Conference Calls are Killing Me

At some point, somebody thought instead of having face-to-face meetings, conference calls would be a good idea. They were wrong because it’s a bad idea … just like ordering anything from a “food” truck is a bad idea. Just a warning, I am writing today’s post while balanced upon my soapbox.

architect on the telephone

I have a project I have been working on that seems to have every possible consultant possible involved – Structural, Civil, MEP, Smart Building, Door Hardware, Interior Design, Specification Writer, Information Technology, Low Voltage, Building Automation, Sound Masking, and Security … I think the only consultant we are missing is a Zookeeper. Due to the number of consultants (twelve if you were counting), we have a lot of meetings and a lot of conference calls … and conference calls are one of the biggest time-sucks ever known to mankind.

There are probably a lot of you out there thinking:

“You’re crazy, conference calls save so much time, they are an incredibly effective use of my greatest resource … time.”

If you are that person, you are probably part of the problem. As the architect on the project, I have to talk to all of these consultants constantly, literally hours and hours and hours each week, whereas most of those consultants only have to talk to one or two other people from that list, and even then, only occasionally (and I’m on all of those calls). When working on a project with that many consultants, one of my roles is to make sure that nothing falls through the cracks and that the work is coordinated between all the associated individuals. When a conference call is involved, 9 times out of 10, the person I am speaking with just starts looking at the information we are supposed to be discussing while we are on the phone.

Am I the only person who actually prepares for conference calls?!? Recent observations have led me to conclude that conference calls are a crutch to allow people to postpone doing their work ahead of time. If you are sitting across the table from me and you aren’t prepared, there’s nowhere for you to hide … you will see me looking intensely at you as if I were your mother and I just caught you doing something that we both know you shouldn’t have been doing.

The amount of time I spend acting as “Quality Control” for someone else’s scope of work seems endless. I’m not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the way, the architect has become responsible for making sure that everyone else is actually doing their job … and if I wanted to do their job, I’d be whatever it is that they are. Apparently, it is now my job to check everybody else’s work and cover such low-hanging fruit like:

“You can’t physically put this here, that’s a wall”

or

“Why are there sound-masking devices in the parking garage?”

or

“You have abbreviations for everything, including the manufacturer … you’re going to have to provide a legend.”

or my favorite

“You have the wrong project name in the specifications.”

I know that these are highly trained and intelligent people, so what’s going on? Have I slipped into a cycle where people know that I will check their work and as a result, stopped doing it themselves? As the architect, and project lead, it is my job to coordinate the work of all my consultants … I totally get that and I am on-board for providing that service, but these days it seems like I am an extension of all my consultant’s firms and my job description includes performing quality control on their scope of work.

If you think I am complaining, you would be correct.

Stop the madness, or I’m going to send you to bed without your dinner.

The Competitive Bid Process

Of all the moments on a job, the bid phase gives me the most heartburn. It is a stressful period full of hardcore short-term deadlines and while my personal history tells me that I don’t really have anything to worry about … I still worry.

Comparing Bids

It has been bid central in the office for the last month – a fairly unique situation around these parts. Over the last 10 years or so, we have been doing fewer and fewer competitive bids, seeing a dramatic rise in popularity of the negotiated bid, but we have two really nice commercial jobs (here and here) that are pretty much as the same level of development and both clients wanted to go through the competitive bid process.

There are times when I think it would be more productive, and certainly more entertaining, if we were to place all of our qualified contractors into a cage match with a bunch of melee weapons (in our case, these would be calculators, three-ring binders, and notepads) and see who wants to survive the project the most.

Competitive bid drawings have to be substantially more complete than if we had gone a negotiated bid route. It only seems fair that if you are going to use the cost of the project as a criterion for selecting the contractor, that the architect put together a comprehensive and thorough set of documents (drawings AND specifications) so that everyone has a “fighting” chance.

The methodology that I go through when doing a competitive bid doesn’t really change based on the size of the project (excluding really small, and really large jobs). We just issued a project for competitive bid yesterday, but we just selected the contractor (for this job) just last week after a 4-week bidding and review period. Since this process has been consuming most of my time, I thought I would take a moment and walk you through it.

