Who Should Interpret The Architect’s Drawings, The Builder Or The Owner?

For those of you who’ve ever assembled a grill, a bicycle or similar item from the instructions, you know that there is nothing like clear drawings that show each step in order. For me, anything less is generally cause for words not used in polite company and, occasionally, a tool or “extra” part may be propelled at maximum velocity against a conveniently positioned vertical surface. I am amazed that so many “some assembly required” products have such poorly written instructions, and by amazed, I mean the kind of amazed that causes the veins in my forehead to protrude and my wife to send the neighborhood kids inside. With these items, there is no interpretation of the drawings and specifications, it’s either there, on the picture AND on the parts list, or there’s trouble ahead.

Architect’s drawings are not intended to be that way. They are merely a rough schematic, an outline, of the intended building. Even the most detailed sets of plans and specifications, aka “working drawings”, require experience, knowledge and the ability to interpret those documents to achieve a completed building. So this really is a trick question. The owner, in all but the rarest cases, isn’t capable of properly interpreting the intent of the drawings and the builder is too concerned with timeframe and profitability and generally does not have the training to make the esthetic judgements necessary to do so. The standard AIA contract places the architect as the sole judge of the intent of the documents, the theory being that we (the architect) are trained to be fair and impartial in this regard, even if we must find that the drawings support a solution that isn’t what we (the architect again) might wish it to be.

One example is plumbing drain pipes. If there are specifications, they may make reference to all work being in compliance with the latest version of the applicable building code. That will generally be the only place that will lead to the requirement that these drain pipes even exist. You take it for granted that these pipes will be there and be sloped so that they drain properly, but to find out exactly how much, you’ll need to go to the building code to get the proper reference for the plumbing code that will refer to American Society of Plumbing Engineers documents. However, an experienced plumber will know that 1/4″ per foot is the recognized standard and also know when that standard is not adequate. Because these drain pipes aren’t shown on the drawings and because drain pipes and heating/air conditioning ducts may sometimes need to occupy the same spot, the builder is responsible to work out the conflict. If the builder is unable to resolve the conflict without dropping the ceiling, an interpretation of the drawings is called for.

(Don’t lose interest, there’s an important point coming up soon.)

If the builder is the experienced type that plans ahead and is always trying to anticipate conflicts before they happen, he will have seen this and informed the architect of the conflict before either the plumber or the HVAC subcontractor have fabricated or installed their work and they will work out a solution. If the builder is not a forward thinker, he’ll let the plumber install his drain pipe in a place that the HVAC duct needed to go and his only “interpretation”  will be that the architect didn’t know what he was doing and the only solution will be to drop the ceiling. Maybe he’ll bring the architect in but he will have already boxed the architect into to the only solution that doesn’t require the plumber to rework his pipe. NOTE: this is NOT how it’s supposed to work. Given some time, the architect and builder, working together, can usually find a solution that is invisible (as plumbing pipes and duct work generally should be).

As irritating as the example above is to my architect sensibilities and as esthetically poor the solution might be, there are worse examples of “interpretation”. As architect, we are not always involved with the owner and builder during construction. In these cases, we see the completed house and it bears only a passing resemblance to the house we designed. What happened? Well, the builder will tell the owner that (for instance) the 14 inch diameter columns the architect specified are special order and he can save the owner $x by substituting 12 inch columns and, by the way, “no one” can tell the difference anyway. The framing subcontractor picks up 10 inch columns (“no one” will notice and the 12 inch columns will take a week to get) but no one changes the width of the beam above or modifies the architrave (details of the beam) so the end result is a jumbled mess. Repeat this scenario 20 times and the house is not the house that the owner paid the architect to design but has been “interpreted” in a way that looks remarkably like every other house the builder has built.

What the architect designed and the owner contracted with the builder for.

What the owner got.

If you prefer your builder’s sense of beauty and proportion more than your architect’s, then you’ve got it! If you really wanted your architect’s version of your vision, you’re out of luck. A good working relationship between the owner, their (skilled and experienced) architect and (also, skilled and experienced) builder where all parties are actively working towards the same goal is the most reliable way for the owner to get the final product that he thought he was getting when he started construction.


About More Than Architects

I’m Rick Clanton. Michael Ruegamer and I are architects and the principals of Group 3 Design on Hilton Head Island, SC. We provide architecture and interior design services for homes in the US and the Caribbean Islands.
This entry was posted in design, home design, what not to build, what to build. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Who Should Interpret The Architect’s Drawings, The Builder Or The Owner?

  1. I would like to offer that during the construction phase, our (designers and architects) cell phones are always on! (hopefully to eliminate any interpretation questions 🙂

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