the idea of the two track system, because we already have a similar system in many offices and it's not working - the "big D" design team that creates design without considering practicalities and "not-good-enough-to-design" production team to produce drawings without understanding the design. Add lack of communication and you get bad drawings. We don't need further separation of the architecture/design industry, we need better integration where we expect "design staff" to understand technical issues and "technical staff" to understand design process. Technical side is somehow perceived as "lesser" and I'm frequently faced with demands to cut back my technical classes, because the projects from my classes don't look as cool in portfolios as conceptual projects. There is no design without figuring out technical side, so why can't we all just be technically versed designers and train the students to achieve the same?
2/19/2020 03:00:11 pm
Good points all, though I doubt that "[architecture] was known for perfection and being detailed oriented" at any time.
2/26/2020 03:46:12 pm
I saw the post on Linked In and couldn't resist the temptation to get a look at this post. I guess the photo of the mylars and the tile of the post got me curious. It didn't turn out the way I thought it might, expecting the common sort of nostalgia for the days gone by and decrying the advance of technologies as a denigration of the "art form".
9/24/2020 09:36:41 am
A couple years ago I had to explain to a freshly graduated employee how to draft so that his roof was the same height between two elevation drawings in CAD. Asked if he knew Revit, he said yes. But the first project he was put on he didn't know how to change to a non-generic wall type. The education problem is real.
9/7/2021 06:39:11 pm
Great read. Thank you very much for this.
1/3/2023 07:03:35 am
Interesting, thank you for sharing such informative article. Looking forward to read more soon.
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