The Decline of Design: Is it Real?
Not long ago, Editor-in-Chief Richard L. Peck received a note commenting on the “Starchitects” editorial he had written for the May 2008 issue of HEALTHCARE DESIGN. It was from Tim G. Pennigar, lamenting from his perspective as a structural systems project manager for the Duke University Health System that “starchitects” were too easy a target of criticism. The real problem, in his view, was the general decline he had observed over the past 20 years in architectural standards: “The day-in, day-out work of rigorous engineering and design that appears to be missing from too many modern buildings is the real concern.” In subsequent e-mails, Pennigar detailed various architectural sins of omission and commission, including lack of specific detail in roofing and building envelope drawings leading to serious moisture problems in new buildings (“and the poor facility manager taking the spankin' for it!”). As it turned out, Pennigar—an engaging and humorous sort—has a long-time friend in the architectural profession with whom he has been conducting a friendly debate on this topic for several years. Richard Robison, a principal with the prominent architectural firm of Lord, Aeck & Sargent, agreed to go public with Pennigar on this in a joint interview “refereed” by Peck.
Richard L. Peck: Can we have an “opening statement” from each of you on the general decline of architectural standards?
Tim G. Pennigar: First, I'll suggest that I could be less than helpful here if I over-simplify and attempt to lay blame entirely on the design community. This is a very complex business environment and credit, or blame, is shared by owner, designer, and contractor alike. Richard Robison knows that I've struggled with my language here—asserting a “general decline” in design quality is a broad accusation. But I've seen the workmanship of a broad array of national design firms during my two-plus decades at Duke, and I've made a habit of conferring with colleagues at peer institutions. With few exceptions, the consensus is that something is lacking with the quality of the design product we are receiving for the building enclosure. We see too much reliance on generic, boilerplate specifications and incomplete detail drawings, and too much dependence on the contractor community to “figure out” the finer details of building enclosure design. We see too much ambiguity in bid documents that produces too much ambiguity in project scope and pricing.
Richard Robison, RA, CCS: Planning, financing, and design are highly complex, and the owner, designer, and contractor often have tunnel vision. Users just want the resources to do research, perform operations, conduct classes—in other words, do their jobs. The finance department is in charge of raising, spending and controlling the money for the project—on time and on budget. The architect is trying to design a beautiful, functional structure that meets the user's program. The contractor wants to get the job done on time and make a profit. The material manufacturers are interested in selling as much of their material as possible. If we are honest, there is a built-in tension (occasionally irreconcilable) among “pretty customized in design,” “user's program,” “beautiful,” “on time,” “on budget,” and “profit.” Honesty from the owner, architect, and contractor regarding the size of the program, the choice of materials, the level of complexity, and the cost of each is essential to a unified approach. Tim's charge of premature failure and unsuitable specs comes to rest at the architect's door. From beginning to end, it is the architect's job to tell the owner and contractor what material, detail, and spec is suitable.
Peck: Who comes up with the specifications?
Robison: Nearly always, the architect does, but the choice of material is a dialog between the architect and owner. In a few cases, the owners dictate the material, and the architect tries to do the best he can. I've had occasions when I've shared my experience and judgment on what I think is an inappropriate material, only to have the owner insist that we spec that material. In one such instance, 25 years ago, the material failed and they sued us anyway!
Pennigar: Bad form! Probably should have filed a “hold harmless” letter there, Richard. I agree, sometimes owners do get comfortable with particular suppliers and their warranties, and persist in that direction. If their loyalty is misguided—bad for them.
Peck: But what about Tim's comment that he sees a lot of general, boilerplate-type specs that don't apply to the project at hand?
Robison: Yes, we do see a lot of that done, and it's not in anyone's best interest to continue with this. It does happen, particularly with roofing and curtainwall design, that we architects are not really the designer. The manufacturers have the chemists, engineers, and testing labs who understand these systems in detail. More and more, the architect chooses among systems that others have designed and engineered. However, it is incumbent upon me, as an architect, to develop familiarity with these systems and reject what's unsuitable.
Peck: So is architects' unfamiliarity with the new technologies part of the problem?
Robison: That can be a serious challenge. Technology is complex and constantly evolving, and it's one of a thousand things we deal with. The question is, are we generalists or specialists? Architects have traditionally been generalists, and we've done a poor job so far of becoming specialists. There are a few architectural specialists out there—building skin design, for example—but they're usually called upon for large, tall, or cutting-edge buildings. We call on them occasionally for unusual projects, but it's not the routine—maybe 5% of our projects.
