An open letter to future architects

H. Kent Craig's open letter to architectural school design students who are our future architects that contractors will deal with eventually

Dear architectural school design students who are our future architects that we contractors will deal with eventually:

I am a second-generation mechanical contractor with unlimited Master's licenses in boilers, air conditioning, heating and plumbing, with extensive project management experience. I'm writing this open letter to you in hopes you'll take these hard-earned wise words from a contractor in the spirit that they'’re offered, that of not cursing you nor praising you, but encouraging you.

I know you are driven by your heart-felt passion to make a real difference in the world or you wouldn't have made the long-term decision to make the short-term sacrifices necessary to learn the basics of your profession in college, so that eventually you can transfer your vision to the real world.

Outside of your collegiate insular, your detractors will often pepper you with negative energies, such as implying that eventually A/I automated design systems will replace humans in designing structures and how buildings are designed doesn't really make one whit of difference to anyone. Don't believe any of this nonsense for one second.

For all my years of experience as a project manager, and as long as I can remember, folks have been predicting that CAD V.1000 will eventually become so intelligent that it will eliminate the need for architects to be involved in the design process or contractors to be involved in the estimating process. Even with advances such as BIM for design/design-build or on-screen takeoff for estimating, there's no way to ever remove the need to translate the owner's needs into architectural reality through simple input parameters alone nor the need to take that advanced design and "massage" your practical crafting, i.e., plans into workable numbers, keeping in mind that plans suggest but don't build a building by themselves anymore than a labor and material takeoff of those plans is but one part of an actual complete estimate of the same.

Keep in mind that what you do as the visionary interface between owner and the eventual occupant will make a difference! What is eventually built from your chicken scratches (OK, line-pops) will directly influence all who come in contact with it in the future, including all the contractors and subcontractors that work on your projects.

As we influence our environment around us, the environment that surrounds us equally influences us. A building's poor design can directly and negatively influence the bottom-line production of its denizens as a building's people-friendly design can conversely put real dollars of extra profit into the owner's and company's pocket. Good design never costs, it pays.

That said, when you get out into the real world and begin your usually state-mandated apprenticeship probation before you take your registered architect's seal exam, the first thing you'll notice is how absolutely competitive your new profession is and how unrelenting the pressure is on your bosses not just to bid work as cheaply as they dare, but to design structures to fulfill a specific need for just the bare minimum building code requirements to keep construction costs down. Angel owners with big, fat open checkbooks who fall in love with a given architect's vision and portfolio are still around, believe it or not, but the chances of you finding just one let alone more than one over the course of your career are slim at very best.

Rather, you will work first as a grunt, then as time passes, you will work your way up the ladder to actual designer, then senior designer, and then maybe, one day down the road, you will become the one who sets the vision. It'll be then, as in a moment of satori, that your vision, which you were so passionate about as a student, will not just have found you again, but will have become you through all your hard work, patience and passion for the profession.

I can't urge you enough (I'm sure all contractors reading this column would agree) to go out of your way right now, while you are a student, to take the time to listen to the various trade contractors to get a handle on the very real problems created when owners, for example, demand a 10-ft. footprint be squeezed into a 9-ft. space. Owners will always want it done cheaper, faster and yesterday. The sooner you learn of this the better prepared you will be for the real world.

Basic physics let alone common sense will tell you that you can't squeeze a 3-ft. x 3-ft. duct into 24 inches of above-ceiling coordinated space and not can an 18-in. diameter vertical roof leader be tucked inside H-webbing of a 16-in. piece of column structural steel. And, please, never assume that the engineers later on can make impossible math work. And don't assume that every building designed in the future will be done so on BIM software to catch such silly mistakes, for in the end it's always us trade contractors that have to make all the pieces fit even when they actually don't and then have to warranty everything for a year after that. Again, the sooner architectural students understand how the professional trades work the better.

The best way for any architectural student to learn about the trades is to actually take time and visit jobsites. It's in your best interest to go to sites, look around and ask questions about why this is done that way or that is done this way. You'll be surprised how cooperative most contractors will be if you tell them you're an architectural student and want to improve your knowledge of how the real world actually works. Who knows, you might also find contrary to what you'll routinely hear for the rest of your career, that us contractors can actually be very nice and helpful guys, when it's in our own self-interest to be so (grin)!

This column was inspired by Katie Herzog, an artist and librarian at an architectural design college who is soliciting and compiling a collection of letters from contractors to architecture students for an exhibition. If you would like to submit a letter, please email at: [email protected].

Kent Craig is a second-generation mechanical contractor with unlimited Master’s licenses in boilers, air conditioning, heating and plumbing. You may contact him via e-mail at: [email protected].