This is one of my out-of-town projects, I had to do a lot of research when selecting the contractors we wanted to invite to bid the job. It started easy enough … I did a Google search to come up with a list of contractors. From there, I spent time on all of their websites looking at their portfolios and the caliber of projects they chose to highlight. From there, I tracked down the architects for those projects and made some calls to find out some fairly generic information about the experience. I didn’t treat these calls as an inquisition, but the questions typically centered around:

How responsive was the contractor?
Do you consider this contractor a team player?
Did the initial bid reflect the final cost of the project?
Have you worked with this contractor more than once?
After working my way through these phone interviews, I contacted the contractors to find out if there was an interest in bidding our project and did they have the bandwidth to take our project on should they be selected. It shouldn’t come as a surprise but the contractors I spoke with were all friendly, but they were quick to say “yes” or “no” about getting involved – something I greatly appreciated. In the end, I spoke with about 8 contractors and we ended up asking 5 to go through the process.

Once it was time to issue the documents, we uploaded everything online and sent the contractors links to access the files. They were given slightly more than 3 weeks to assemble their bids.

Week One: This time period is designated for the contractor (and their subcontractors) to familiarize themselves with the documents and formulate any questions they need to have clarified in an effort to eventually present their best bid. We typically require any questions to be submitted to us by the end of this first week.
Week Two: This is the time period where we (the architects and our consultants) and working towards answering all the questions that were submitted. This sometimes just means pointing the contractors in the right direction, possibly putting a note to some scope of work, or it could mean that we need to generate a drawing (or two) to help clarify our intent.
Week Three: It’s all coming together at this point and the bids from the contractor are due. In our office, we always make this day a Thursday because I don’t think people are at their best on Fridays or Mondays …they just aren’t.
Whenever we are the architects on a competitively bid project, we try to work with the contractor up front and as soon as possible so that they know we are responsive to their questions and we will solve any problems on paper before they show up on the job site. The positive aspect to the client is that the competitive bid process reduces the possibility that the contractor and architect are simply looking out for their own best interests rather than the client. It is completely reasonable that the owner would like to make sure that they’ve explored their financial options along multiple paths and have a good understanding of what size bed they are getting into before they have to commit to buying the bed. Competitive bids also can provide the client with some comfort in that the contractor is being diligent in preparing a cost-effective bid on the project rather than simply guesstimating or putting all their golfing buddies on the project.

So if we fast forward to the project we sent out for a competitive bid, the question you should all be asking yourself is “What happened?” Since I am still here and writing this post, you can rest assured that the numbers did not cause me to go take a flying leap off some building. Turns out, the numbers were almost all too close to one another that we ended up with a different sort of problem.

[needle scratching record … hopefully Sussudio by Phil Collins]

What does that mean? Does that mean that the bids were “too good?!?”

Almost … but not really. We went through a cost estimate process last December and came up with a forecasted cost to the project and this was the number we had been working towards throughout the remaining design development and construction drawing phases. When all the bids were qualified, there were only $175,308 dollars separating the low bidder from the highest. While $175k is a lot of money, it only represents about 5% spread … that’s really good in case you didn’t know and I can proudly say that this is an indication on the quality of the documentation we put together. Our low bid came in $219.75 below budget … that’s right … under budget.

With such a small delta between contractors, you can’t summarily toss out the high and low bid and only work with what’s left in the middle. We ended up having our two favorite contractors into the office to present their logic behind the bid and why they would be the right choice should we select them. Both contractors had already been vetted and both were capable and qualified to do the work, so this was going to come down to who did we like best and who did we feel like we would enjoy working with over the next 8 months … and so that’s what we did.

In the end, we did not pick the lowest bidder, but rather the contractor we felt was the best qualified for this particular project. I can tell you with absolute clarity, that when you find yourself, either as an architect, or a client, being in a position to select your contractor not based on cost but on a host of other considerations, you drink a few beers when making that decision.

… and that’s exactly what we did.

Watch Your Mouth

From time to time, there are moments when I hear someone say something that leaves me flabbergasted. Considering that I love to talk, I think I am more than willing to let most people slide when they pop off at the mouth and say something inaccurate, which happens to the best of us, or either say something wildly inappropriate.

I might be in tune with this a bit more than typical – since I started recording a podcast and I have the displeasure of analyzing everything I say over and over and over again, you become intimately aware of your verbal shortcomings. The way the recording process works is that Landon and I will sit down in the front room of my house and talk into our microphones for about 90 minutes, with the goal of having 45-50 minutes worth of audio worth presenting. As it currently stands, I do all the sound editing and mixing and as a result, I am the one who listens to that recording for what feels like an eternity. The truth is, I am averaging about one hour of mixing time for every ten minutes of finalized audio. Most of that time is spent cutting out ah’s, uhm’s, oddly long pauses, and the occasional conversation that goes down a rabbit-hole.