Pennigar: Wait a minute—well over half of construction litigation these days, we're told, involves roofs or building skins. What am I missing here? New buildings, no matter the size or complexity, always include structural engineers and mechanical engineers, no? Why not building enclosure engineers? It's interesting, back in the old days with far simpler construction methods, we seemingly had more attention to detail. Today, with far greater complexity in wall construction, we too often seem to be in full retreat from “attention to detail.” Again, what am I missing here?
Robison: A couple of months ago I was studying how to flash a window opening in a typical wall and I found about 28 different issues and materials concerns to deal with, including heat/cold conductance, rust, and so forth. Compare that with the mass wall of the 1920s through 1940s, where windows involved heavy intermediate steel windows, mortar and masonry, sometimes flashing and sometimes not—at most, only four materials.
Pennigar: When assessing those multiple issues, Richard, which hat did you wear—generalist or specialist?
Robison: I'm defending my stance here as a generalist, because without the architect as generalist, there's no way of coordinating the team. But I'm also challenging us to develop specialties within our offices or, if we don't have the bench strength for that, to go out and get it. But I would also challenge owners to accept the cost of this, when recommended. I can't count how often I've recommended a specialty consultant or a better detail, only to be asked whether this wasn't covered in our fee, or having a contractor tell the owner, “You can't afford this proposed upgrade.” It all goes back to the money.
Peck: You're alluding to what has been described as an adversarial relationship among the major participants in building projects—owners, architects, and general contractors. Some have talked about Integrated Project Delivery (IPD), involving all groups almost from the start of the design process, as the answer. What is your take on that?
Robison: I agree that we have to get rid of the adversarial approach, and I condemn my profession's decision 30 years ago to retreat from “master builder” status. That was a disastrous judgment. Regarding IPD specifically, though, I think it muddies the water. The contractor is also supposed to be a master of constructing buildings, but they're as much challenged by the speed of technology change as anyone else, and often they walk onto the job site without that knowledge. IPD, at its best, yields outstanding results when the contractor, architect, and owner each have honestly identified great design, long-term durability, a true-value owner's budget, and an accurate cost estimate as indivisible project goals. But that honesty is not intrinsic to the IPD method. In fact, if you have the team I just described, the delivery method is purely secondary—you are going to get outstanding results. So, I don't think IPD is essential for most projects—except maybe really big projects, like a bridge or undersea tunnel. But for the typical project, there's an argument for keeping the roles separate.
Peck: But don't the contractors say they have on-the-ground experience in build-ability that can be a solid contribution to the design?
Robison: There's a lot of merit to that, but the input needs to happen toward the end of design development, just prior to the construction document phase. The downside of IPD is that, if the contractor is at the table too early, it becomes all about costs. The design, the program, the functionality, the joy, and delight of the building all suffer. Without trying to sound offensive, if it's typical to disparage architects for only being interested in the beauty of the building, it's also typical to disparage contractors for being interested only in making money. And there's an element of reality to both views. In my experience, having a contractor involved too early becomes, for the architect, an exercise in defensiveness and, for the owner, an erosion of project quality. If the contractor guarantees to the owner early on that he can build the building on-budget according to an architect's still-evolving design, that also means he has to build in contingencies that guarantee he won't go broke (and I don't blame him). The problem is that these contingency funds don't seem to get added back to the kitty, and late in the design, there is no time for the architect's design to go where it could have, should have, gone within an accurate scope and cost estimate. This ends up eviscerating the joy of the design and the functionality of the building.
Pennigar: Referring to your earlier comment, Richard, yes, we're challenged by the speed of technology, but we're even more challenged, I think, by the speed of the design process. The technical-knowledge vacuum you mentioned just gets bigger and bigger with the accelerated, fast-track projects. I suspect this has been a primary driver of IPD model—a sort of “all hands on deck” approach, acknowledging the rapid demand for intellectual capital at every level of the project. But what if our project team lacks critical knowledge? Suppose, for example, that no one really knows what a quality roofing design looks like or costs? How does the building owner know that the team lacks this critical knowledge? For that matter, how does the project team know that they lack this critical knowledge?
Robison: We owe that level of knowledge to you. I'm not defending a generalist-only stance. I'm saying that, where specialized knowledge is needed, we have to develop it or hire it.
