10 Things Architects Could Do to Make Fewer Mistakes

Blogger: John Gresko, Senior Project Architect | Chicago, IL, USA
September 04, 2013
  1. Negotiate for more time. Tight deadlines discourage quality. It’s the truth and there’s not much to do about it. Sure, you can throw 30 new people on a job in the last week, but that doesn’t help. No one will care in the middle of construction nor remember if you didn’t have enough time to work on something years ago. They will remember at the end of construction whether the set of drawings was good or not. I have heard conversations by contractors when punching out rooms about the architect’s drawings before. Word travels fast and reputations can be gained or lost for an architect during construction. Get more time to do a quality job FIRST! Our profession has to get better at justifying the need for more time—OR—do a better job communicating and managing expectations to clients and CMs otherwise. If you are good at the latter... you might want to run for political office.
  2. Communicate better. Don’t communicate changes and revisions by phone. We are visual people and need to see sketches/drawings/etc. Words and things get lost in translation.  Even worse, instant messaging.  Sit down together, meet face-to-face and talk through all coordination items. Architecture is the epitome of a collaborative profession. Don’t IM it, show it.
  3. Know the software you are using. We are professionals and make our money using software. Then, suffice it to say, we should know how to use it. When profits are on the line it’s too risky to be familiar with or acquainted with the software. No, we should be experts in the software. Time is money.
  4. Know what to draw. Know what the intent is. Know what you are doing whether it’s drawing a detail, modeling a component, or writing a note or spec. Don’t draw anything unless you know what you are drawing. I remember being fresh out of school at a new job and was told to draw a roof skylight detail. I didn’t know anything about roofs, flashing, and skylights. Good thing I admitted my lack of experience and was properly handed something to do more in line with my knowledge – like making plots and re-spooling the plotter.
  5. Have a team hierarchy (unless you are a sole proprietor). Someone ultimately has to be the decision maker. Having too many cooks in the kitchen is not fun. Someone has to quarterback and call plays.  Otherwise, if the running back called all the plays he would call all running plays, thus ball hogging, and the wide receivers in defiance would stop blocking and on the next play that runs wide he will get pummeled.  You don’t want your one of your fellow architects to get pummeled, do you? Sorry if you thought of me there when you answered “yes” in your mind.
  6. Know your role. Know your responsibilities. If you don’t know, ask. You better know if you are the one responsible to update the wall types in the model to match the required fire rating from the Life Safety drawing. Otherwise there’ll be a HUGE change order and lots of resume updating for you to do.
  7. Work smart. Know what to produce and what not to produce. If it’s not needed, don’t draw it. Defer to specifications, industry standards and guidelines whenever possible. There’s no need to draw every nail and screw in a roof detail if the specs covered that already. Ahhh - I used to draw some really nice bolt and anchor details…
  8. Work in context. Now that we are in a BIM world, document work differently and more efficiently by working in context. No longer do ALL the details have to be in the same sequence of drawings (A-500s, for example). Place a detail, next a section detail, next to an elevation, and 3D perspective of a particular part of a building. Put all the information needed to convey the design intent on the same sheet. Why waste time flipping through sets for details and setting them up that way. Keep things simple and in context and make less mistakes.  You’ll even get a high five from your CCA person (see http://blink.hdrinc.com/10-career-paths-architects-within-practice) because you have lessened the burden of shop drawing review by reducing the quantity of sheets to flip through.
  9. Know when to be specific and generic. The less specific you are, the better the chances you don’t contradict some note somewhere else. If you do get specific, make sure to match exactly whatever the specs say—verbatim.
  10. Quality Assurance Reviews. Build sufficient time to do a QA review before the job hits the street—not after, and not during construction. Having a fresh set of eyes on drawings benefits everyone (including the client).

Image (fabricated) by John Gresko

Reader Comments (13)

Working across 7 different offices on Humber River, Lync has proved to be an invaluable tool to communicate clearly and effectively direction to team members. Whether it be via screen share or a white board, we use it for real time QA/QC posting screen shots of issues being found and as a task manager by posting a list of task and crossing them off as they are complete. Face to face communication is great and invaluable when it is available, however I have never met any of the people I have spent the last 2 years working on Humber with in person. I do agree with all of your points including communicating better and especially knowing the software, I would not rule out instant message as an effective tool.

Before anything,make an eco-charrette,be aware of the the 3 E ( engage everyone early ) work as a team from the very start of just knowing what is the project ahead.make a roadmap and stick to it.the team work can later be divided to smaller group supervised by the project manager for updates.revise with the team in changes to save time and avoid mistakes.

Number 11: Carefully review those specifications that you're relying on (in number 7 and in number 9).

As a material supplier working with architects I can second some of the thoughts on a better back end product as mentioned here. Also I would suggest asking manufacturers for help with specifications, if they are a good company they are usually more than happy to help. A word of caution is making sure their help is really help and not them selling you on just their product. In reality the good companies will want to help so they have fair competition and ideally not have to deal with change orders later. 