Since I am working with recorded audio, I have, to a certain extent, the ability to remove part of the conversation after the fact so that the fine folks who choose to listen to that conversation don’t have to fight through periods of absolute nonsensible drivel. I am painfully reminded as I do quality control checks on the recordings that I don’t have the ability to cut everything out. To point out a short example, in our last episode ‘Architects and Chefs‘ when we were talking about how the food you eat is influenced by the place you live, I was discussing my recent trip to Maine and how lobsters seem to have imprinted themselves on every part of that culture. To reinforce that point, I said the following sentence:

“So I was really trying to find out, … the role that lobster’s played in their society.”

Maybe at first pass, this sentence doesn’t seem all that crazy to you, but I am telling you that it drives me absolutely bonkers. I should have used the word “culture” instead of the word “society” because let’s be honest, lobsters don’t have a role in society … unless we are talking about some underwater lobster society because it’s not like they work down at the local bank. This gaff is now recorded and available for permanent ridicule, a new experience despite the fact I have this blog site and you can find no shortage of errors contained within almost every single post. The difference is that if something on this site really bothers me, I can easily fix it whereas, with the podcast, nothing is easily fixable unless the solution is “removal”.

Tripping over curb

There is a story that will ultimately make it into my rotation of stories, it might be too soon now, but we are working with a consultant who seems to relish the idea of antagonizing people who disagree with them (trying to keep the pronoun’s gender-neutral) … which just so happens to be the city engineers who are reviewing the drawings for one of our projects. We have sailed through every phase of the review process except for the scope of work of this particular consultant. We made it through building review in one pass and with only two comments – both of which were generic boilerplate notes the city wanted to see on the cover. No big whoop, right? Almost done, right?

Wrong.

This consultant has had their scope of work in the review process for almost 9 months, and while a large chunk of this is not a direct result of their work, I can’t help but think that their prickly demeanor is making a frustrating situation untenable. They have no issues with telling the people who work for the city, the people who ARE REVIEWING OUR PROJECT, that they aren’t very good at their job. [ALERT] In case you didn’t know this already, that is a bad idea. This is a small excerpt from an email they sent to the Assistant City Manager … brace yourselves:

“Please don’t misunderstand me. This has been somewhat of a windfall for me. I can charge double the fee I get in [redacted] and still get projects because other engineers don’t want to deal with the hassle.

Your city has a terrible reputation and it is getting worse.”

Are. You. Kidding. Me??!!!

I have been trying to think whether or not this was the worst thing I have ever read in an email … sadly, it is not, but it does hold the honor of coming in second place.

Despite our current situation, I actually like this consultant as a person, but I can’t afford to have a loose cannon like this on one of my projects. At some point, I think it is incumbent on all professionals to understand the ramifications of the things that come out of their mouth. I know this person is frustrated, and I’ll even go so far as to say that they have some right to be frustrated … but you have to watch your mouth. There is literally zero upside to this sort of action and they are past the point in their career when they should have learned this lesson. I ended up spending time I shouldn’t have needed to spend repairing the relationship with the city staff, and through reasonable dialog and conversation, was successful in presenting our argument to the city. Rather than punch, kick, and scream, our challenge within the City was handled with patient and persistent conversations during which time, nobody was insulted.

Shocking, right?

It’s always good advice to be mindful of the things you say to other people … but you should really be careful about the things you write because just like recordings, they can live on forever.

Keep it real – and watch your mouth.

Just Draw it Up

There is a request that I receive a few times a week that I thought I would finally talk about in an effort to shed some light on a fairly taboo subject. Those requests typically start off something like this:

“I have already designed my house but since I am not an architect, I don’t know how to create the technical drawings I would need to give to a contractor. Is this something that you would do, and if so, how much do you charge?”

With 100% certainty, I know that I am not alone in receiving these sorts of inquiries. Years ago, in the days before I spent an hour or two each day responding to emails, this is the sort of question that would work me up and, depending on my overall mood, I might even have become irritated at this reduction in my abilities. I’d think to myself, C’mon, I am not a drafting service! I am a highly educated, extremely experienced, and thoroughly licensed professional architect. But I rarely react like that anymore, mostly because most people (who aren’t architects) don’t really understand the myriad of moving parts to their request and they don’t know how long it takes to simply “draw up some plans.” So I am here to set the record straight … it takes a long time.

