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Symbiosis

My mother is a retired English teacher, so I strive to use exact language in all I do. I think this is part of what has caused me to be as active in the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) as I am. Say what you mean and mean what you say is one of many mantras that flows through our organization. When considering a term or thought I hear in my daily business of architecture, I often look it up in the dictionary. Recently, I looked up the definition of “symbiosis.” In Biology, it means “a close, prolonged association between two or more species that may, but does not necessarily, benefit each member." 

 

This definition implies an association not necessarily of mutual selection. The biological definition of symbiosis can closely approximate the common construction delivery method of “design-bid-build” where the Owner picks the Architect and then may pick the Contractor. But, if the construction contract is competitively bid, the Owner may not pick the Contractor by name or reputation but by simply accepting the lowest bidder. Regardless, the Architect rarely picks the Contractor, so there is a “prolonged association” between the two but it “does not necessarily benefit each member.” 

 

A more apt definition of symbiosis for construction might be “a relationship of mutual benefit or dependence.” The success of any construction project relies on all three parties - Owner, Architect, Contractor – working together to reach a mutual goal. If any of these parties is obstructive or less than attentive, the work of the other two is magnified or the resulting project jeopardized. Occasionally, all three parties shirk their responsibilities. I call this the “trifecta:” a project with poor or incomplete documents, a bad or inattentive owner, a self-centered and uncaring contractor. Anyone who has spent a long period of time in our industry has experienced the “trifecta” in some form or another.  

 

In construction, the relationships of all three parties involved in the project are defined in the General Conditions of the Contract. There are three commonly used model construction contracts: the AIA Contracts, EJCDC Contracts and ConsensusDOCS. All three generally define the roles and responsibilities of each party in similar ways, though with slightly different slants, as would benefit the entities responsible for preparing the model contracts. These documents are typically prepared by attorneys and can be used somewhat as boiler plate for many different projects. They are, however, contractual obligations and can be cold and insensitive. The trick is to understand their nature but look beyond their coldness and realize there are people behind each role defined and each responsibility created. 

 

To truly create a symbiotic relationship, it is important to understand what each party brings to the table. One of the biggest benefits I have enjoyed by my membership in CSI is a broader understanding and even an empathy for what each person brings to his or her work and therefore to the project as a whole. 

 

The Owner brings the idea and the need for the project. Without that idea or need, the project would never get off the ground. The Owner also brings the money for the project. Ideas and needs are fine, but without financing, the project goes nowhere. It stands to reason then that the Owner also has the goals or the “big idea” and a desire to see that vision realized. This sounds like some sort of lofty or inspirational rationale, but it could be a financial goal. It’s not up to anyone else to judge the Owner’s goals or desires, but to simply understand them and try to reach them. 

 

The Architect is responsible for delivering the building design to the Owner. The Architect must gain an understanding of the client’s needs and desires and then work to develop a design that is both beautiful and functional to meet these needs and desires. In terms of the construction phase, the Architect has a pre-existing relationship with the Owner. These two entities worked together during the design phase, so they can occasionally have a leg up over the Contractor who comes in only during the construction phase. The Architect’s ultimate desire is to see his or her beautiful design come to fruition in a built form. It is nice to make a few bucks profit when the project is finished, but most architects just want to see their designs built. 

 

The Contractor brings knowledge and expertise in construction scheduling and building. They also bring man-power and material supplier connections. Overall, the Contractor takes a set of construction documents and physically builds them into reality. They want to make a few bucks and maybe a few more bucks if the opportunity arises. Believe it or not, Contractors normally enjoy seeing the design come to fruition almost as much as the architect does. It may not always seem that way, but I believe it to be true.  

 

Its important to understand that these ideas are NOT mutually exclusive. If the Owner has communicated to the Architect adequately, their goal or big vision will be documented appropriately and can be built. If the right amount of money is available, the vision will be realized. If the communication has been clear and the Architect has done their job, cost overruns are minimized. If the Architect has created a beautiful design and then adequately documented it, that design will be built. If they are efficient in their processes, they’ll even make a few bucks along. Conversely, if the Contractor takes care of their business, the schedule is managed, man-power and materials are available and they make money. 

 

My belief is that every project has the opportunity to end as the paragraph above describes: everyone is happy and made some money on the project. It is also my firm belief that this only occurs when a handful of simple ideas are followed. First, expectation must be managed. We are all human, we all make mistakes and we all are entitled to change our minds. I think this is most important for the owner to understand. As architects, we do not pretend to deliver perfect documents that will be built without incident or change order, but I have encountered clients who complain about even a small number of change orders on a project. Our industry's standard of care is 3-5% of the construction cost in errors and omissions change orders. I tell every client that if my change orders total over 2%, I'm more upset and frustrated than they are.  

 

Conversely, architects should offer that same measure of understanding to the contractors. They are humans who employ large numbers of humans to perform physical labor in risky areas in all weather conditions. I recently had a project where the first floor slab concrete finish was of fairly poor quality: light pocking, some skreed marks, some trowel marks, etc. That slab and the second floor slab were to receive a high performance coating, so the slab needed to be smooth to prevent telegraphing and failure of the coating. I did not get upset with the GC or concrete sub, but put together a field report noting my observations and concerns. I reviewed those observations and concerns verbally with the GC before submitting the field report. I was promised better results on the second floor. Sadly, in this example, that did not occur. The second floor was worse than the first! That's when I brought in the owner and coatings representative to assist, but my first move was to work with the contractor to solve the issue.

 

That leads me to the next simple idea: work together. As noted prior and codified in the model general conditions, all three parties are bound together in a symbiotic relationship. Understand that and embrace it! Use the owner-architect-contractor meetings to seek and resolve issues rather than just review work progress and outstanding RFI's and submittals. Become true partners with your owners and contractors in solving problems, eliminating conflict and making sure everyone is working efficiently and effectively. That might mean mentoring of the contractor's staff or educating the owner in certain ways, but I know that your projects will go more smoothly and produce better results in the end.

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