Hiring the Architects You’d Play Golf With

CarolinaFireJournal - By Jim McClure
By Jim McClure
01/10/2015 -

(This is part nine of an ongoing series.)

Last issue we discussed the Construction Document (CD) phase of the design process. Referring back to the American Institute of Architects, I will repeat the last sentence of the definition.


“The construction document phase produces a set of drawings that include all pertinent information required for the contractor to price and build the project.”

I have bolded the three most important and most disregarded words in that sentence. I have yet to see a CD set that fulfilled that mandate. There is always the conflict between time and money. The more time it takes to get the CDs right the more you will pay the architect. On the other end, if you don’t have enough information in the plans and spec book the contractor will be triggering Change Orders (CO) and you will have to OK them if you want the project finished, let alone finished right and on time. On time because if you or your documents are the cause of delays the contractor can and will be charging you for the additional time. The contractor will be buying a new boat by the end of the job. The firm I used as an example last issue was the worst offender. I ended last issue’s story by referring to another firm. This month I write about the golfing architects.

I liked this firm’s work before I met them or even knew who they were. I had seen photos of one of their firehouses about 200 miles away and really liked it. It reminded me of a lot of old buildings were I grew up near Philly.

This brings us to the interview process. It is similar to the oral interviews we all have to deal with during the promotional process. The interview team has preset questions we ask every firm that comes in.

Typically, the firms make their presentation first. They talk about what their team can do for your department, their strengths and experience. Sound familiar? They will have an audiovisual show of their best firehouses and perhaps other buildings if they think the architecture style is pertinent to your project. During the slide show I recognized a firehouse I had seen before. My reaction reminded me of when I sat on the other side of the promotional table and a candidate really nails an answer. They had my attention. At this point they projected a proposed vision of what they thought our new firehouse could look like.

They had made a trip to our site, took photos, and with the help of Goggle Earth and Photoshop placed their proposed design onto the site. Very impressive, we did not see that much preparation previously.

After the power point show we asked our questions but we didn’t have to ask them all. They had already provided us with the answers to some of them during their presentation just like a good promotional candidate. When I was studying for the captain’s test years ago one of our BCs said the hard part of scoring an oral interview was for the candidates who did not do as well but that the winners were easy because they were obvious.

This was one of those times. We all agreed this was the team we wanted for this station.

After the interview I contacted a captain in a nearby department who they were working for at the time. This is the guy who told the story about the architects who spent the night at his house and played golf with him. I think that is a hell of a recommendation in anybody’s book. The captain was also a general contractor. If anybody knew how to deal with the design and construction process it was Mike. By the way, these two came dressed as if they were headed for the golf course, no suits and no ties. They were the most laid back architects I ever met. That attitude played out throughout the entire design and construction process.

Preparing for this article, I realized I have referred to this firm more than once. In the Spring 2014 issue it was their project that was affected by the Crew Memo I shared with you. In the Winter 2014 issue two of the three drawings on page 48 were theirs. The hand drawn floor plan in the middle was presented to us very quickly after the contract was signed.

These two were the first firm (out of nine) to build a model of the firehouse they were designing. I believe I mentioned previously that some people cannot “see” what the two dimensional drawings are showing them. A three dimensional model is the only way some people understand what they are getting.

I recommend budgeting for the construction of one. It is very informative and can prevent surprises that can only occur during construction when there is something for everyone to see. It is much cheaper to pay for the model than to pay to have a wall re-framed because it is framed wrong or in the wrong place. A really good model allows the roof to lift off to see the interior. If it is a two story, you should be able to lift off the second floor also to see the details of the first floor.

I know that if I had seen models of a couple of our early projects they would look different today. At the very least, ask for partial models of rooms that you suspect are too small to function. I wish I did. My second installment in the Spring 2013 issue refers to this problem.

I know not everyone will like the style of this firehouse but it fit in with the architecture of the neighborhood while still having what is called “Civic Presence.”

Goggle architectural scale models to get an idea how models can look and the level of the detail they can provide.

None of what I have written so far means that this project was perfect or the design process was the shortest we had. On the contrary, this firehouse took longer than most but it was not due to the architects. This is the same building that we spent a year trying to design a remodel before everyone gave up on that idea. This was before this architectural firm was hired. After the basic floor plan was drawn up there were months of back and forth on the layout of the living space both downstairs and up.

How many bedrooms, where do the stairs go, is the BC staying here or moving to another firehouse? Does it meet our own fire code? All these questions needed answers that only we could provide, not the architect.

This building went through the same VE process as others right before we went to bid.

A year ago I said this process can take about a year. This one took two. We actually had the architects stand down while the fire department and the city figured out what we could afford. Ironically, that actually cost us money. There were start up costs for the firm after our project sat for six months. In the same period, construction costs were estimated to have gone up by $60,000.

One of the strangest parts of this conversation was whether to keep the BC here. It was decided to move them to the next firehouse over. That required me to construct temporary facilities for the BC and the engine company. That project is a story I’ll tell another time.

All through this drama the firm kept plugging away. They got the same long excel sheets from me with corrections and questions. The differences between this project and the one I detailed last issue were like night and day. After sending a particularly long mark up sheet their response was to just get on the phone and we spent over two hours going line by line to clear everything up in the shortest amount time. I did not get the “next version” delay that the other architects pushed. I did not get an, “It is too late, Jim.” I did not get the “it will cost you more” request. What I got was answers and cooperation.

They did not object to a couple of major electrical sub-panels installed in the hallway wall on the second floor. Some of the architects I worked with would have a heart attack if I proposed that. I have mentioned how much coordination time it takes to layout the apparatus bay ceiling. With so much equipment hanging up there you have to account for all of it to insure that it functions when it needs to. That was resolved in another single long phone call. As the CD process preceded from 50 thru 90 to 100 percent we fine-tuned the plans and solved problems along the way.

Designing and building a firehouse is just like life. There are life lessons with every new experience. This building was no different. In the Fall 2013 issue I wrote about requiring a mandatory walkthrough with all the sub-contractors before the concrete was poured and before the sheetrock was hung. This was to make sure all the pipes, conduits, wires, etc. were the right size and in the right place.

This station gave me a new mandatory task. And re-enforced that this is a game of inches.

The day room in this station was designed to have low staging in it to elevate the second and third rows of the sofas. The staging was selected because it would fit within the design dimensions of the room. It also could be broken down if the room was being used for another purpose and needed to be empty. There was a note on the plan set referring to the clear space needed by these risers. I do not recall if I measured from wall to wall when the stud walls were rough framed. If I did it appeared to be wide enough. (You can see where I am going here, can’t you?) Flash forward months in the future and I get a call that the risers are too wide, won’t fit and asking if I ordered the wrong ones. By the time I got to the job site, someone else had measured the width of the room and found the room was one inch too narrow. And, no, we could not just take the sheetrock off both walls!

The lesson here is to confirm the dimensions of ANY room that is expecting to have furniture, fixtures or equipment squeezed into it. I should have known better. I always double-checked the size of the decon room due to the 99 inch long sink we were specifying. This was the first time I used the risers and it was not on my radar.

The new risers were re-assigned to the training center.

Jim McClure is the owner of Firehouse Design and Construction (FD&C). The mission of FD&C is “to help firefighters, architects and government agencies design and build maintainable, durable, and most importantly, functional firehouses.” McClure’s career in public safety spans almost 29 years. For more information visit, www.firehousedesignandconstruction.com, call 408-603-4417 or email [email protected].
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