The AIA 2030 Commitment: Why Can’t We Be Friends?

Friends.shutterstock_217407733

“Sometimes I don’t speak right, but yet I know what I’m talkin’ about.”*

Architects and engineers. If one is from Venus, the others must be from Mars.

Why is it so hard for architects and engineers to communicate? One of my sustainability gurus, Barbra Batshalom, describes the typical architect/engineer relationship as pretty much dysfunctional. But as we have pledged to meet the energy efficiency goals of the AIA 2030 Commitment, never before has a good, productive relationship between architects and engineers been more important. And yet.

Some of my best friends are architects. We all talk about this. The conversation usually degrades into a gripe session about our consultants. Here’s what we say:

“Engineers don’t participate actively in the design process. They wait until design decisions have been made before they offer any ideas. And when they do offer ideas, they’re just versions of the same old conventional solutions. (You want variable frequency drive motors with that?) They’re always lagging behind the rest of the design team. They don’t communicate very well with us, our clients, or even their own staff.”

Sounds familiar? Sure. But no surprise, there’s another side.

I can’t divulge my source, but several Boston-area architectural engineering firms were recently surveyed about the challenges of working with . . . architects. Engineers have a lot to say, too. Like this:

“Architects can’t manage their clients and don’t really know how to lead a collaborative, results-oriented design process. They still prefer to make design decisions by themselves and then ‘sell’ their ideas. They love to use terms like ‘integrated design process’ but can’t explain what it means well enough to create a clear project schedule or actionable meeting agendas.

Sure, we engineers are conservative. We have to be. Chide us if you’d like about safety factors and tried-and-true methodologies, but you know what the most complex part of any construction project is, right? What most owner complaints and professional liability claims are related to, right? Yeah, the heating and cooling systems. So you want safe or you want sorry?

And another thing: ‘Think outside the box?’ Puh-leez. Who put us in the box in the first place? You call us with a new lead and say ‘Here’s the job and here’s what I can get you for a fee. Can you do it for this?’ We both know engineers can’t sit in 8-hour schematic design meetings and do multiple iterations of energy models in DD for that kinda money.

Besides, most architects don’t know enough about building mechanical systems to understand our work anyway. Ask an architect to explain the difference between a chiller and a DX system without Googling it first. Quick: how does an energy recovery unit actually work? Yeah, we thought so.”

Clearly, what we’ve got here is failure to communicate.

My view? It’s more than that. It’s a cultural divide. It’s a natural selection process phenomenon. People choose careers because they’re inclined in a certain way. Allow me to generalize even more: An architect’s thought process is iterative, cyclical. An engineer’s is linear, systemic. Architects communicate visually and verbally. Engineers use diagrams and tables.

But isn’t that why we work in teams? Doesn’t our work require both of those skill sets and more? This relationship needs to work better. So what’s the fix?

As an architect, I say the big steps are on us. We’re the communicators and “team leaders”, so we need to own this one. First, we need to get smarter about engineering. We don’t have to become engineers, but we need to understand building systems a whole lot better than we do now. Next, we need to be clearer about what we expect from our consultants and share that understanding with our clients. And then, we need to hold the line on fees. “Sharpen your pencil” shouldn’t automatically mean cut the MEP fees.

But . . . engineers? Step up. Find your voice in design meetings. And be honest with us. If you really don’t do energy modeling in-house, tell us. If your best people are too busy to do the project please say so. If you don’t understand what we architects need before starting work on a project it’s as much your fault as ours. Let’s work on those interpersonal communication skills together.

Any comments? Thank you.

*“Why Can’t We Be Friends?” song tile and lyrics 1975 ABC/United Artists records, by “War”: Papa Dee Allen, Harold Ray Brown, B. B. Dickerson, Lonnie Jordan, Charles Miller, Lee, Oskar, and Howard E. Scott, writers.

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2 Comments on “The AIA 2030 Commitment: Why Can’t We Be Friends?”

  1. Excellent points as usual, Mike. Another way of explaining the difficulties is to describe the architects’ preliminary design phase as being fluid and malleable whereas the engineering and specification phase by necessity needs to be rigid and fixed in order to become quantifiable/measurable.

    If design budgets are insufficient to pay for the person-hours that any interdisciplinary team would best spend on the give-and-take of the preliminary design process, here is a valid partial alternative.

    Mark DeKay and G.Z. Brown have issued the 3rd issue of their excellent book Sun, Wind & Light, which aims at finding optimal ways to reduce building energy loads before reaching for fossil-fuel energy systems. Mark and wife Susanne Bennett DeKay have even produced a board game titled Bundle Up! which any architect or architectural team can use to develop the optimal programs to achieve net zero or near-zero built projects. (by way of disclaimer, I’m giving workshop A07 at 8 am tomorrow at ABX).

    The game is designed to harness the increasing understanding of architects (and any engineers or lay persons who wish to participate) about the fundamentals of energy, user comfort, building attributes (like thickness or fatness of a building’s footprint), all interacting with the specific climate in which a project is located. These principles can be learned, and can be used as performance criteria when setting about programming a specific design. And as a board game it invites the participants to have fun!


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