Years ago, when I was a young landscape designer in training, I attended an on-site construction meeting in a cramped trailer on a cold January day. Among the meeting attendees were the owner, general contractor, superintendent and two subcontractors. As the meeting churned on, we all discussed some questions the contractor had about the proposed grades at the intersection of a sloping sidewalk, seat wall with a constant elevation, and a nearby ADA access ramp. The collective goal was to make sure that the top of the seat wall didn’t slope, but stepped appropriately where needed, and to keep runoff across the sidewalk and nearby plaza from creating a pool of stormwater at the base of the ramp. The result was the correct one, but it was slightly different than the plans.
An experienced designer knows that the difference between a good final project and a great final project depends upon communication. It’s a bit like two people who speak entirely different languages trying to work together to translate a document that determines their collective fate. Ultimately, if there is an error in the drawings, it becomes a liability for the designer. Likewise, an error in the field becomes a liability for the contractor. It is the vast area between these two that is the most important, because it is the area of possible liability for the owner. A failing in that mid ground can result in a project that doesn’t work the way that it was intended, both visually and functionally.
Obviously, starting with a good design is key, but we are all great designers, right? There is no way to account for every little thing that could go wrong in the field. The very nature of design lends itself to errors of all type and kind. The one and only tool to overcome that hurdle is to establish a good working form of communication between the person who created the plans and the person running the bulldozer.
Public projects are even more challenging in this arena because of the nature of the bidding process. The low bid usually wins the project. However, that doesn’t mean that the owner gets a final product of low quality. I would argue that to achieve a good final project utilizing a low bid, it is paramount that communication between the owner, designer and contractor is good. And it is equally important as a designer to be involved during construction to help control the outcome.
Just as the example in the first paragraph describes, there are often real time conflicts in the field that require a designer and contractor to reevaluate how to bridge the design gap. And, just as we are taught in school as designers to follow the process, we sometimes forget that same principle continues into the field for all projects. For a well-crafted project, there are many challenges that must be overcome, but paramount is the importance of good communication. We all know that most people are great communicators inside the office but carrying that trait into the field can be tricky at times. I’ve put together a few communication rules of thumb to follow that may help keep that process clear and keep a project on track.
Maintain contact. We’ve all heard the saying before that no news is good news, but it doesn’t always hold true during construction. Make sure that too much time doesn’t pass between checking in with the owner, designer and contractor on a project. Staying in contact, even if it’s only an email twice a month, will help to keep the line of communication open and, more likely than not, will result in fewer missteps along the way.
Ask questions. This goes for both the designer and the contractor. I can’t tell you how many times a wrong assumption is made because no one thought to ask. Contractors will ask if they really don’t understand something in the drawings, but there is nothing wrong in a designer asking if something is clear. Both designer and contractor are equally responsible for initiating discussion and questions that arise during construction.
Be clear and consistent. Nearly all facets of our lives benefit from consistency. This is no different when it comes to communication during a project. Typically, the first time a designer and a contractor meet is during the pre-construction meeting. This is the time to be clear and consistent. Establish a precedent at that first meeting and then continue that consistency all the way to project closeout.
Remember, don’t let too much time pass between calling or emailing, don’t be afraid to ask questions, and be clear and consistent with your understanding of what is expected and what needs to occur. These three tips make up the majority of good communication, which ultimately leads to good projects. We as designers may practice good communication in the office, but it must carry over into the field if we are to successfully hurdle the problems that arise during construction.
About Anthony Pappas, RLA
Anthony Pappas, RLA, ASLA, is a Project Manager for the Greenspace and Land Design Division at Foresite Group. He graduated from University of Georgia with his Bachelor’s degree in Landscape Architecture, and has been working at Foresite Group for over 8 years. Anthony loves his work because he loves the outdoors. He is often found exploring the North Georgia Mountains for great hikes or bike trails with his family. He also has special interests in park and trail design and historic preservation projects.