Tom Székely, P.E., LEED AP

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September 18, 2006

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The Never-ending Project, or, Self-Inflicted Root Canal for Fun and Profit, or, “I didn’t know it was going to look like that.”

Part 2 of 2 Parts.


Before getting on to my stuff, I’d like to pick up on the last issue’s description of the problem of an Architect or Interiors person, the “I didn’t know it was going to look like that” in the above title.  I’ve found that have sometimes been surprised at how things look in bricks and mortar, in spite of my having been at this for over forty years, and having been extremely comfortable with the concepts of scale and plans for a dozen years before that.


It seems as though my gut and my brain do not, in spite of all my experience, communicate with each other as well as I would like.  Is it any wonder then, when, even after looking at a 3-D scale model, some people will walk into a space and be floored by how different the reality is from their conception?


I have found that the best way to preclude or minimize such surprises is to point out similarly sized/shaped objects or spaces in the real world around us, when discussing things represented by plans or models.  This probably has to do with humanity having had at least hundreds of thousands of years of experience with the real world, as compared to only a few thousand years at best, of experience with reduced 2 or 3 dimensional representations of that world.  We feel the former, have to think about the latter, and as I said, don’t always manage to translate from one to the other.


Especially because of that difficulty, it behooves us to make every effort to effect and internalize that translation because paper and foam core cost a lot less than bricks and mortar. In extreme cases, full-sized mockups may be necessary, and are in fact employed when the consequences of having to re-do something cannot be tolerated.  Thankfully, most of us are not involved in the construction of spacecraft or submarines, so this is not (usually) such a big deal.


So, let’s say we’ve gotten the construction phase off to a reasonably good start, everybody has a pretty good handle on things, and the process seems to be working towards a common set of expectations as to what its result will be.  Even better, all are reassured and impressed with how well things seem to be going.


OK, OK, OK, okay!


I don’t recall having worked on very many such projects either, but where is it written that we have to end so many projects in a state of shock brought on by the unbelievably difficult experience we’ve just been through?  We don’t, but if you are, you may be contributing to making an already difficult process way tougher than it needs to be.


We all need to keep in mind the fact, that although no two projects are exactly alike, and thus even corporate “cookie cutter” projects like fast food restaurant  or retail franchises have to be custom designed and built to the extent necessary to suit local Codes and the site, even luxury custom homes are reducible to tried techniques and materials.


That is to say, that while certain projects may call for the use of some materials or the design of some systems in ways different from those we may be accustomed to, we’re not usually creating new things out of whole cloth as we might be if we were designing, say, project Apollo’s Lunar Excursion Module.


Or, to use an exceedingly appropriate aphorism; it’s not rocket science.  Every now and then, when I get asked if some thing or another is possible, my reply is of course, if one uses the best building material in the world – money.


Speaking of money with regard to the construction process, particularly addition or alteration work as opposed starting from a hole in the ground, one of the reasons construction cost estimates include something called “contingency” monies is because no design professional or contractor I’ve ever met has x-ray vision.  It’s why not even the builder can guarantee a project will be completed at what was the lump-sum contract price at the time of signing.  What is guaranteed is a fixed price for a fixed scope of work. Field conditions change that scope in the same way that no military plan survives contact with the enemy.


What the planning process is supposed to do, however, is to account for unforeseeable conditions to such an extent as to keep contingency costs in the historically acceptable range of ten percent or so.  Multiples of that amount is indicative that the process has broken down somewhere, which is not to say that good planning can’t be negated by bad execution.


I can’t tell you how often I work hard to help the process along, only to see it come grinding to a halt because of less than conscientious execution of the work in the field, not because of any overt intent to do a bad job, but simply because a builder may be in over his/her head, or may be overextended. 


I have some sympathy for the latter since I’ve been there (and have paid for it).


Then there’s that special hell one may find oneself in if one is working on a project where the scope is being changed  throughout the design process, and, not infrequently, even during construction.  Even this would be tolerable were it not for the fact that at some point in such a project the owner may have spent so much money that he/she may start to resent the design/construction team for not being clairvoyant enough to understand or anticipate what the owner really wanted in the first place.  Finally (and I have a special place in my heart for this one) some of our Public Servants add to the complexity by insisting upon process over content. 


For example, I just recently re-executed some forms for filing with a NYC agency which shall (for now at least) remain nameless because the .pdf’s I downloaded from their website ended up being reduced to 81/2 x 11 (gasp!) rather than the source documents’ 81/2 x 14 when I converted them to editable electronic files.  This takes a special kind of stupid, and, as a certain country comedian recently said, “you can’t fix stupid” – there’s no such thing as smarts augmentation via a brain cell transplant.  Well, if not actually stupid, it bespeaks an appearance of stupidity directly proportional to the degree of insistence upon “this is the way we do things.”


Never mind that (as I’ve harped on countless times before in this publication) it’s my license, not the City employee’s job, nor the City’s vulnerability to a lawsuit, which is on the line.  It must be tough to derive one’s life’s meaning from the exercise of control over others for its own sake.  Oh yeah, back to making the stuff I’m responsible for work as intended.


It is (or should be) a piece of cake. 


I get in trouble when I allow myself to be talked out of my professional opinion and judgment because of a fixation upon the Golden Rule: “The one with the Gold makes the rules.”


If that were true, the rich would never die.



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