The Business of Building Design

  • Building Design Expert
  • 10 years ago

You are in the construction industry, but have you ever stopped to think “what BUSINESS am I in?”

Of the tens of hundreds of thousands of building designers out there, architects, technologists, engineers and the rest; does anyone remember the tutorial at uni, or college that told us why we are doing what we are doing. And I don’t just mean designing buildings. It goes deeper than that – a more intrinsic level.

A wise old sage, who just happened to be my first employer, asked me in my interview, if I knew what business I was getting into? Being the smart-alec upstart I told him I was going to learn how to design buildings and their interiors, and I hoped he would help me. Wrong answer, he said. What comes even before you put a line on a piece of tracing paper (I know, I’m showing my age here – I grew up with a rotring pen in one hand, and a razor blade in the other. I didn’t even shave at the time) – Son, he said, we are in the business of communication. Communicating is what we do. You, son (I think he was old enough to be my dad, so it was a bit more palatable) – you may have an idea for a design that could win every award out there, but unless you learn to communicate the idea exactly as you see it, in a way that lets everyone else see the same thing, you’re nowhere. Obvious now, but I must admit that at 20 years old it was almost frightening in some ways. What if I couldn’t communicate? Would I ever get anything built? How do you communicate. Looking back, of course I was young, impressionable and naive, and if I knew then what I know now etc.etc. But of course his words linger with me.

It’s all about degrees. The more complex the building, and it’s design, the more there is to get right (notice I didn’t say to go wrong). We trust in our contractor. Well, at least that’s the premise I start most building contracts with. If you can’t do that – you are sunk. As long as you have chosen your tendering contractors based on their ability to execute the works (not the standard of their golf day), then you can confidently move forward with who ever wins the job – most of the time.

But what are the obstacles. If any?

You may subscribe to “Form follows Function” or “Function follows Form”. However, if you work on the basis that the resolution of the aesthetic is in the technical; the building designer desires a certain look, appearance, proportion to his or her building or part thereof. With that will usually go a requirement for performance, that may be as simple as keeping the weather out, and or keeping the heat in. Maybe both, and a whole lot more. The order in which building elements are assembled can have varying implications on design which may risk other problems – condensation for example. There may be a choice of materials, any combination of which may produce the desired result, but what will provide the least maintenance? What will be the safest to build, and be the safest in use? This list is not exhaustive, but, which combination of all the above will most closely match the picture inside the head of the building designer, and most importantly match what the client wants? Preferably both!

When you put it that way there’s a lot to think about, and the experienced architect will argue that you haven’t even started. I have met and worked with many newly qualified architects, who, by their own admission, are not overly comfortable with the technical design training they receive to resolve practical issues of building and construction. Step up the Architectural technologist. Even then, a newly bestowed degree in Architectural Technology does not an expert make. In fact a newly qualified professional of either extraction may often hinder rather than help. Excuse me while I duck. Missed me!

In some situations we could have a team of ‘newly qualifieds’ under a more experienced team leader; an architect or a senior technologist. The problem can often be that the team leader cannot be all things to all men (or women), and will often have his or her own agendas to fulfil, in parallel to watching over the accuracy and validity of information produced by the team. You might say that if there is too much going on for one person to over-see then the allocated resources are inadequate. You would be right. But that still doesn’t stop it from going on!

Has a detail drawing been correctly assembled? Does it use all the right materials in the right way? Is all the notation clear and concise etc. etc. I have found this to be a really big problem on occasions, depending on the job to be done. What ever happened to sitting down a student with a copy of McKay’s Building Construction, and don’t let them up again until every nuance of design detailing has been absorbed into their very pores. But they don’t, or if they do, something just isn’t working – so I suspect the former. That book was written 60 yrs ago, but has as much to offer today as it did then. I’ll just step down from this soap box.

OK I’m down now, but, at the risk of banging on just a little, I will say for goodness sake; our universities should teach students to draw. Not with a mouse and a cursor on a screen, but with a pen, a pencil, a drawing board, set square and tee square. Make them understand about line thicknesses, about hatching and notation, what to put in and just as important – what to leave out. How to build a Detail drawing, and present it such a way that even their granny could understand it. Alright I’m pushing it here, but today’s newly qualified student is tomorrow’s experienced professional. Detail drawing is key. Remember a picture paints a thousand words. The problem is some of our new professionals can only come up with about five hundred.

The practice partner in charge will swear blind that there is a raft of safeguards against the publication of any errant information. That may be so, but there are parallel protocols to follow in producing and presenting the building design information in such a way that the building contractor is in ‘no doubt’ as to what he is being asked to build, and how he is being asked to build it. That is the key to building design communication.

Step up the building contractor. It is the nature of this beast to try and change your highly considered and highly detailed design. He may consider that it can be built more economically in a different way, using different materials, or the same materials, but from different manufacturers. An experienced tradesman can be an incredible asset to any design team, if only because his design services are free. More than that can act as the invisible back stop to make the building designer look really good to the client, because the design has now been developed to not only save money on the specification of materials, but the contract programme has been reduced too. Fantastic! If you have the time?

I don’t know about you, but when I specify materials it is often because of their appearance, or performance, or maybe even both. Oh, and there’s cost as well. So many considerations, and today there is so much choice. The contractor wants to change it though. He cannot get your product ‘X’ from his regular supplier, and it will cost a fortune to get it shipped the length of the country. So how about product ‘Y’ instead? Now product ‘Y’ may well do the same job, or look similar. But if it doesn’t you need to ‘communicate’ the criteria upon which you have based your specification. Not always easy and it takes time. Very often you haven’t got that time and you are forced into a snap decision, or there will be delays. Delays cost money, and that will not please the client.

How could that have resolved quicker, or even avoided? A Performance Specification as part of the tender docs? Maybe. That will rely on it being read and understood. This is really reliant on your contractor, his capabilities, resources and admin set-up. All this, of course, is dependant upon the size of the contract. The smaller the contract, the fewer resources……… you know the rest.

So what’s to do?

Walk a mile in YOUR contractor’s hob nail boots. Take in and understand the view from his side of the site hoarding:

  • Talk to him and ask him what he hates most about architectural drawings and more importantly why?
  • How can you present your design so it can be better understood?
  • What would he like to see that you don’t give him, and how would he like to see it?
  • How can you avoid those dreaded last minute specification changes?

We all need to come to understand that construction and building design is a party where everyone can bring something. It might sit on a shelf and never get used, but at least it has been looked at and commented upon. In other words communication has taken place, and that after all is the business we are in.

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