On the Road
A minor perk while working on an architecture project is the chance to go out and see things in action. And I just got my first chance.
For me, site visits feel like recess – a nice break from the constants of a work week. Sure, you are still on the job, but you’re out of the office, away from a desk, surrounded not by computers and printouts, but carpentry, cement and dust. And it’s all billable.
The first thing you realize at a job site is, well, how imprecise everything we do is. Sure we make sure our drawings are rounded to the nearest, say, 1/16 of an inch. (That’s a personal thing.) We call out locations based upon column lines, existing markers, drawings provided by the landlord/city/client. We fillet our lines, make sure things are planar, and dimension everything to communicate, as clearly as possible, what we would like executed. But, like language itself, thing can get lost in translation.
You’ll notice things on site – like walls that shouldn’t be there, or walls you expected there now missing. You’ll see details that aren’t quite right; if you’re lucky, things will be minor, fixed simply, like additional filler to make things flush, and if you’re not, well, something is coming out. You’ll also face a number of decisions that will need to be made - immediately.
It’s reactive, a test of your abilities to think on the fly, problem solve in the heat of the moment. It’s exciting, this game, where you must address immediate concerns while thinking about the consequences for things further down the line. You banter with those around you – your general contractor, the client, some of the crew – while you hash out solutions. Hopefully, by the time you leave, everyone has agreed on the way forward.
Amid the commotion, the careful inspection of the nooks and crannies, you’ll ask yourself, why do we bother? I say this because generally, not one thing will need comment or correction. There will be a list - a list that you will need to carefully note, so that it can be sent out the following day. You’ll be jotting furiously while thinking, why spend the time, the hours and hours staring at colored lines, if so much goes unnoticed, so much must change?
It’s about leverage, really; the ability to say, well, it was in the drawings, so do it over. Seriously, your drawings are your contracts. Once your contractor accepts them, they are accountable to them. And that, my friends, will save you later on, when you look at something and think, well that doesn’t look right at all.
But, careful, as this is a double edge sword; your contractor/client has can nail you for mistakes. And, believe, as careful as you try to be, your drawings will never be perfect, never get everything down. Like a good novel, a good drawing set will provide the details to transport you to the world it captures. But, like any novel, there will always be things open to interpretation. You probably felt you were explicit, but something will be missing, or unclear, and those items will undoubtedly make themselves known.
Luckily, I am working with good people. So, the (minor) mistakes we made? Well, they laughed at them, and showed us how they had addressed them. For items that they found unclear, they listened to us as we sketched out our intent. And the problems that only get noticed once you are on site? Well, they worked with us to figure out ways to meet our objectives, showing us that they were conscientious of our concerns, our drawings, our hopes for the project.
But, even good people mix things up. It’s part of the process. As busy as we are in cranking out drawings, our contractors are busy keeping things on schedule, on budget, and as close to our design intent as they understand it. I truly believe that about the people we’ve worked with. And they are likely doing that for multiple other projects simultaneously.
So, for items they missed, we clarified. And those unexpected things, like that wall that we expected to be there and wasn't? Well, we figured it out with a bit of banter, some humming and hawing, to reach a final solution we all got excited about.
You learn, quickly, that the best way to confront these snafus is with a bit of humor. What use is getting angry, at least at first? If they keep screwing up, well that’s definitely another matter. But, like I said, I am working with good people, and they’ were more than willing to reach an amicable solution, often times resulting in more work for them.
It is easy to understand then why, while we kicked some dust, went back to the originally construction set over and over again, sketched ideas on paper, and crossed back and forth from one end of the project to another, I couldn’t help but enjoy just being there. Somewhere, some thousand miles away, my desk was waiting for me, plenty of computer time backlogging itself for my return. But, for the moment, I was a part of a team making architecture magic, working to transform random lines on a white sheet into things we could walk up to and touch.
I think I could handle a lot more days like that.