Sunday, February 23, 2014


A colleague this week related a conversation he’d had with a client about how hard it is sometimes for architects and engineers to communicate with non-design professionals.

He took out a piece of paper and proceeded to draw a doodle of random lines.  The result had no words, and was not a graphic representation of anything recognizable. It was just a doodle.

“This is how we (i.e. many lay people) see architectural and engineering drawings”  the client had told him.  In other words, many people simply do not understand the drawings we so carefully craft. They don’t understand the graphics. They don’t understand the contractual implications, either.

Something similar is going on with construction specifications.

Good, experienced, contractors and their estimators know how to read, understand, and put a price tag on, specifications. They know where we say the  things that matter to them  in the process of bidding on and building a project.

They get the lingo of architecture and construction.

They know, for example that although aluminum storefront extrusions are hollow and that aluminum is a metal, aluminum storefronts are NOT hollow metal.

They know that although cold formed metal framing may be used structurally in a building, and that it is steel, it is NOT structural steel.

But non-design professionals have a much harder time understanding construction drawings and specifications.  When you add in a few delightful english language oddities like dual meanings for certain words (water table can refer to level of water in the ground or to a decorative stone band in a wall; elevation can refer to a straight-on view of a building or a height above a datum), it’s no wonder that some folks think we might as well be talking to them in Aramaic or Klingon.

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, as Yul Brynner’s character said in The King and I.

Our profession is hardly unique of course. Legal and medical professionals have this problem, too.

The cure:  I wish I knew.  The only thing I can think of  to spend more time explaining the purpose and effect of drawings and specs to clients.


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  2. Great post. I think having a goal of spending more time explaining things to clients is good. It's not going to change the world very fast, though.

    A water table can also be a very messy large toy that's perfect for 3-year-olds. We only think about these words and phrases in the contexts that we already know them in. It's different when we're grown-up architects and we hear a word we've never heard before, like pultruded. Once you hear that one you learn it and don't forget it or mix it up with anything else.

    Maybe we should use more complicated words in our specifications. (TOTALLY kidding.)

  3. Thanks for your insight, Liz.

    I just googled "water table toy" and found what you were talking about. My kids are now 33 and 35. I don't remember if kiddie water tables were available when they were growing up in the '80s when they were little.