Architects and engineers are highly trained individuals who work in specialized fields. This allows them to do their work well, but it also means that to anyone not trained in their field, they sometimes seem to be speaking gibberish.
No one likes gibberish. So when Eric Ibsen, Chief Design Officer, and Amie Zemlicka, Project Lead, both talented straight-talkers from architecture firm FORGE, came to TEECOM to discuss better communication between architects and engineers, we thought we’d take some notes. Here’s what we learned.
1. Let’s just admit it: architects and engineers don’t always understand what the other person does.
“A lot of us (architects) think that what engineers, and especially specialty engineers, do is sort of magical,” says Amie. “We draw this plan and then magically the lights work and the plumbing works and the AV works, but we don’t really understand how it’s done.” Very few specialized experts in one field know exactly what an expert in another field is capable of. Admitting this at the front end saves us the pain of assumptions made later.
2. Asking the right questions can reap dividends.
One way to break through misunderstanding is to ask a lot of relevant questions. For instance, says Amie, “It’s the beginning of the project, and you’re brought on as a specialty engineer. Take 15 minutes, go online, look at what the architect does, but more importantly look at what the client does. Call the architect and ask, ‘What drives this client? What’s important to them? What are they trying to accomplish? Why are we even being brought in in the first place?’ If you can go to your first project meeting and say to the client, ‘I understand you do this and this,’ it really goes a long way.”
3. Find a good resource and learn the other discipline’s
“You guys (engineers) have a toolbox of terms you use; architects have the same thing,” says Amie. “Learn the terms for building components that affect the aesthetic.” One resource that Eric recommends to engineers is the book “Architecture,” by Francis Ching, which is required reading in many introductory architecture classes. “When you can refer to things using the actual terms,” he says, “you save a lot of time and help meetings move along.”
4. Read the design documents with an eye toward the big picture.
Everyone has a tendency to look at the design through their own myopic view in terms of the slices they’re responsible for, says Amie, “but looking at the project from a broader perspective will give you a sense of what the design intent is and how to be respectful of that.”
5. Take the initiative and lead the conversation in your area of expertise.
“We rely heavily on you (engineers) to know your stuff,” says Amie. “AV, for example, you guys know the latest and greatest. If you bring to the table specifications for the components, we trust you to know what the client’s trying to accomplish and how the system will work and look in the space.”
“That’s the piece of the project where we expect you guys to lead,” agrees Eric. “Assume that role and lead the way! It might be five minutes at an hour-long OAC meeting, but if you say, ‘We looked at these, they were too expensive, so we’re going to do this,’ that’s great.”
“Clients want guidance and help,” Amie adds. “They really like it when you explain the pros and cons.”
“And if there is only one product that does what you want, explain that,” says Eric.
6. Engage with the project with the understanding that you’re a stakeholder.
“One of the things we really focus on at FORGE is the stakeholder experience,” says Amie. “We think about, who in the project is a stakeholder? There’s the client, of course, but also the architect, consultants, maybe a broker. If we think of it more as how we can work together to solve problems, it’s just a much more efficient and nicer way to run a project. We want to approach this as a collaborative process, not as a hierarchical organization.”
“The experience of the project is not just with the client, it’s with the contractor, the PM, the furniture people,” says Eric. “Our goal at the end of the project is to look for an opportunity for that whole group to work together again, rather than ‘let’s just finish this punchlist.’”
As specialty systems such as telecommunications and audiovisual become integrated into the building design process at earlier and earlier phases, collaboration between architects and engineers is increasingly important to design success. That’s why, at TEECOM, we are committed to thoughtful listening and asking the right questions.