Pennigar: And the building owner owes you, Mr. Architect, a higher level of maturity when it comes to our involvement in building design. I think we have tended too much towards price-based decision making as opposed to performance-based. Clearly, affordability and quality will always be in tension and value judgments will inevitably be made. But honestly, we can be our own worst enemy. The owner doesn't have to have all the answers, but we'd better understand the questions. The first question we need to ponder is why anyone believes that going to pricing with 50% drawings and incomplete scope is in the owner's best interest, at least for largely hand-assembled building systems like the roof or building skin!
Robison: You're right on target. You've got it. Real cost numbers—bona fide prices from three, well-qualified subs from each trade based on accurate scope instructions from the CM—don't seem to materialize. Rather, “a number” is identified for each line item, and it takes on a life of its own. The CM says, “That's what it costs—take it or go value engineering.” The remedy here is three-fold: (1) the architect needs to provide a quality-checked set of design development drawings and a set of well-edited short- or long-form specs—you can build the building from these, you know;(2) the CM needs to price what is there and what is reasonably expected in order to build the building; and (3) everybody needs to read and understand the contract. Lacking any one of these three sets up a change order heaven, or hell.
Pennigar: Still, the building owner must take some ownership of design quality. And there are plenty of examples of solid design out there. Richard, you and I became friends in 1996 when you delivered probably the most competent roofing design documents we'd ever seen for one of our new buildings.
Robison: Well thank you, Mr. Owner, though I recall that the roof you're referring to had to be stripped and totally replaced during construction because the roofer ignored our design and installed a defective product. But that's another story….
Pennigar: No, really, it's the same story, Richard. You provided Duke a very detailed and complete set of design documents that were specific to the unique conditions of our project. You “owned” those documents and you became Duke's strong advocate when it became clear that the contractor was executing poorly. The fact that the defective roof was totally replaced by the contractor at no cost to the building owner, and the new roof has performed leak-free for 12 years is a testament to the quality of the architectural product.
But frankly, the experience of too many building owners is far different than that scenario. If we accept incomplete, ambiguous design documents, then we're unlikely to receive a quality product and we've created a very unhealthy environment where the contractor gets to play architect and fill in all the blanks in the design. Our inside code for this is “RFO Design”—Roofer Figure Out. During the past two decades we've seen so much of this approach that we've developed our own in-house expertise for roofing and enclosure design. We simply could not afford to accept weak design and construction of the building enclosure in a patient care setting. Unacceptable. Period.
Peck: Having the owner develop specialized expertise, as Tim describes, sounds like a solution, Richard. What do you make of it?
Robison: I think it's an extraordinarily good one for a large organization, like Duke, which has 100 buildings or more. But it's not a solution for the small owner with one or two buildings. We're paid because we have something that others don't have, and owners without a lot of resources are looking to the architect to provide the expertise.
Pennigar: The smaller, one-and-done owner can still call in an outside consultant for a reasonable fee to review building envelope drawings, for example. But it's true; he trusts the architect to produce a workable building. Hopefully, the architect will have a specialist on the bench.
Peck: Some say that BIM (Building Information Modeling) will, by its very nature, bring participants closer together as partners in the design process. Your thoughts?
Robison: BIM is the wave of the present and of the future. We are adopting it, as are other architects and contractors across the country. It will be evolving for a long time, and we're only beginning to understand how to share this information in our litigation-prone environment. BIM does give us the capability, for the first time, of drawing an entire building, something we've never done with 2-D. But we haven't sorted out yet how fine the resolution will be—it's one thing to show the masonry, another to show the wall brick by brick.
Pennigar: It does sound attractive but the question for me is how integrated will it be—can you make changes to a design element and have it automatically translate into buildable details throughout?
Robison: Compared with sophisticated projects like a Trident submarine or an oil refinery, most architectural firms don't have nearly that level of software. The architectural field is not cohesive enough to fund really powerful, user-friendly interfaces—which is one reason we are years behind compared to ship building and industrial software. Some of the newest-generation architectural software, though, is beginning to develop real power. We'll get there.
Pennigar: As a parting thought, I'd say that, in the immediate future, our best ally in bringing improvement to building design and construction is the green or sustainability movement. I hope we agree that if built assemblies, like roofing systems, aren't suitable and durable then they're not sustainable. Sustainability is our chance to bring some intellectual honesty to the industry, I believe.
Robison: That is one of the most positive developments going in healthcare design. We can now focus on investing in building durable buildings today so that we can save on costs later. No one laughs anymore when you talk about 100-year buildings. They're starting to get it.
Pennigar: It's intuitive, though, that to get that kind of building performance, we have to fix the system. We won't get there if we let the contractors continue to play architect.
Robison: I'll shake on that. HD