Time in the Field Invaluable

Posted on July 29, 2010


When architect peers ask me why I work in integrated design build (IDB), I have many reasons to choose from. But one of the most obvious for me is time spent in the field.

Time in the field, or “on site”, is a return to the craftsman and master builder guild traditions. It is seeing what was conceived of in theory made real. It is interacting with specialists who, in many cases, dedicate their working lives to being really good at a specific material skill which I will never be that good at. Field time is a learning laboratory, a 3D escape from the 2D office world. Time in the field is a yin-yang balance to what goes on M-F most weeks.

As an intern right out of school, construction field observation was difficult to achieve. It was required by the apprenticeship program, NCARB’s IDP, but that did not make it any easier to get. Interns in traditional practice have to fight like crazy to get out in the field. To most architecture practices, interns are useless in the field. Interns make money for the firm billing hours while chained to their desks, drafting. And yes, I am old enough to have been a hand-drafter, and as my boss says a “dinoCAD” user. Site visits were a ‘reward’; you had to steal away on your lunch hour to see a building go up. And I was lucky because I worked for small firms. My friends that worked in large firms never even had the chance; hey had to change jobs just to get field experience.

Field time does a few things that cannot be overstated:

1) It eliminates the design-construction disconnect so common in DBB and non-integrated DB projects.  In IDB, the two halves that normally fight have a lot more respect for each other. At Haskell, we sympathize with each other’s challenges without divorcing ourselves from and feeling uninvited; it is our collective project, not ‘someone else’s turf’.

2) It rounds out an architect’s training. Although it would serve designers, engineers and construction professionals well to walk a mile in each other’s shoes, career and job task requirements typically preclude specific cross-training—except at Haskell, where architects and engineers can request to serve as an associate project manager, APM, to get a more complete view of the construction process. This exposure is a feature and education few design professionals outside of small practice and integrated design-build are able to achieve.

3) It bucks the trend of the AIA contracts, which continue to distance architects from field responsibilities. The AIA has been shunning construction responsibility for years in an attempt to limit liability, and seems to commit to construction oversight as a last resort—a big mistake in my opinion. Contractually, Haskell relies on DBIA and custom documents and, at times, commits to quite liberal site visit schedules by its architects depending on the client’s desires.

A technology company I read about requires its software engineers to perform a rotation answering customer service calls with the belief that the engineer will have more desire to fix a problem when it comes straight from the source; accountability provides incentive. When I visit my project job sites, I learn what worked and what I need to do differently next time. Field time is a designer’s “service call”.

Sometimes called a ‘war zone’ and ‘where it all happens’, the job site is where the project “goes vertical”. Designers who want to be more integrated, collaborative and provide a better product for their clients will seek out time in the field.