The Role of the Architect: To Observe and Protect

I am going to discuss the role of the architect in the construction observation process, during the construction phase of project.

The architect in most normal contracts is responsible for the design of the building. This entails the part of the design most people imagine, the layout, the elevations, the material selections and basic systems. However design also involves the integration of the local and national codes, laws and ordinances that must guide the design. From the first drafts plans of the building these codes must be part and parcel of the design. The number of exits, the width of corridors, the ramps between levels, the size of bathrooms to comply with the ADA, the fire separations between uses, the overall size of the building, and many other factors. This is part of the design.

When the design is approved by the jurisdiction with authority (a city, county, etc.), it is issued a permit that basically states this design is approved as shown in the plans, and inspections will compare the construction to the approved plans. Making the construction conform to the plans is the role of the Contractor.

The architect during the construction phase may be contracted by the owner to observe the construction, to make sure it conforms to design intent. There is a major difference between observing construction and inspecting it. Inspection is the certification that every step in process has yielded an assembly that meets the minimum standards specified in the code. Observation is keeping a record of progress, and notifying the client and general contractor that there are items that do not conform to the design intent.

For example, on one hotel project we had a corridor wall that was to rated 1-hour, and to have an STC of 55. (Sound Transference Coefficient) The wall was the product of off site construction, built in a factory. The contractor installed it backwards. I noted this and contacted the structural engineer for his opinion. His opinion was that it didn’t matter structurally. The wall had what is know as a sound clip, it separates the drywall from the studs to cut the transfer of noise through the wall. Instead of running continuous along the corridor it was running on the room side, interrupted at each unit demising wall. I had to inform the client and the contractor that the walls did not meet design intent, (the location of the channel that should deliver the STC 55 required by the hotel franchise) but would probably pass inspection. (still maintained the 1-hour rating and performed structurally).

This left the client to decide what to do next; have the contractor disassemble the wall sheeting and rebuild it – wasting time, but meeting his franchise requirements, or let it slide and hope it made negligible difference in the long run. As it turned out this mistake did pass inspection, because it met the minimum requirements of the code. As far as the STC rating, unless expensive and controlled experiments are performed by an acoustical engineer it would be hard to determine objectively how the wall performs. But it leaves the client room to sue the contractor if subjectively noise is an issue that effects his business – the evidence is the record of the construction that did not meet design intent.

That’s the role of the architect in this process, to record observations about the conduct and product the contractor is providing to the client. The architect documents for the benefit of the client what is being done without making claims as to the prospect of the certification of the product. We can further serve the client by giving our opinions and professional advice to remedies to meet the design intent of the documents.