Modern House Drawings – Dallas Architect Bob Borson
These are the sorts of drawings an architect will create for you
This email exchange also typically includes some insight that they have already tried reaching out to other architects, and IF they received a callback, they would typically be told that the architecture firm wasn’t taking on any new projects at the moment. It is at this moment when I try to explain that calling up an architecture firm and telling them that you’ve already done the design for your house, you just need someone to prepare the drawings, is akin to going to your doctor and telling them that you’ve “already figure out what was wrong, I just need you to write a prescription.” While there are doctors out there that might be willing to do this, they are probably as rare as finding an architect who will simply draw up your plans … and you can probably only find either through back channels and secret alleyway exchanges.

The takeaway from these emails is fairly simple … it still comes down to finding the right sort of person for the job at hand. If all you need is someone to take your plans and turn them into serviceable documents, you should reach out to a drafting service. You won’t have to deal with the prickly demeanor that you might receive from some architects, and the cost to provide those drawings will presumably be more in line with your expectations. If you want to take advantage of the skill set an architect can provide, along with the insight that comes from working on these sorts of projects from the initial concept, through the preparation of documents that are suitable for permitting and pricing, and concluding with construction administration, then an architect might be exactly what you are looking for.

The truth is that I genuinely want to help every person who reaches out and asks this question, but the reality is that most of the time, it isn’t a good fit for either of us. I would much rather inform someone of that reality and be helpful, than to move forward and put them in a difficult position. The one thing I will always try to do is I will answer their questions.

Winter Adventure to Helsinki

I have two more travel excursions before the end of the year, and my next trip one is just around the corner, which means I am in full-on research mode. My destination is Helsinki, Finland- a place that I have never visited before – and I am going in winter … because I’m smart that way.

I am really excited, and a little bummed out because this is a destination I have wanted to make for a few decades, which is great … except this is a short trip and the time I have available to really explore are extremely limited. Of course, my research is proving to be a bit agonizing because I am simply learning about all these additional amazing things that I can’t do with the limited time I have available to me … but let’s be honest, I am way more excited than bummed out.

Considering that I have the most amazing group of people who read this site, I thought I would turn to you all and ask for advice on any can’t miss activities. That’s right, I wrote “activities” because while I like looking at buildings as much as the next architect, it took a trip with my wife and daughter in 2009 to Paris for me to learn that I get more out of these trips if I mix in some of the local flavors to go along with my architecture. I wrote a post titled “Through the Eyes of a Child” that explains it in detail but this is the highlight:

Take some time to slow down and look at what you are looking at. It can be a bunch of paintbrush strokes you’re looking at or people standing in line to get their coffee. Looking at the things around the thing you are looking at can add to the experience in ways you won’t know until you try. Sometimes all it takes is a 5-year-old kid to point that out to you.

To that end, I am also searching for restaurants, spas, museums, and other cultural highlights.

But first … the architecture!

As much as I would like to visit Villa Mairea, also by Alvar Aalto, it is a 4-hour train ride away from where I will be and I ‘m not sure that if I should basically eat up one of my days to go see this one building … as much as I secretly want to do exactly that.

The Studio Aalto is located in the Munkkiniemi area of Helsinki and should be an easy destination for me to visit. I also learned that there is a gift shop located here so it looks like I can continue the streak of getting magnets for everyone back at the office.

The home of Alvar and Aino Aalto is only about a 6-minute walk from Studio Aalto so unless something goes terribly wrong … I’ll definitely be seeing you Aalto house!

Säynätsalo Town Hall by Alvar Aalto photo by Nico Saieh
Säynätsalo Town Hall by Alvar Aalto [photo by Nico Saieh]
Probably my most favorite Aalto project is the Säynätsalo Town Hall – I project that was the inspiration for the most important project I designed in college (what was called our “Sound Building” semester). This was a competition project that Aalto won in 1949 with the building being completed in 1952 … and it is unlikely that I will get to see it. Located in the town of Jyväskylä, this is another 4+ hour train ride (each way).
It would appear that there are quite a few Aalto projects in Jyväskylä, including the Aalto Museum, so maybe I can convince my wife that this would be a good way to spend one of our days.

One of the cultural activities we will be partaking will be a traditional Finnish sauna … followed by a plunge into the Baltic sea. Did you know that that the population of Finland is around 5.4 million and there are over 3.3 million saunas? There used to be a considerable number of public saunas in the larger cities but most apartments now have their own which is making public saunas like Löyly far more uncommon. I’m not sure how long we will be staying on site, but there is a restaurant as part of this facility so I am hoping that it will be at least half a day and will include the evening meal or at the very least, cocktails.

There are a number of other notable buildings in and around Helsinki by architects not named “Aalto”, but I am still trying to determine just how much time I actually have to dedicate to architectural pursuits. I basically have 4 full days of exploring and I am open to suggestions from those of you how have either been or know of something worthwhile that you think I might enjoy.

