Avoiding Risk for A&Es – Famous Sports Adage Is Key

As a twist to Jack Dempsey’s famous quote: “The best defense is a great offense.” This is how you get good at avoiding risks from contractors.

Being proactive during the construction and execution of your design reduces your risk, helps projects run more smoothly, and will save your clients a lot of money and aggravation.

As an architect, the more control you have over the construction process, the greater the chance of enjoying a highly successful project while making your client happy.

Okay, Steve. If this protects the owner so much, then why aren’t more firms doing this?

Good question. There are usually one of two reasons:

  1. Owners simply don’t know (“I don’t want to spend the money”).
  2. Owners don’t have a broad enough vision to recognize that by investing a little extra for your services during construction, your effort will save them a bundle of cash.

I know that the notion of “overseeing” a project may sound a bit out-of-the-box. After all, very often, once the designer has submitted the plans, the owner and contractor do not involve them in the process, avoiding risk as much as they should.

Yet, the trend is starting to shift. More savvy owners are realizing what a huge mistake it is for architects to be marginalized once construction begins. It’s been proven repeatedly that when clients give design professionals a bigger role, everyone involved reaps massive benefits. I’m talking about potentially saving tons of money and avoiding unnecessary risk and hassle. For example, a $12.5 million safety building was constructed with a mere $40,000 in change orders (half of which were owner-driven changes)!

This approach quickly gains steam as more owners realize its immense value.

A common misconception in avoiding risk

As you know, standard AIA contracts do not require or expect architects to visit construction sites very often. Even when they visit, they’re not obligated to “inspect”, only to “evaluate and observe”.

Yet surprisingly, many owners and developers mistakenly “assume” that architects are in charge of quality control. In addition, when architects are awarded a project, they sometimes don’t want to “rock the boat” by discussing potential risks and explaining their limited role during CA. As a result, owners fall into a false sense of security–mistakenly believing that the architect is the “Master builder.” In other words, they think they rely on the architect to ensure quality control. In reality, they rely on the contractor and foreman to build with quality in mind.

The traditional old-school approach may save money at the outset. Yet it’s at the expense of increased risk while potentially making everyone’s life more complicated.

To be perfectly blunt, when architects are not involved in the execution, things get screwed up.

What to do if you’re not in charge

Despite the benefits of giving architects an enhanced role, many owners are not ready to veer from the old-school approach, and that’s perfectly fine. The most important thing is to set expectations and be completely TRANSPARENT with your client before starting the project.

Explain that the standard AIA contract states that the architect must “go out to the job site at the appropriate stage of construction to evaluate the progress and quality of the work.”

There is a big difference between observing and inspecting. Since you will only be there occasionally, contractors may try to cut corners and ignore your plans, and they’ll have plenty of time to hide their work between your visits. They may use cheap materials or skip a step they view as “unnecessary.” If they hire unskilled, inexperienced, or incompetent subs, that could lead to massive problems.

Seemingly “small” details can lead to major headaches and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Issues may only creep up years later, with each party blaming the next and lawsuits galore. Lawyers win big at everyone else’s expense–especially everyone’s favorite scapegoat, the A/E.

For example, a contractor may decide to use a different waterproofing system for the roof than the one specified in the plans. What’s the big deal, right? It may take a year or two, but if the roof eventually leaks, leading to water damage, I don’t need to tell you what can happen next. By the time it shows up, it is difficult and costly to trace the source of the problem and who messed up. You could end up on the hook even though you may not be responsible, wasting your time and money.

That’s just one of many examples when it comes to avoiding risk. (As a risk management specialist, I hear all the horror stories.)

I strongly urge you, before construction begins, to go over the Construction Phase of the contract with the owner–make sure they understand that “We won’t always be there, we won’t see everything.”

In the best-case scenario, the owner may have some strategies for avoiding risk and foresight to give you a larger role in construction while compensating you for your time as well. If that does not happen, the owner should, at least, have a greater sense of expectation, and hopefully, you won’t be blamed for things that are beyond your control.

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