Addressing effective owner communication

One week, I had three bid sets going out three days in a row. I turned in the first one (a relatively small project) early on the due date, and got going on wrapping up the next one. A few hours later, my architect-client e-mailed me an address change for the first building. This meant updating Division 00 and every header of the project manual. (When I use my own master spec sections, changing all headers is not terribly time-consuming, but I had to use the owner’s messy sections on this project, and needed to fix each header manually.)

If I’d had the correct address before starting, I would have wasted no time. If I’d received it before my final edits, I’d have wasted only about an hour. If I’d been using my own masters instead of the owner’s, I’d have wasted only about a half-hour. As it was, I spent two hours redoing the address at the most inconvenient time imaginable.

I could have refused to make the changes because I had two other clients’ projects to consider, but then the documents would have had an incorrect address throughout, causing confusion for bidders, the building department, and the constructor. I couldn’t have delayed until after my other two deadlines because we were going to bid and permit that day.

It turns out the address the city had assigned to the project was not the one the owner wanted. The owner should have spoken up right away, or warned the architect a change could be coming so the architect could prepare me—I would have waited on my final edits until after I had the info.

Granted, the last-minute address change affected very little of the project (and none of the design), but it highlights a common problem. Some owners answer questions knowing full well they’ll probably change their minds later, but don’t give a heads up. Others assign communication duties to someone with zero decision-making authority, so the architect expends a lot of time trying to get information from an intermediary. Still others offer no guidelines about important building assemblies, seem to expect the architect to just know what they want, and do not answer questions in a timely manner.

Architects may want to consider explaining to an owner, up front, when—and why—decisions need to be made. For example, the glazing tint choice is an important thing to decide early, as it affects other design decisions and several design professionals, including the mechanical engineer. A completed geotech report is also crucial very early in the design process because it affects foundation design, which affects, well, everything.

Some things, such as avoiding last-minute address changes on projects, seem self-evident, but others are much less obvious to owners. Except for those who’ve had many different jobs in this industry, many do not know what it is like to be the people downstream. We can know, intellectually, what they will be doing with the information we provide, but it’s hard to understand exactly how late changes affect them, unless they tell us. Having effective communication is critical.

Liz O’Sullivan, CCS, CCCA, AIA, SCIP, LEED AP, is an independent specifications consultant in Denver. A licensed architect registered in Colorado, and a National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB)-certified CSI member, she blogs about architecture, construction, and specifications at Comments from a Spec Writer (—this article was adapted from a previous post. O’Sullivan tweets as @LizOSullivanAIA.

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