Architecture Studio Vignettes

Did you know that our office closes at noon on Fridays? This is a policy that has been in place for years – one that I think everyone really enjoys. While it seems like a drag working 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM Monday through Thursday, most people are pretty happy skipping out of the office to enjoy an early jump on the weekend. This was the case this past Friday when I found myself alone in the office for several hours. Most of the time I use the peace and quiet to minimize the work that I would have to do over the weekend … in this case, I decided to take some photos so I could write this very particular blog post.

Malone Maxwell Borson Architect’s Studio

Our office has grown to 11 people and we are at max capacity at the moment. I was up at the office working on some billing, the most exciting sort of work to stay late for, and I started thinking about how the personality of our office is really starting to round itself into proper form. I’ve talked about how important the culture of a firm is and as much as I’d like to think I have something to do with shaping it, I don’t actually think that’s true … it’s the 10 other people in the office doing what they feel comfortable doing. Maybe my contribution is simply getting out of the way.

Malone Maxwell Borson Architect’s Studio

We had a film crew in the office earlier in the week and had spent some time trying to straighten the place up a bit … this is what “straightened up” looks like.

Malone Maxwell Borson Architect’s Studio view Bob Borson’s Desk

I sit in the far back corner of the office. In some ways, I think this is the best spot (as I should since I’m the one who laid the office out and “assigned” myself this seat). I have plenty of room and seem to expand out in all directions to fill it up. If you look closely, you can see that I have a bunch of framed accolades sitting on my desk just leaning up against the wall … don’t know where to put them. My desk isn’t as exciting as it used to be, you are more likely to find its surface adorned with 3-ring binders and spreadsheets over trace paper and sketch tools.

Architect’s Desk – Benching System and magnets

At the end of each person’s workstation, you will find magnets and cards that are mementos from projects and the vacation trips of people. It has become a bit of a tradition that when someone takes a trip somewhere, they’ll pick up something for the people left behind working in the office. A few of us has made this memento an image magnet, on the far right, you can see my additions from my most recent trip to the Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau, and the image of Mt. Desert Island in Maine from this summer.

What’s on an Architect’s Desk – sketches 01

About 1/3rd of the desks had process sketches on them, but I didn’t want to put those images in this post without getting permission. This is a sketch from my desk – generated a few weeks ago for a fairly significant addition renovation project we have underway to a Robert A. M. Stern house here in Dallas.

Architecture Studio – metal shelf of awesomeness

Of course, my favorite part of the office was the addition of the “Metal Shelf of Awesomeness” earlier this year. Whenever I look back to this wall prior to the addition of this shelf, I have a hard time wondering why it took so long to put it into place.

Architecture Studio – metal shelf of awesomeness

Not only does the shelf give us a place to display the models that we make (as well as get them off every horizontal surfaces in the office) it gives those of us who aren’t on the window a place to hang up valuable sketches and “other” important pieces of … stuff.

Architectural Drawings with Post-It notes

One of the projects that seems to absorb the most attention in the office, is the addition and renovation of a 1.35 million square foot, 42-story office tower. The drawings for this project are substantial and keeping track of everything is no small task in and of itself … we’ve been using a few more Post-it notes than ever over the past few months.

Architectural Drawings with Post-It notes

Everybody is getting in on the Post-It note action.

Architectural Redlines

We also have loads of as-built drawings. This is the handiwork of one of our employees and I couldn’t NOT take a picture of this. This particular associate has a very specific set of skills … being thorough and typically being right. I don’t have the words for how he processes his site measurements, but it makes sense to him and that’s good enough for everyone else.

Architectural Model – Oak Grove

I mentioned that we had a film crew in the office last week, although that might not actually be correct as it was one person (can 1 person be a crew?) Over the past few weeks, I have been interviewed on-site at one of my projects, gone into the studio for some voiceover work, and the final piece of the multimedia extravaganza was the 1-person film crew that came to the office to shoot some “B-roll”. Any guesses as to the things that received the most attention in the office?!?

It was the models … but of course, you knew that. Everybody loves architectural models

Conference Room Whiteboard

Finally, there is the conference room … a room that I don’t particularly like. I’m a big fan of the floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall magnetic whiteboards as they are incredibly functional. What I don’t like is the table and the lack of cable management. If you ever come to my office, don’t ask me about it unless you want me to be in a bad mood.

I’m sure my co-workers would be a little creeped out at the idea that I was walking around their workspaces with my camera taking pictures of their stuff – which for the record, I did very little of that … but none of them read this blog since they have get to deal with me every day.