Buildability. – The Language of Building Design

  • Building Design Expert
  • 8 years ago

Any ‘Architectural Concept’ usually beginning life in the building designer’s head, only ultimately sees the light of day once it has undergone some form of translation for communication to others.

Pretty obvious stuff really. Jørn Utzon’s quick sketch of the Sidney Opera House on the back of his fag packet in 1955 underwent some major editing before its final presentation to the world in 1973.

Of course it did. But this was an extreme example of the degree of difficulty every building designer faces in deciding “how do I tell a contractor how I would like my building to be BUILT?” – Easy. Produce the right drawings with the right level of information, coupled with a comprehensive specification. Tie the whole package in ribbons with bows in the form of an all embracing  building contract……….. Yes, that would probably stand a reasonable chance of obtaining the desired result.

But what about the other 99% of building designers who toil relentlessly for an equilibrium with the planning system just to communicate an idea with a ‘tone deaf’ planner, who’s on his lunch break, or taken yet another half day on flexi-time. Sorry. We can cover ‘planners’ in another blog. I don’t wish to give the impression that large and prestigious projects are not without their problems. They are full of them. I’d be prepared to put money on the fact that there are masonry cavity walls on the London Olympic site absolutely brimming over with mortar droppings!!!

Does anyone know what we want to build?…… There are conventions that say provide  plans, elevations,  sections, and those all important ‘Design Details’. You know, the ones that explain everything to the ‘builder’, that the general drawings can’t.

Problem: there can be a translation issue between the drawing publisher and the contractor. Translation occurs when the builder reads the drawings. Then that’s another problem. How often have we heard that “the builder hasn’t read the drawings”? Or rather he does read the drawings. He takes the information he wants from them; such as the layout; where the windows and doors are. Oh, and probably the key dimensions, and ignores the rest, because he’ll do it his way!!

Can I interject here and just qualify that I am not here solely to target building contractors. They must, however, play their part and shoulder an appropriate portion of responsibility. Building contractors are no angels, but there again neither are some architects and architectural technologists. Hands up any building designer who has never made a mistake ….. No, I don’t believe you.

What does the building contractor miss then? Well, let me tell you, the most work (by the building designer) beyond the initial design, goes into drawing the building sections and details and into working out what is precisely the best way to achieve the design. To make it water and damp proof. Generally how to make the building work. It is these drawings that all too often appear to get a cursory glance from our builder and probably the source of some the biggest mistakes made on building sites.

Do they not understand them? If so we have our problems from the start. Do they own up to not understanding them? Sometimes. But often the problem lies in a ‘drawing board’ expectation by a building designer who does not fully grasp the practical limitations of site working – BUILD-ABILITY.

What’s the answer? As building designers we are primarily in the business of communication. We know that. We’ve said that before. We communicate our ideas and intentions via drawings. We all know – “a picture paints a thousand words” etc. etc. To a lesser extent we rely on description in our drawing notes and perhaps even a specification document. All great tools, but not much use if they are not in a language the builder can understand.

Now, all building designers and building contractors should speak fluent ‘Building Construction’. One of the communication issues seems to be that there is the ‘Queen’s building construction’ and that there are any number of dialects besides. The common dialect must therefore be ‘Build-ability’. Trying very hard not to ask the contractor to build something he is not comfortable with and, or something he has not done before. Why do we want to be the guinea pig?

An experienced building designer has every right to expect that a builder is going to speak basic ‘Building Construction’; that he will be familiar with basic and traditional building techniques and details, and importantly can carry them out. The language barrier starts being raised when we have building designers, or builders for that matter, that are just starting to learn the vocabulary and how to assemble it.

One of the biggest generators of such problems at the BD end is the initial creation and use of ‘standard’ drawings or details. Drawn to use on one project, but just maybe it can become an office standard that we can port from job to job to save time? Often tried. Often fails. It may work on the first few similar projects, but something will change: a design requirement, a building regulation. Doesn’t even have to affect the ‘standard detail’ directly, but amend one bit of a building design, and there will invariably be ripples across the whole scheme.

For the builder, and particularly the small builder, he often has a tendency to build in a particular way. He speaks fluent ‘Building Construction’, but in his own dialect, and often with a well developed but limited vocabulary. If the building designer, and the building contractor’s dialects don’t match this could lead to another notch raised on the communication barrier. Just picture a born and raised Geordie and Scouser in this scenario.

There are several textbook ways to build most things, and there is often a builders corruption or adaptation of it which has been magnified year on year through working on different jobs with other different trades people who have developed their own ways of doing things.

Isn’t it true that those people who pass their driving tests, after 20 or 30 years on the roads think they are great drivers, the best and will not be told otherwise. The truth is they have picked up or developed so many bad habits, gradually, over a period of time that they would not have a hope of passing a present day driving test. The same principle can apply to the building tradesman. The journey to commence building may begin at the right place but the route may differ in practice from that originally envisaged by the building designer.
How can we work to resolve the communication gap?

The solution might be continued and consistent communication. But, as with all solutions easily offered but not easily achieved. The client (employer) will need to retain the input of the building design professional with a minimum function of making periodic visits to site during the course of the works. The purpose of this being to monitor how close the builder can come to the original design and hopefully agree any work arounds the builder uncovers. However, this appointment will cost money.

Ideally any such extension to the building designers role like this needs to be accompanied by a formal building contract that gives the appointment some teeth, which may or may not be needed, but if it is looked upon as an insurance policy – for the client’s ultimate protection the cost may be more justifiable.

Like very many insurance policies, if you call on it there may just be a number of ‘slither and slide’ get-out clauses relating to both builder and building designer. The upside is the employer has increased their chances of securing a competently designed and executed build. There is probably a threshold where this trade-off becomes economically viable being dependent on the size / complexity of the project. But then of course I would say that wouldn’t I?

Good builders are hard to find. There are too many masquerading as masters of their trade. A good builder is one that will read the building design drawings and move mountains to achieve what’s on them. Builders and building designers alike need to become fluent in the language of Building Design. Build-ability is the key.

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