If you were to back 10 architects in to a corner, hold a gun to their collective heads and ask:
“When it comes to Architecture, what really matters?”
What sort of answer do you think you’d get in response? You might have to pistol whip a few of them but they would eventually say “The Big Picture.”
Again, we’re talking Architecture here, not World Peace or the fair treatment of lesser beasts. Architecture is a combination building science and art, and when done properly, it has an impact on the greater of society beyond the individuals who simply occupy the space. This is not just about aesthetics, this is about a myriad of things that shape the people who use the building, those who see the building, those who built the building, and those who designed the building.
Did I leave anybody out??
Like all things worth thinking about, the really good topics simmer and percolate for a long time, and I will admit, my thoughts today aren’t fully baked. Since I work primarily on residential projects, I am going to keep my analogies and examples to that area of practice, but today’s topic can apply to just about any field with a creative focus. I have been extremely fortunate over the last 14 years to work on some tremendous residential projects, and for the vast majority of them, they all share a similar trait (other than “I have worked on them”). Almost all of my projects have a dedicated site superintendent.
For those of you who might not know, a site superintendent is a person who works for the contractor (they might actually be the contractor), but this person shows up at the site every day and stays there all day long to manage the work and the sub-contractors. The most important role they play is that they alone are responsible for coordinating every facet of the project and making sure that A flows in to B, and B flows in to C, and so on. More times than not, they are the keeper of the “Big Picture,” and they know my projects better than I know them.
Wait a minute – that can’t possibly be right. The contractor (site superintendent) knows my project better than I do?!?
If they are any good they do.
So how is this possible? At any given time, I might be working on 10 different jobs and a good day is one where I get to work on just 2 or 3 of them. The site superintendent only has this 1 project. They get the time to think through the entire project and determine how the work should flow, when sub-contractors should come on site, and most importantly, they get to look for possible conflicts and challenges between design intent and the eventual execution.
The very best projects that I have ever worked on had the very best site superintendents … and that isn’t a coincidence.
On the handful of projects where I didn’t have a full time superintendent, those required a lot more real-time coordinating and on-the-fly adjusting. If the superintendent is managing 2 or 3 (maybe even 4) projects at a time, their knowledge is rarely superior to my own. They’ll show up at a project site, see who’s there and what they’re doing – possibly give some direction, but then they’re off to the next job site to repeat that pattern. More times than not, their efforts are spent chasing down subcontractors and pushing paperwork – not coordinating work between the various trades. Since the superintendent has divided attention, it is really left up to the sub-contractors to coordinate their scope of work – but that’s when you have coordination issues. Sub-contractors (hopefully) coordinate their work, but they will rarely consider how their work flows in to the next trade … and you can forget about them being concerned with how their work flows in to some other sub-contractor’s scope 10 steps down the road.
So what happens when you don’t have a full-time superintendent? Nobody really owns the project from a construction standpoint, and as a result, there’s an incomplete “Big Picture” view of the project. Full-time superintendents look further than 1-step ahead and make sure that the project isn’t being built without consideration for how the project will come together. This is particularly important when working on modern style projects because their execution requires a high level consideration for how all the parts come together. Modern homes, with their clarity often mistaken for simplicity, are extremely difficult to build.
The skill level needed from the contractor to plan ahead and adjust for dimensional “nuances” (i.e. the joint pattern of the tile aligns with the window layout and that there isn’t any remnant pieces of leftover tile just before you get to the corner.) Do you think the framer is considering the tile pattern? Actually, do you think the framer even knows that there is a tile pattern? Ever noticed that the openings in brick walls are the exact same size of the windows, that no bricks had to be cut? This means that the placement of every window in that wall was perfectly located months before any bricks even showed up on site … and it isn’t the architect that makes this level of execution happen – it’s the site superintendent.
Being able to look at the big picture takes skill, and it requires time to allow the site superintendent to familiarize themselves with all aspects of the drawings and the overall job. At the end of the day, I am only as good as the contractors I work with, and as a result, I put in as much effort as I can to work with them in the manner that they like to work so that we have the sort of execution of the project that we require. If the site superintendent is working 3 other projects, there’s only so much they are going to be able to do – things will be missed and items will be left uncoordinated.
Not all projects require this level of attention – but the nature and complexity of my projects typically do … I guess I’m just lucky that way.
Good luck (to us all),