In a typical AIA contract, only 15 percent of the fee is devoted to Schematic Design (SD), the creative front end of a project. That is when the conceptual work gets done and the building takes shape. Basic decisions about the program, siting, massing, structure and exterior materials begin to gel.

By the end of SD, the essence of the design and most of the building’s basic cost have already been determined. In the subsequent phases of Design Development (DD) and Construction Documentation (CD), the details are worked out. At that point, the building is well defined, but it still only exists as lines on paper (or bits in cyberspace); it’s not real yet.

The magic happens during Construction Administration. That’s when the architect’s vision is translated into three dimensions by a third party—the contractor. It’s not until CA that “architecture” actually takes place. Typically, CA consumes 25 percent of the standard design fee—much more than either SD or DD, but well below the 40 percent normally allocated for CDs. It’s also where the mistakes start to show up, so constant attention is needed to make sure that the design intent is faithfully carried out.

In a sense, the architect is only the composer—the person responsible for putting the lines on paper (or the notes on the score). It’s up to the contractor (the conductor) and the subcontractors (the musicians) to bring to life what the architect has in mind. It’s not until CA that the true value of the architect’s services is made manifest. Ironically, this is when the architect has the least control over what’s going on.

CA is problematic for many firms. Dimensional errors, coordination issues, substitutions and change orders are common and require ongoing attention. One of the biggest bugaboos is shop drawings, which are created by subcontractors and suppliers, but only reviewed by architects for “consistency with design intent.” (That seemingly innocent phrase has spawned many a legal dispute.) Because 75 percent of the fee has already been spent by the time CA begins, there is little, if any, margin of error to recover if things go wrong. That is why CA has ruined the profitability of so many promising projects.

If CA is so critical, why is it so problematic? The answer lies in the process. More often than not, CA is handled by less experienced staff, and is often relegated to recently hired graduates who are just at the beginning of the learning curve. Principals may keep an eye on things from a distance and respond to problems when they arise, but they are generally not regular attendees at weekly job site meetings. Also, CA is often burdened with excess bureaucracy (starting with Requests for Information, or RFIs). Often more time is spent following protocol than actually solving problems. Requests for more time or money, or the prospect of a claim, keep everyone on edge. In CA, “playing defense” is a way of life.

There must be a better way. Actually, there is. The key lies in using technology on the job site to make sure that the responsible parties are fully informed about what’s going on so that corrective action can be taken as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the A/E/C industry is well behind the curve when it comes to adopting innovative new ways of doing things, but there are some notable exceptions.

One good example is Suffolk Construction, a national construction management firm with annual sales of $2.9 billion. Suffolk has recently gone live with its new Smart Lab, which is on prominent display just off the main lobby at its corporate headquarters in Boston. The walls of the Smart Lab are lined with a dazzling array of high-definition touch screens, ganged together to produce a collage of large-scale images and information that cover all aspects of a project under construction. The “data wall” can display key performance indicators from all active projects in the company (there are hundreds at any given time). The status of any project can be reviewed in detail on the “huddle wall,” from the BIM model to the budget to the schedule to compliance with safety protocols. Video feeds from each construction site can be scanned to check current conditions. There is also a walk-in “BIM Cave” where the building can be simulated in 3-D and 4-D format. Real time project team meetings can be facilitated by Skype, connecting the home office and job site with input from the architects, engineers and consultants as required. This enables problems to be addressed in minutes rather than days or weeks. The technology is managed by a team of data scientists, led by a PhD from MIT, and the whole array resembles Captain Kirk’s command bridge on the Starship Enterprise.

The Smart Lab enables much of normal CA process to be done remotely, without the need for steel-toed boots or hard hats. Relevant information is easily accessible at the click of a mouse. When issues arise, the team can respond before questions become problems. It’s easy to see how providing remote oversight of the CA process can enhance productivity on the job site. With the prospect of robotic construction techniques becoming ever more real, it’s not too much of a leap to imagine CA morphing into a real-life, full-scale video game, one that could be played 24/7.

Automating certain aspects of CA will not only improve outcomes in the field, it should also reduce the percentage of fee necessary to do the job properly. In turn, these fees could be shifted up front to SD, where they will do the most good. Instead of 15 percent for SD and 25 percent for CA, why not the reverse? By allocating the design fees to where the value is actually created, everyone benefits.

The technology that drives the Smart Lab is already commercially available. While it is not inexpensive, it is cost effective, which is to say that the productivity gains outweigh the initial installation and start-up costs. If the entire A/E/C industry were to embrace the concept of technologyassisted CA, it would be a big step in reversing the longterm trend toward declining productivity. Here’s one way to think of it: The A/E/C industry accounts for about $1 trillion in GDP in the U.S. each year. If process innovations such as the Smart Lab could generate just five percent in productivity gains, the resulting savings would be $50 billion—more than the total fees paid to architects to design buildings in the first place.

This is just one example of how innovation is reshaping the ways in which buildings are designed, documented and delivered. The point is that clients are not particularly interested in paying for lines on paper, or even for bits in cyberspace. Plans and specifications in and of themselves are only a means to an end. Standard contract terms that focus primarily on “instruments of service” as the measure of value overlook what clients really want—not pretty pictures, but actual results. They desire high quality design delivered on time and within budget—as promised. However, today’s A/E/C industry falls well short of this simple goal, with 30 percent of all projects either coming in late or costing more than originally planned.

If architects are willing to re-think the basic value proposition of design and how it can be best delivered, everyone benefits. CA would be a good place to start innovating. After all, it’s where the rubber meets the road.

Scott Simpson is the editor-at-large of DesignIntelligence and a Senior Fellow of the Design Futures Council.

Photos by Ricardo Gomez Angel and Riccardo Oliva and Izuddin Helmi Adnan on Unsplash.