3. Ethics and the “Shop Drawing” anecdote (an editorial, 041421)
(disclaimer: this document is solely the opinion of George Wilkinson and Wilkinson Building Adviors, and does not represent that of any of its clients or employees)
Ethics: “Moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity”
Morals: “Standards of behavior or beliefs concerning what is acceptable”
Professional: “A person competent in a particular activity”
Overview and Summary
This is the third in a three part series addressing best practices and ethics in the AEC business community (“Architecture/Engineering/Construction”)
The premise of this essay is that the traditional organization of design and construction in the US is deeply flawed and as such creates ethical dilemmas for professionals. Insomuch as this author’s professional practice is devoted to working along the entire line of action (from early design to construction completion), an anecdote will be used to illustrate a common ethical issue: the effective and productive use of shop drawings
This essay draws heavily on the 1) McKinsey Global Institute’s publication entitled “Reinventing construction; a route to higher productivity” (February 2017), 2) McKinsey and Company’s “Agile delivery of capital projects” published a part of the “Voices on infrastructure; The project of the future” (September 2020), and “Project Fitness Guidelines” published at www.WilkinsonAdvisors.com.
The industry as context
McKinsey et al argues that the industry is a poster child of misaligned contract incentives and obligations that leads to persistent low productivity relative to national and international baselines.
• Contracts often define and reinforce functional silos
• Balky contract frameworks are resistant to effective management by Owners (the ones who pay the bills
• The industry is digitally illiterate
• Project team contracts often mis-allocate risk and incentives
Within the traditional project apparatus lies a work flow called “submittals”, commonly known as “shop drawings.” Shop drawings in the ideal sense are the record documents intended to inform the field operations at a detail level. Shop drawings lie on the opposite end of the spectrum from conceptual design drawings.
The Architect’s dilemma and liability
Architect’s can afford to practice only to the extent that they can afford and purchase professional liability insurance. Error and omissions (“E and O”) insurance is a part of the insurance package. Architect’s face powerful incentives to avoid claims against their E and O, the life blood of their practice.
The span of managerial control for an Architect to hold contracts for and manage a range of supporting disciplines is contractually tenuous at best.
Basic problem solving methodology defines this issue well (e.g Dittmar, School of Architcture, University of Minnesota circa 1972). Moving from concepts to details is hard work. 5 concepts beget 5000 details from architecture/engineering point of view. On the face of it, it is impossible for a single knowledge/skill professional to know it all. From an operations perspective: production architectural practice is the quintessential “horizontal” job description; knowing enough about many technical areas to knit together a “whole” project is a daunting task.
Now comes shop drawings (the anecdotal lesson)
In the traditional form, contracts require that Architects and their subconsultants (often a pyramid configuration with Architects at the contract apex) “approve” shop drawings and pass on the detailed documents as instructions to the Contractor. This approving of instructions to the Contractor has been the source of endless contract disputes in the case where the Architect and Contractor’ agreements are held by the Owner and administered by its representative. In response to this impasse, lawyers for architects have crafted shop drawing approval stamps employing tortured language to shield their clients (architects) from liability. (An interesting corollary question is” “Who then bears the liability?”)
In other words the contract structures themselves assure “siloed” behavior that ultimately is a disservice to the entity paying bills, aka the “Owner.” In all fairness the role the architect assumes is flawed and unmanageable leading costly disconnects. Law text books are full of examples and many lawyers are well paid to join the conversation.
(As detailed aside, the standard of practice at Wilkinson Building Advisors is that the role of architect approval of shop drawings is to assure dimensional consistency while respecting the technical roles of various participating specialties; more on this in other posts. Take a look at a more detailed example in the appendix to this essay)
Paradigm shifts required
My post entitled “Sound and Ethical Business Practices for Integrated Services (revised April 2021) describes business history that led to the emergence of new business forms in the last century. The role of the architect as Master Builder began to morph into other business forms. This came to pass despite the resistance by the AIA (the architects professional society). So-called design-build project formats became common. These changes addressed many of obstacles cited in the McKinsey essays including:
• alignment of incentives by contract
• creation of cross functional teams in place of silos
• streamlining of managerial actions
• replacing linear and gated processes with resilience matrix
Not surprisingly, this paradigm shift helped solve fundamental shop drawing processes. With the Contactor and designers aligning concepts and their related details, many destructive and artificially gated processes were eliminated. Passing instructions downstream was simply eliminated by definition.
Horizontals become a best practice
In this writer’s opinion the evolution of the AEC industry’s (Architecture/Engineering/Construction) contract standards of practice have moved past the design/bid/build to design/build paradigm and on to new types of organizations. Management lingo calls the solution a “horizontal organization” that is essentially flat and built around cross-functional teams. (This writer uses the term “vertical organization” to mean that all essential skills and knowledge are in a single operational entity without regard to formal reporting structure.)
Note that McKinsey argues for cross functional teams as part of needed paradigm shift. Lest the reader believe that “cross-functional teams” is a new idea, I cite the “studio system” applied by architectural firms last century as an example. In that case, all needed design disciplines were located in the same space.. a studio. A shoulder-to-shoulder work effort sometimes resulted. Architects learned engineering-speak and engineers also loved design (as well as analysis). Note however that despite the application of this progressive concept, builders were seldom in the room.
The COVID era has put a new an interesting spin on what is a “horizontal organization”; how does a multi-functional team Zoom? What efficiencies are gained and when is the social loss a net negative on creativity and productivity? This writer suspects that that COVID will reduce the amount of space owned and rented and the amount of drive time to the “office.” “Virtuality” is now in play.
The potential for virtual work flows now changes business structures. Just as music recording and storage technologies upended the music industry and word processing and file distribution changed the print publication industry, project platforms will change the AEC industry. Margins are too thin to waste money on rent and gasoline.
The anecdotal example of shop drawing management is an example of the stubborn Gordian knot into which the AEC industry has twisted itself. Liability management and insurance was the stuff of paralysis. The result was reduced value for all participants: Owners and service providers alike. Contract struggles arose and persist.
New business forms are emerging that hold the promis e of increased productivity.
Note that this author has posted a series of related advocacy articles. In particular, see the downloadable “Project Fitness” worksheet posted at www.wilkinsonadvisors.com. Here are some additional notable and related posts on George Wilkinson’s Linked in space.
• “Fix your Project”
• “Essay to Owners: Get it Right Before Spending Money”
Appendix A Example and details about shop drawings
A good example of design and shop drawing details is that of mechanical equipment in a plenum. (Plenum means the space above the finished ceiling and below the structure of the floor above.)
Best practice for the architect is to provide layered space for services, e.g. lights, communication cabling, hvac ductwork etc. With these definitions in mind the job of the architect when reviewing hvac submissions (shop drawings) is to provide basic “interference” checks; e.g. sis the ductwork layout dimensionally consistent with the layer plan? The architect’s job is NOT to review the overall size of the ductwork to meet indoor temperature requirements.