More Information on Each Page

            One idea to create more user-friendly plans is to use the open space on each page of the plans for adding details and schedule tables that apply to that page.

Why should field people flip back and forth from the floor plans to a back page containing details and schedules…when plenty of room on the floor plan page itself exists for this information?

If the architectural plans first floor has a note saying “see structural S6.4”…why not have this structural detail cut-and-paste on to some open space on this architectural first floor page?

And why can’t printing occur on both sides of a page?  The floor plan, for example, could be on the right side of an opened set of plans…and the applicable details and schedule tables could be printed on the reverse side of the previous page.

These details, tables, and schedules can be reduced in size to fit around the open spaces to suit each particular page…yet still retained in their correct scale in their normal location in the plans.

With some new and original re-thinking in terms of plans layout…the total number of pages of building plans might be cut by one-third…making each set of plans cheaper, lighter, and easier to use on the jobsite.

User-Friendly Design Plans

            As a construction superintendent or project manager…one of the activities I typically do at the start of a new project is to cut up an entire set of plans…make reduced copies of architectural and structural details…make reduced copies of door, window, shear panel, and other schedule tables…and then clear-tape them judiciously on the pages of another clean set of plans.

I also use colored pencils to color-code and highlight detail call-outs on the plans…such as anchor bolt spacing, hold-downs, post anchors, shear panel nailing, 3-inch thick mudsills, similar door sizes, similar window sizes, structural beams and posts, etc.

Finally, I sketch various parts of the building that I think are more clearly illustrated in three-dimensions…and clear-tape these illustrations on to the appropriate page of the working set of plans I am adding reduced details to and color highlighting.

I do this cut-and-paste operation at the start of a new project…because it prevents having to continually flip pages back and forth from the floor plans to the architectural and structural details…with the possibility of missing some important information.

This process of mine tells me that building design plans as traditionally formatted are not organized to provide the optimum clarity and ease of use for the people who count the most…the supervisors, forepersons, and tradespeople in the field who assemble the buildings.

At the start of every new project, many mistakes occur simply because someone did not follow the chain of information all the way through five or six different pages of the plans…and thus missed a particular detail or note.

If our goal is to improve the construction by minimizing potential construction mistakes…then the format and layout of building plans needs to become more user-friendly.

Considering the costs of correcting construction mistakes in terms of time and money…everything possible should be done to make building plans clear and easy to follow.  Why should assembly instructions for children’s $10 or $20 plastic model airplanes or battleships be better illustrated and more foolproof…than design plans for a $40 million tract housing project?

City Plan Checks and Quality

            Another common misconception regarding the accuracy of design plans is the assumption that a stamped set of approved plans is buildable simply because they passed a city plan check looking for building code and planning department violations.

This misconception is fueled by the natural economic impatience of the builder to break ground…an over-confidence in the accuracy level of a typical set of plans…and a misunderstanding of the extent of a city plan check.

During the preconstruction phase…the builder and the architect mistakenly over-emphasize getting the plans through city plan check…as if that is the acid-test of the accuracy and buildability of the design plans.  Although the city plan check is very important…it is not all-inclusive.

The city plan check focuses only on the building codes and standards of construction that involve life and safety considerations…along with issues such as zoning, planning, building heights, view corridors, tree preservation, and artistic restrictions (such as exclusive use of clay barrel tiles on all roofs).

The city plan checker does not verify whether dimensions add up correctly across the page, whether a beam is placed directly below a bathroom toilet, whether windows are designed too close to wall corners that built-in cabinet bookshelves will crash with ceiling crown molding, and whether or not stairs are positioned correctly to provide enough legal vertical headroom, and hundreds of other quality related issues that fall outside of the scope of a city plan check.

These potential mistakes are design and construction concerns rather than code problems (except when they surface as code corrections during building inspections)…and are assumed to have already been checked by the architect…they fall outside the parameters of the city plan check.

Architectural Quality Checks

            One of the by-products of the misconceptions discussed above is that architects and engineers receive free quality-control corrections at the expense of the builder.

Untold hours are spent in the field by the builder’s superintendents, subcontractors, and tradespeople debugging the plans at the start of each project.

Many design errors (except for genuine bugs difficult to identify) are discovered by the tradespeople or the superintendents before each phase of the work begins…ahead of the work itself unearthing problems and mistakes as it unfolds.  If people in the field can discover design problems while still on paper, the architect should likewise be able to find many of these same problems and fix them using debugging checklists compiled by the builder/client…and through constructability analysis with the builder’s field staff.

The fundamental problem with debugging design plans can be traced back to the specialization and separation of the design/build team.  The master builder of the past…who designed and built a building with the construction in mind…is now split into two camps.

As long as the architect does not actually build their design and in the process discover first-hand the number and adverse impact of errors and omissions…today’s architect and engineers are not held accountable for the many problems and inaccuracies that are solved in the field.

Exterior Elevations 1

The pre-cast lower sill piece and wrought-iron decorative handrail projects…extends…beyond the angled wall corner.  This window could have been designed 6 inches more to the left…to prevent this condition.

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Management’s Role in Debugging Plans

            Housing development company owners and managers can lead the way in ensuring the accuracy level of the design plans.  Probably in no other area is upper management in a better position to help improve quality and efficiency in the construction…than to secure good building plans.

Two common misconceptions exist in the building industry, however, that tend to obscure and excuse design errors.  These must be understood before any progress can be made.

The first misconception is the idea that it is the expected duty of field people to take incomplete, inaccurate, and unclear plans and work out all the bugs during construction.

It is widely believed that it is easier and cheaper for the tradespeople to “coordinate”…to work out the design kinks during construction…than it is for the architect and engineers to spend the time to get the design totally correct while still on paper.  In this mindset it is taken for granted that architects and engineers can advance their designs graphically (and economically) only so far on two-dimensional paper…and then the people in the field must resolve the remaining omissions and errors in three-dimension as the construction progresses.

Many people both inside and outside of the industry believe that part of the satisfaction of working in the field comes from solving design and construction mistakes.

The stereotypical advertisement in the newspaper that shows a sketch of several people with their shirt sleeves rolled-up, blueprints under the arm, looking through a builder’s level or pointing and giving directions…implies that solving problems in-the-moment in the reactive mode in the field is both satisfying and expected…misconception number two.

If we are to take seriously the goal of approaching the machine-like efficiency of the fixed assembly-line in mass-production manufacturing…with a minimum of bugs…then it must be accepting that there is nothing thrilling or romantic about fielding incoming nuts-and-bolts problems in-the-moment…that surface without warning from the design plans.