• Credit: Isabelle Arsenault

Construction observation, also known as contract administration, is a phase of architecture that's clearly spelled out in AIA contracts. And yet it's a minefield, fraught with missteps by architects, interference from contractors, and nuances clients often fail to understand. Insurance files are thick with case studies of lawsuits that declare guilt by association. Lloyd Princeton, founder of the Manhattan-based Design Management Group, recalls an interior designer who lost a million-dollar lawsuit because the whole-house lighting control system she specified was not put in properly. Her fatal mistake? Arranging for the vendor to show the electrician how to install it. To correct the problem, $800,000 worth of Venetian plaster walls had to be ripped up.

What architects do is design, but that's not the half of it. They design in order to build, a process that demands attention for a much longer period of time—and one over which they have limited control. The extent to which architects shepherd construction has shifted over the years. Thirty years ago, it was considered standard practice to be in the field virtually full-time for projects of a reasonable size, a phase referred to back then as construction administration. Later on, economic pressures and liability concerns made architects leery of including that scope of services. Now the pendulum has swung back again, although the semantics are more precise. By observing construction—not supervising it, but simply administering the builder/client contract on behalf of the owner—architects are realizing that things run much more smoothly when they're around.

Insurance companies practically insist on it, too. “Usually the architect gets into trouble when he's not providing construction-phase services,” says Joe Jones, head of risk management services at Chevy Chase, Md.–based Victor O. Schinnerer & Co. “Nobody understands the construction documents better than architects. When someone is trying to interpret or make changes, they don't know the thought process of what was there to start with. That's where an architect can be brought in later through claims. They weren't there to inform whether the contractor made the right decisions.”

measure twice, hire once

Stephen Blatt, AIA, Stephen Blatt Architects, Portland, Maine, agrees. “Every time we're called in as expert witnesses, it's because of a problem generated during construction,” he says. Unless the budget is extremely tight, he sells the entire package, not only to avoid liability but also to control quality. For Blatt, a well-run job-site starts with choosing the right builder for the project, whether it's a $400,000 cottage, a $2 million house, or a major institution. He helps the owners check references, looking for workforce consistency and making sure the job has a superintendent from start to finish. He also urges residential clients not to lowball the budget by inviting competitive bids but rather to seek out a builder with common sense and a team spirit. “If a builder has an idea that a detail we've designed might fail or is overly complex, we really appreciate input,” Blatt says. “If you have competitive bidding, the contractor will likely say, ‘You told me to do this even though I didn't want to do it.'”

Another wrench in the system is the builder who talks to the owner behind Blatt's back. He says the worst situation he ever finds himself in is being required to work with a builder—say, the client's cousin—who doesn't feel an architect is needed and who believes that the building's systems are over-designed. For example, builders frequently think there's too much steel reinforcement in the foundation, that the roof rafters and the headings over French doors are too heavy, and that 20 inches on center is sufficient spacing for framing. Some builders question the latest techniques for creating building envelopes that breathe. “They often don't understand the concept of insulation requiring the movement of air around it, and they feel their HVAC sub is perfectly capable of designing his own system,” Blatt says. “Even when you're doing a negotiated job, you have to make the builder understand that you drew it for a reason.”

assembly required

New York City architect Jim Garrison, AIA, who teaches construction technology at Parsons School of Architecture, says clients who try to save money by limiting his scope of services have got it all wrong. Jobs get done faster and more profitably when there is proper coordination throughout construction, and the results are superior. Years ago, he recalls asking a construction superintendent for the Louis Kahn–designed Yale Center for British Arts how he had achieved a certain quality of concrete. “He turned to me and said, ‘You'll never do it again. This is the only job I've ever experienced where the architect, owner, contractor, and all the subs were in total agreement about what was going to be accomplished and how it was going to be done,'” Garrison says. “That level of commitment shows in the quality of the work, and if there's an ideal out there, that's it.”

Coordination is particularly important at the front end of construction. In a given project, plumbing, structural, and electrical systems all have a tendency to run into each other, and within close working quarters. That slows down the project and compromises design. Some of Garrison's contracts call for a coordinated set of trade drawings. If he can get the primary subs and the contractor at the table early on to talk about timing, he says, the job gets done faster. During the heat of construction, the firm checks the site at least weekly and conducts organized job meetings every other week. Minutes are distributed showing action items and due dates, so construction can keep moving.

“We want contractors to be profitable so they can take the time they need to build the project,” Garrison says. When mistakes do slip through the surveillance, owners tend to see only two choices: tear it out and make it perfect, or live with it. Both extremes invariably lead to trouble by compromising the design or adding cost and time. “There has to be an ongoing dialogue about ways to work around these issues,” Garrison says. “It's very important to keep that in balance all the way through. Because at the end of a job, you're hoping the contractor has enough reserve to spend time detailing the final pieces that say so much about its character. You can tell a job that's been in trouble, because at the end it's rushed.”

gentle interventions

Even the most fastidiously coordinated projects, though, require architectural intervention from time to time. Not every element, angle, and proportion can possibly be understood, no matter how well the construction documents are put together. That's why Stephen Kanner, FAIA, Kanner Architects, Los Angeles, refuses to take on a commission unless he can observe construction. He holds weekly jobsite meetings with the general contractor, owner, and select subs, more often when an item such as detailed cabinetry is going in. Over the course of the job, he inspects the framing for plumb and square and checks to see that proportions are correct. And he's very concerned about moisture-proofing—collecting water and removing it from the site, and correctly installing systems that keep a house dry or properly heated and cooled. “If we're putting in underground ductwork because we don't want soffits running through the house, we're making sure they put in only plastic duct-work, because galvanized would degrade over time,” Kanner says. “It's making sure that subs aren't trying to pull a fast one to save costs.”

Although it's the finish detailing that warrants the greatest scrutiny, every phase adds up to a quality product. Kanner says contractors sometimes , cut corners on subflooring by not allowing for expansion and contraction voids, which can cause a wood floor to delaminate over time. When paint goes on the walls, he checks for thorough drywall prep and flawless brush stroking. And because exposed concrete floors can't be broken out without incurring massive costs, Kanner is on hand to make sure the joint width and trowel depth is just right. He says architects can't wait to be told what's happening when. If they aren't proactive, they'll miss key issues.