Field Notes

Let’s Work Together: “Help! We need somebody! Help! WE NEED EVERYBODY.”

By Chuck Knickerbocker

With apologies to Messrs. Lennon and McCartney, go and download the Beatles’ song, “Help.” If that’s not a description of what I’ve experienced in this crazy glazing industry, I don’t know what is. We can’t do it alone. We all need each other’s help.

Case in point: At a recent glazing industry roundtable, an architect, a general contractor, a glazing subcontractor and a framing supplier were commenting on the degree of cooperation required to design, fabricate and install exterior building envelopes successfully. As you can imagine, each of them came at this from a different perspective.

To achieve the goal, the roundtable focused on cooperation, listening to all parties and responding to everyone’s concerns. Accomplishing this task is one thing. To reach the point where walls don’t leak or fall off, and where they provide the necessary thermal separation between exterior and interior, is another thing altogether. I don’t think we recognize the herculean effort it takes on everyone’s part to create successful exterior building envelopes.

  • The owner.
  • The architect.
  • The GC.
  • The consultant.
  • The glazing sub.
  • The manufacturer.
  • The fabricator.
  • The installer.

Who’d I leave out? We all play an important role.

Over the course of my career I’ve sat on just about every side of the exterior building envelope discussion. I’ve talked it over as a subcontractor and manufacturer, and while preparing shop drawings and working with installation crews. I’ve also discussed it with architects and general contractors as a consultant. There are so many ways it doesn’t go right. As I near the end of my career, I want to go down fighting: We have got to get this process fixed. From the detailing in the construction documents and the shop drawings, all the way through execution, let’s fix the whole of “the process” for time and all eternity. Anybody else game?

For example, just a couple of days ago I was reviewing a situation on a jobsite that was about to go south. I had to backtrack through the construction documents, shop drawings, installation manuals, photos and questions from the installers. Despite everyone’s best intentions, it was still not getting built properly. Then, news broke that a general contractor was suing an architect for allegedly improperly detailing the transition details, claiming undue delays and added costs.

While it’s easy to focus on the contractual obligations of who does what—knowing full well it may take a trip to the courthouse to sort that out after a job goes bad—let’s set aside the legal for the purposes of this discussion. Let’s focus on how to work together to avoid this problem.

For instance, if a set of construction documents comes in and the transition details aren’t practical or workable, who should call this to the attention of the team? What if no one identifies this as a problem, or the GC puts the transition details into the work scope of a sub? Or, what happens if the subcontractor’s shop drawings don’t detail the transition correctly, and/or install it the way the architect detailed it, and the system eventually leaks? Rhetorical question: Who is responsible to fix it?

First, and this goes for whoever you are, be it an owner, architect, GC or sub: Waiting for the proverbial, “it’s something we’ll try and get up to speed on or learn to do tomorrow” is too late!

If you don’t understand transition details, now is the time to figure them out. This is true whether your design, construction or subcontracting firm is a big player or a smaller one, with a growth strategy taking you into larger venues. Few things will stunt growth faster than one “uh-oh” project that ruins your reputation. The cost of an outside resource to get you and your company up to speed is worth the investment. You can do 1,001 things right, but just one misstep can easily wipe all that good out (and, possibly your company).

No matter where you sit around the table, whether you are an architect, detailer, GC or owner, you have a stake in getting the design-and-build process right. If you see something going wrong today or tomorrow, raise your hand, make the call, get every-one around the table and get it worked out! Your future depends on it. If you’re on the end of the chain, call the architect and explain why the details don’t work. Don’t build it just because it’s down on paper.

Bad detailing—and other factors impacting the design—does not need to stay bad. There might be some soft-soaping and politicking necessary to get the changes implemented. But, we are all responsible for working together to create good designs. There’s another Beatles song, maybe not as appropriate as “Help,” but the sentiment is right: “Come Together, Right Now…”

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