It started out as a simple job: remove an ATM machine from the side of the supermarket and rebuild the wall. It should have been quick, clean and over with. But even the simplest construction jobs are rarely simple.
The problems began innocently enough. During the construction process, the supermarket owners wanted a minor change. No problem. The builder brought the architect back into the loop, the plans were updated, construction restarted...and builder and architect withdrew a small amount from the construction fund to cover the costs of the change.
Everything was fine, until the next work stoppage the following week. Another quick meeting of the minds, another quick update, and another quick withdrawal from the construction fund.
By the time the construction was over, the builder was looking at a six-figure cost overrun. "Looking back," builder Paul Singh says, "We should have been much more rigorous in our planning and our communications. We jumped into construction too early, and none of us did a good job of managing the back-and-forth between the architect, the bank, the supermarket, and our own crew."
Paul's experience is, alas, all too common. And before you chalk up Paul's problems to inexperience and mismanagement, you should know the other half of the story: Paul and his family own one of the leading construction companies in the Washington, D.C. metro area.
Tensions have always existed between designers and builders, and between architects and contractors. Rather than blending their disparate skills in a yin-and-yang harmony, they're more likely to fight like cats and dogs when a project goes awry...and every project goes awry, even ones where the customer is an industry veteran.
The eternal frustration of the designer is that he has to rely on the builder to transform his ideas into reality, and that somehow the perfection of the drawing board doesn't translate on the job site.
There's an old joke that's illustrative.
An architect tells his contractor, "I was an atheist, but you've made me a believer." "Why?," asks the contractor, "Because the beauty of my work makes you think of Heaven?" "No," says the architect, "Because I didn't believe in the Devil and Hell until now."
Yet designers have no monopoly on frustration. Too often, they find themselves trying to translate abstract plans into concrete reality with insufficient guidance, forcing them to make difficult choices.
Have you heard this old contractor's saw?
"What's the difference between God and an architect? God knows he's a great architect. An architect knows he's greater than God."
It's hard to avoid these tensions. In a typical project, the customer hires the designer and builder separately. Once the architect finishes the plans, the customer then hires the lowest bidder to handle the buildout. Small wonder the relationship often turns adversarial.
But this battle has no winners, only losers. Designers don't get to see their plans fully realized. Builders have to scramble against tight deadlines and even tighter budgets. And the customers sit on the sideline, getting madder and madder as they see their overruns growing and their pocketbooks shrinking.
In these difficult economic times, with commercial construction in historic doldrums, designers and builders can't afford the costs and hassle of poor coordination. That's why when it comes to design and construction, collaboration is the future.
All too often, we've seen the effects of designs that are "thrown over the wall" to construction: Delays, overruns, and dissatisfaction with an imperfectly realized vision. Many times, the industry has tried to build bridges to better relationships between designers and builders. The number of seminars, roundtables, and articles is endless.
For example, more than a decade ago, The Boston Society of Architects and the Associated General Contractors of Massachusetts teamed up to publish "The Client Advisor" as a way to explain the roles and responsibilities of architect and contractor in the context of a project.