No Substitute for Diligence and Good Craftsmen

21 Jun, 2006 By: Kenneth Wong

Signature Architects emphasizes the details to eliminate construction surprises.

Michael Smith, a principal architect of Signature Architects, is well aware of the higher expectation that comes with technology. "I've been around just long enough to remember drawing everything by hand, and before copiers and fax machines forced the profession into a more frenzied pace," he says. "Clients have come to expect expedited services at all times, and when they see us crank something out quickly, all of a sudden they look at you like a button pusher. They say, 'All you have to do is push a few buttons to make that change, so why does it take you a day or two, and why am I paying you so much?' All this in a time where fees (as a percentage of construction) are often half of what they were 20 years ago. Unfortunately, overhead hasn't likewise been cut in half."

The implied question is, with all these sophisticated software packages to speed things up, why are architects still billing for so many hours?

Smith wants people to know that, contrary to what some might think, he's not teeing off in a nearby golf course during those billable hours. He says, "What probably hurts architects the most these days is construction administration. Construction drawings are tangible. Clients see 40 or 50 drawings and feel like they are getting something for their money. But unfortunately during construction administration, owners don't see all the hours we spend dealing with contractors and building officials, making site visits, marking up shop drawings and submittals, troubleshooting and working out field details. It's not tangible, so it's difficult for them to understand what they are paying for. It's easy for one or two persons to spend 20 hours a week or more on construction administration for one project, but to get only half those hours in fees."

In the Field

"Build the thing in 3D and you can get any section out of it -- that's the general assumption about BIM (building information modeling)," Smith says. But he worries about people overestimating the technology. He points out that to get a complete sectional view, "you need to include just about everything in your model -- flashing, duct, pipe, bolt, custom millwork, waterproofing -- everything. Otherwise, you won't get a true section." You might prove your concept theoretically or get it to a certain stage in a digital 3D environment, but don't think everything is smooth sailing thereafter. A lot of things still are better and more quickly thought out, drawn and displayed in 2D.

"Unfortunately, these days, there are fewer and fewer skilled laborers on project sites," he laments. "So people come to depend on the drawings more and more. If you don't draw it, they won't build it." Reflecting on the distant past, the Age of the Master Builders, he says, "The architect could draw a floor plan, elevations and several sections without a lot of details." The architect of that era could rely on the skill of the craftsmen in the field -- the masons and the carpenters -- to know about unspecified items relevant to their disciplines.

But today the use of relatively unskilled day laborers, for one thing, often makes this method impractical. "So if we didn't show a piece of flashing, they might say, 'Well, flashing wasn't in your drawing, so we didn't build it’” -- even though such water-deflection elements should be a given in a particular type of construction. Smith adds, "There are still some good builders out there, but there seems to be a lot less pride in one's work these days."

A Room with a View

Today the details are key. For example, what is the height of each steel column, and what's the elevation of its base plate? That became a critical -- and potentially costly -- question during one of Signature Architects' recent projects. The Atlantica, an oceanfront luxury condominium residence near Boston, includes a garage built on a 30" mat slab with compound slopes pitching to multiple drains, creating unequal elevations for the column base plates throughout the project. The steel fabricator needed precise measurements of the steel pieces.

For clarity, Signature Architects modeled the slope and the columns in DataCAD, a 2D/3D drafting and drawing package, and submitted it to the fabricator as an annotated CAD file. The process took Signature Architects only about two hours from start to finish -- a pleasant surprise for the contractor and fabricator.


To give steel fabricators the precise length of each steel piece needed for columns on an uneven slope, Signature Architects modeled the slope and the columns in DataCAD.

The property owner's site touts the Atlantica as "a full 220' of frontage facing the beach," evoking "images of the traditional wood-framed beach homes that once populated Revere Beach Boulevard." But beachfront living also means exposure to moisture, salt water and occasional storms. It's Smith's job to ensure that the building is designed for durability. "One of the biggest issues," Smith says, "is the potential for leaking doors and windows." Last year during construction, nature provided unsolicited help for durability testing in the form of a series of unusually heavy rainstorms. It helped point out problem installations, which were later corrected.

"Early on in the project we found (by looking at the 3D model) that a section of our building was floating in space without a foundation wall. It looked fine in 2D projections," Smith recalls in good humor. "In the 3D model, you start to find out early the things that don't meet up like they should: funny corners that are unresolved, or things that aren't on the same planes you think they are on." He attributes the acquisition of the Atlantica project to in-house 3D renderings done with Visual Reality, a rendering package no longer available, based on their 3D DataCAD models.

"Visual Reality was a third-party software program that was bundled with an earlier version of DataCAD," Smith explains. "The software is no longer produced and no longer bundled with DataCAD. However, those of us who still own copies still happily use it." For marketing and sales, the Atlantica owner used photorealistic 3D renderings created by Pepperchrome, a firm specializing in architectural illustrations.

A 3D model of the Atlantica created in DataCAD.

Signature Philosophy

An overworked architect might develop the temptation to draw as little as possible -- a quick elevation, a few lines and a rough section for a deck, for instance. "Supposedly any good carpenter knows how to build a deck, but later on when you visit the site, you might find out there are construction, flashing and waterproofing issues," Smith warns.

Detailed sections and minute details may take more time to draw, but they can prevent a lot of problems, headaches and cost overruns -- and they can save the architect a lot of time during construction administration. "So draw as much as you can; draw everything," Smith says. "You've got software that helps you draw quicker, better, faster. Use it."

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

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