@Rob - I still IM too.  It's great if used correctly. I have seen some mistakes made by relying on it too much.

@Rain - I love the 3E's.  Buy in and early engagement IS very important.  I know I appreciate that very much on the projects I have worked on.

@Liz - Great point.  That could be a full time job by itself.

@Dan - Love the intent there.  Thanks!



In so many offices, everybody is in charge and nobody is in charge. Everyone works independently in their own cocoon, and does not communicate. They also do not listen when discussions are being held. One person creates something his way, and someone else revises it to be their way. Management does not enforce the responsibility of one person as being the leader, and they often advise the workers as to how they would do it, rather than approaching the lead person.

Spend some time while studying architecture to actually work in construction.  Architects that have physically worked in construction have a huge advantage to those that never put on a pair of workboots.  Just an observation

This is a really dumb top ten list.  Can you imaging the first thing a firm should do to avoid mistakes on their plans is to "ask for more time".  With the realtors and owners reps nipping at our heels to provide more comprehensive services the architectural profession should develop tools to work more efficiently and develop processes that are more collaborative.  If you want my top ten ways to avoid mistakes give me a shout at guharley@gmail.com.  

Some where on this list needs to be "Get a builder involved early."  The contractor and their team of sub contractors when involved early can reduce the number of mistakes due to constructability, designed in maintenance issues, too small a mechanical room, or an inefficiently laid out mechanical room that costs a client money for space that is wasted.  The contractor's team can help prevent the big one, designing something beyond a clients budget.  The builder can provide insights into alternate systems that accomplish the clients goals while allowing the design team to express themselves.  They also help by keeping an eye on the clock and calendar.

@David - I have experienced what you have written in my career.  That led to team hierarchy and knowing your role.  Thank you for the reply.

@Ed - Great observation.  I have noticed that it makes architects better designers as well.  They can work faster and smarter.

@Gary - Let me know how you really feel ;)  Thanks for hooking up off-line.  I like YOUR top 10 list!

@Steve - Agreed.  Your point will find its way into a sequel.

In my consulting work I happen, in my rather narrow field of expertise, to focus almost exclusively on number 10. It's IMPORTANT.  Owners seldom ask me to take on number 11, but I think that has equal importance with 10.  Years ago, when I worked with a firm in the same capacity reviewing the then current project prior to our firm adopting Masterspec, I discovered that the spec author had actually copied several pages from one of our previous projects and wrapped them up with the "new" project.  The only problem was, that the old project name and old date were still on the "new" project sheets.  Most of the content of these mislabeled pages was correct and the project itself would not have suffered from that alone, but can you imagine the loss of our firms image if this silly error had been on the street for the owner and everyone else to see and make jokes about? Document review (QC/QA) goes way beyond just saving construction dollars, and speeding up the project, it involves your firms image every day.  

The need for more time to do quality can be avoided by having completely vetted (often used) design elements in place ahead of each project

For the most part I do not think Architects are to blame; there are several factors that work against Architects having control over quality or getting a timely heads up from field towards heading off potential problems.

Problems arise since subcontractor’s primary purpose of submitting shop drawings is to indicate their understanding of Architects’ design intent and to seek approval for release of production materials a.s.a.p.

Secondary is the treatment of transition details to other materials as well as illustrating the specific co-ordination required to execute a continuous air barrier.

This becomes a major issue on smaller jobs that do not attract multinational one source envelope contractors. In some cases a half dozen separate contractors are required to complete the building envelope

In the absence of transparent detailing of key interfaces to insure specified envelope performance, mixed results can occur based on the field’s interpretation of what is sufficient.

It does not help that knowledgeable journeymen have left the construction market in the last downturn or are due for retirement in the near future.

Other limiting factors are:

  • Budget constraining the hiring of consultants
  • Architects designing details that should be originated by the envelope systems manufacturer
  • Budget and timeline constrain the use of performance tested mock-ups.
  • Eyes in the field to verify that each subcontractor in the construction sequence has executed per plans (CW and panel contractors have very little adjustment within their respective systems to accommodate errors in steel or sheathing location)
  • Poor quality shop drawings that do not instruct field on key aspects (such as fastener selection) of connection detailing as specified by any engineering calculations
  • Budget and time constraints that do not specify air leakage verification prior to rain screen installation, which by the way has been SOP in Canada since the 1980’s
  • Architects not given enough time in schedule to reject poor shop drawings
  • Subcontractors not invited early enough to job site meetings or do not bring a manufacturer’s representative with them (they usually bring untapped knowledge that reduces costs, simplifies co-ordination, speeds up schedule)

In my opinion Envelope specifications should always request shop drawings stamped by an Engineer, as well as request the highest professional liability insurance available.

This would ensure over time that only the most competent envelope contractors bid on projects

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