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Construction Administration: Don’t Give the Contractor The Benefit of the Doubt



It is mind-boggling how so much bad work gets produced on a job, but even the best contractors. I’m not sure if it is a symptom of the industry as a whole, and always has been, or whether it is a trend due to other forces in the industry, but contractors are making mistakes. One way to prevent mistakes is to adopt an approach that unless the contractor has proven they can do something, assume that they cannot. This isn’t meant to imply they will do something wrong, more of a hedge on doing something right. So make sure that your drawings go through each and every scenario that is unproven. With a Contractor that you have built projects before with, you might not include as much detail because they have proven they know what they are doing. With Contractors that you haven’t built anything with, even those with stellar reputations, draw everything and let them prove themselves to you and your Client.

Now keep in mind, as an Architect you should be able to assume that contractors have a basic level of understanding of construction. And the Architect is absolutely not responsible for when a contractor goes off and does something not contained in the drawings and the result is substandard. And neither is the Client. Nor should the Client pay for this outcome. The RFI (Request for Information) process is in place for a reason; if it isn’t in the drawings, it is the responsibility of the Contractor to produce an RFI to ask for additional information.

However, this introduces unpredictable outcomes that could affect the quality of work performed. Maybe it’s the lack of ownership oversight of their project managers, or just plain weak project managers, or could be a labor market with not enough skilled workers, but mistakes on a wide range of items (even basic ones) are on the rise and it likely symptomatic of a great many issues present in the construction industry. A good rule of thumb is that unless the contractor has proven they can do something, assume that they can’t.

If your natural inclination is to help a Contractor with Materials & Methods or clarifying content of the drawings in the field, don’t. Let the contractor assume that responsibility and initiate that dialogue with the Architect. Specifically, you cannot devote time to educating a contractor how to do their job. If you find yourself starting to do that, stop. Although your natural tendency might be to help, don’t. We have done it too many times to count, and it immediately puts you in a deficient position. You are then starting to support a deficient contractor that might actually need to be fired.

Additionally, don’t let contractors advise on materials they like to use, companies they are familiar with, or methods they want to employ. We’ve been in situations where we’ve wanted to use one membrane for waterproofing and a sub has wanted to use another because of their relationship with the vendor. The result? An over-promised product didn’t live up to its hype. Architects need to do their own research, and hold contractors accountable. If the contractor doesn’t know how to use a selected product, they simply might not be the right contractor for the job.

Additionally, don’t tolerate deviations from the drawings. We’ve had supposed excellent contractors do really stupid things like use a Type N mortar instead of a Type S mortar in outdoor patios or substitute an epdm membrane in lieu of a kemper membrane under a stone surface on a Primary Bedroom balcony. Or not fully understanding how a rainscreen works. Or supplying a product that isn’t to agreed upon specifications. None of that is the responsibility of the Architect, though the Contractor, once caught in the mistakes, may try to take a shot at the Architect. If this happens, you must make it clear to both the contractor and client that these deviations are their own mistakes. Sometimes it takes very tough conversations to assert who is responsible. Have those conversations. In the past, we’ve been overly diplomatic and haven’t wanted to point the finger; kind of a strange code of professional conduct. Ervin Architecture isn’t going to be as diplomatic moving forward. We’ve learned in this construction environment, being diplomatic with the Contractor isn’t always in the best interests of the Client.

This is part of our Stewardship Series where we give insight into our industry for aspiring professionals and business owners alike.

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