A Game of Telephone / by Josh Brincko

Remember that game you played as a kid where you whisper something in your friend's ear, then they whisper to the next kid, and so on, and 10 kids later the original message got hilariously messed up? This is pretty much how construction works. Here's why: 

The client decides to build something and tries to explain their desires to their architect. The architect comes up with a concept to hopefully represent the client's goals. The client doesn't quite understand the typical architect's technical drawings, so there's a lot of info that doesn't get communicated successfully back to the client to ensure it meets the goals. 

Next the architect sends these drawings to builders for pricing. The builders are all really busy and never sure if they will get picked to be THE builder. They also typically do not get paid to provide an estimate. So, they don't read the drawings all that carefully and usually throw out a largely uninformed estimate since they don't want to get too invested in something they are not yet getting paid to do. 

Once the builder gets selected, they need to quickly start building the project, and they barely have time to look into the details and understand the real goals of what the client is really trying to achieve (through the eyes of the architect). It's quite common to be halfway through construction and realize a builder never actually read most of the drawings which communicate exactly what the client wants. Instead, all too often, the builders have only read into the floor plan and elevation drawings which only explain the "big picture" and none of the details like trim, windows, siding patterns, materials, etc. This is ignored partially because the builder knows they are just going to hire a subcontractor to build those details anyway. 

So here's where the breakdown occurs. The architect interprets the client's goals into drawings. The architect hands these technical drawings over to a builder. That builder is a general contractor who gives these drawings to their employee - usually the site superintendent who is privy to NONE of the previous conversations, discussions, emails, decisions, and drawings that have been developed and approved over the past year or two between the architect and client. This site superintendent, who is an expert in construction, is now responsible for interpreting the client's vision into reality from technical drawings which were just handed to him on a rainy, muddy jobsite while being bombarded with emails and phone calls from material suppliers and subcontractors which he must hire, schedule, and coordinate to build whatever might be depicted in the drawings. Needless to say, the site superintendent never really has an opportunity to read deeply into the drawings which are the contract for construction. The site superintendent is also a different breed. This is a hands-on guy who is tasked with building the stuff in the plans as quickly and cheaply as possible. They look for ways to cut corners while also maintaining quality (if that's even possible). They also don't care much about design. They just want to know how many square feet of THIS needs to get nailed to THAT and make sure it doesn't leak. Other than ordering materials and putting them together, they really don't care about the client's vision or even have the information to do so. 

This brings us to the next miscommunication in the game of telephone. The site superintendent hires subcontractors to build various parts of the scope of work. The site super (or the "soop" as many call him) must now communicate the project goals to the subcontractor (called the "sub"). This communication usually merely consists of the site super emailing the plans to the sub. Once the sub receives these plans, he MIGHT read them and even more rarely, may actually print them to share them with his employees who will be performing the actual labor. These hardworking guys are truly a different breed than the client and typical architect. They are tasked with building what their boss tells them with predetermined start times, break times, and quitting times. They work and go home. They don't care about the client's vision or even realize there is a client or a vision. These are the guys building the "vision." Their boss gets a set of plans with 50 or so pages, and they try to find the actual pages that pertain to their specialty such as the siding or the plumbing, for example. When reading the plans, they don't read the whole set. They just try to find the pages they believe pertain to them, and they believe they know what needs to be done. During construction, they commonly find out they missed the more detailed drawings on other pages of the 50 page set of plans which they failed to find earlier.

This is where construction mistakes occur. You hear about construction errors all the time. This is why most of them happen: the person performing the work has not been informed as to what they are supposed to really be doing. So, they just build it "the way it was done last time" and assume that's the way it's supposed to be done this time. 

When these errors occur, how can they be resolved? It's tough, and here's why: The architect, who knows everything about the drawings, spots the flaws first. The architect informs the client to see whether the client is concerned (or to tell the client they NEED to be concerned). The client authorizes action. The architect informs the general contractor of the error. The general contractor tries to sweet talk around it. If the general is unsuccessful, he informs the subcontractor of the error. The sub complains that nobody told them what to build exactly. The architect interjects, "it's right here in the plans. They did their bid based on these plans. You did give your sub our plans I hope?" Then the sub and general contractor discuss in private for awhile to complain about the architect and decide if they are really at fault. The general will tell the sub he should have read the drawings more clearly and will try to convince the sub to fix it. The general must be careful because this is the same subcontractor he uses on every job, so he doesn't want to piss him off and cause him to raise his prices on the next job or hassle him with future scheduling issues on the next job. In the mean time, the general contractor's site superintendent is wondering when someone will just tell them when it will get fixed, so he can schedule the next subcontractor and finish the subsequent phase of the job. The architect must be diligent in spotting the errors and coming up with solutions to solve them. Often times, this requires the architect to come up with a new plan based on the current conditions since it may not be effective to rebuild certain parts of the work. 

As described, this "game of telephone" from the client to the laborer, who works for the subcontractor, results in errors due to the miscommunications that are all too common.

The best way to prevent the errors would be better communication. This could come in two forms: more clear drawings and/or more discussions with the laborers performing the work. We are always trying to make drawings more easy to understand through 3D software and other creative presentation methods. The subs do have to be willing to read the drawings though. Unfortunately, it is not actually possible for the architect to discuss the drawings with the subcontractor or his laborers. The architect does not have any access to these people. The general contractor hires them, and they show up when the site superintendent schedules them. The general contractor would have to arrange meetings with the subcontractor and architect before the start of the job to discuss the particulars of the job that relate to their actual scope of work, but the laborers are busy working on other jobs at that time. This is really the job of the general contractor to have these discussions with the subs before they commence their scope of work, but the general contractors usually don't "get it" in the first place. They just want their sub to get it done since they are technically hiring the sub to make it happen. It's also common language in the general contractor's construction contract that the client is not allowed to communicate with the subs and must only communicate directly with the general contractor. Since the architect is the representative of the client, the architect is therefore not supposed to talk to the subs. 

I don't care about that clause in the contract, and I never have followed it. I understand it can cause undocumented conversations, but the reality is that certain communications and understanding just need to happen. I understand when that level of efficiency is lacking, and I do what it takes to ensure the success of the project. My construction experience enables me to relate to the laborers and speak their language (I'm actually getting pretty good at speaking Spanish too since many of the laborers are from Mexico). I've developed some great relationships with laborers, and now they are actually interested in supporting me and understanding the vision. This is how it comes full circle and the vision is more clear to everyone.