Get Out in the Field

Sep 18, 2000

I ran into a building contractor friend of mine in front of our office complex the other day. He is currently working on a project to convert a 16,000 square foot former women’s clothing store into office space. Part of the project includes cutting about 30 windows in the brick building’s façade (it had few windows before). He was ranting and raving about how goofy the architect on the project is. As the concrete cutting company started to do their thing from the outside of the building, he walked around to the farthest point on the opposite side. Along the way, he noticed a significant grade change. He looked at the plans. The windows were all supposed to be the same size. Some quick calculations revealed the last three windows (those facing the street) would be partially underground. Further study of the plans revealed windows being cut out right in front of structural columns! How can this be, he thought? So he called the architect and described the problem. He suggested that the architect really needed to come down to the site to look at it. The architect responded by saying, “That can’t be right. My digital photographs don’t show that.” He asked if the architect had ever been to the project site. The response was, “No, but I have digital photos and plans for the original building.” Well guess what, folks— the photos didn’t tell the whole story, and the plans were inaccurate. And anyone with a lick of common sense and some experience would have anticipated that. But he or she didn’t, and as a result, the project is screwed up, and the designers have egg on their faces. It got me thinking about why these kinds of stories are all too common. This is just one of many instances where, just by getting out from behind his or her computer screen, the architect or engineer could make a world of difference in the quality of what he or she is doing. Just think about what the built environment would look like if the designers of every house, office building, school, or shopping mall actually visited the site where their project was going to be built before designing it and looked around. It would be fantastic! There would be a lot fewer buildings that appear “out of context.” There’d be fewer problems during construction, and the design professions overall would be better respected by contractors and clients alike. There would even be world peace. (Well, maybe that’s going a bit too far!) But the bottom line is, too much of what is done in our business is done by people without any connection to the project at all. They may have never been to any construction site. Here are a few things you could do if you want your people out into the field more often: Make field work a requirement for those who are just starting out in their careers. And see to it that supervisors of new architects or engineers find a reason to bring them along to field sites, so they can see what’s really happening on a project. This is another good reason to have your experienced folks and neophytes “bunk” together (i.e., share office space). Don’t separate your construction services people from your design people. I’m sure I will get a bunch of angry letters and e-mails for making this statement. And undoubtedly, there are good reasons to have some folks that are strictly dedicated to field work. But when office people never get out in the field, they don’t do as good a job on their office work (and vice versa). Sell the need for a site visit to your clients. Get the clients to foot the bill. I have seen some firms take the entire project team to the job site on the client’s nickel. If you can convince clients that this is in their best interests, then some of them will pay for it. Don’t overload your staff. It’s not a minor issue that, many times, our best people are simply overloaded. They don’t have time for a quick trip because they are already 127% billable for the week on design jobs! If you can, allow for some professional development time to get out of the office and on site. Make sure your policies reinforce going to the job site. I’m talking about policies on when an employee can travel, low personal auto mileage reimbursement rates, and the like. We worked with one firm that only allowed employees to travel after 5:30 p.m. Needless to say, people didn’t travel much there. Originally published 9/18/2000.

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