Professional liability insurance companies repeatedly report that coordination issues are a major cause of legal claims against design professionals.
A Merriam-Webster definition of coordination includes the following:
1) the process of organizing people or groups so that they work together properly and well
2) the process of causing things to be the same or to go together well
3) the ability to move different parts of your body together well or easily
Coordination, as defined above, has several applications in the design professions of architecture and engineering and also in their relationship with the construction industry.
> Coordination is a necessary part of getting different firms to work together on a single project or venture.
> Coordination is a necessary part of bringing different design disciplines together in the development of a good building project.
> Coordination is a necessary part of joining building materials, products, and systems for good building performance.
> Coordination is a necessary part of managing the employees of a design firm to produce a design and related documents and services that are consistent with established design criteria and goals.
> Coordination is a necessary part of developing a design (a plan, a specification, or even a detail) that is responsive to numerous applicable code requirements or regulations.
> Coordination is a necessary part of developing design information such that the various views (plans, elevations, sections, details, schedules, and specifications) are consistent with the overall design intent.
> Coordination between and across disciplines is necessary for the spaces, parts, and equipment in a building to accommodate each other and their operations (e.g., clearance around mechanical or electrical equipment for routine service and component replacement).
The list goes on. It’s clear that coordination is a pervasive requirement that affects virtually every aspect of our work – individual work and teamwork.
Coordination is necessary to avoid duplication of effort and cost, to avoid contradiction and inconsistency, and to achieve a commonly accepted degree of completion at a desirable point in time.
Coordination is part of everyone’s job. Yet, insurance company reports on the volume of claims appear to indicate that coordination is commonly neglected – at least neglected sufficiently to drive legal claims. Assuming the best intentions – good coordination and no claims – it must be true that many architects and engineers do not understand their individual roles in coordination or how their behavior affects coordination.
Here, we are talking mostly of coordination with others and with work or information that we may not be touching directly but which must be coordinated with our own work. So it is with architects and work by engineering consultants and other special consultants. And so it is, too, with architects and work by other architects within the same firm or team of firms.
We sometimes receive or issue a directive to coordinate work, but a decree or directive usually does not carry enough information about the nature of the desired coordination, and it leaves interpretation to the person who receives the message. Without communicating the intent of the coordination, the intent may not be understood.
The coordination message must be clear in order to avoid a misinterpretation or unintended consequences.
Different training and education can facilitate excellence in a specialization but can also facilitate misunderstanding across disciplines. Consider the focus of HVAC engineers in Btu, CFM, and GPM or the focus of electrical engineers in watts per square foot and motor horsepower. These quantitative measures may have related project goals that are understood by the engineer in quantitative terms, and the engineer may believe that his or her work is coordinated with the architecture by achieving an appropriate quantity. The physical fit of the equipment with the architecture – exposed and finished or concealed where and as expected by the architect – may be a matter that is not easily within the comprehension of the engineer without more specific communication from the architect. Also, the architect’s expectations may be out of keeping with the need for owner access to service the equipment. Two examples that come to mind:
1. Recessed light fixtures with “top only” access for lamp changes are specified for a hard soffit area. The light fixtures meet the electrical energy criteria and look good architecturally, but the owner will not be able to change the lamps without tearing down the soffit. So, the equipment specification and soffit design are not coordinated with the need to periodically change the lamps.
2. Cabinet unit heaters are specified by the HVAC engineer as exposed, wall-mounted units (factory finished on all exposed sides), but the architectural drawings indicate fully recessed units, which would have only a finished face. The two styles are different construction and are not interchangeable. Further, the architectural plans do not allow for the full depth of manufactured recessed units. So, the architect’s expectations were not communicated to the HVAC engineer. If the installed units reduce required floor clearances, then another expectation is missed.
The technical examples above may sound comfortably familiar to those who struggle to implement effective coordination within their firms, but most easily overlooked may be the need for coordination as it relates to delegation of work to subordinates, mistaking simple direction (or order giving) for coordination. Effective coordination requires clear communication of intent, and that applies to direction and delegation of work down a chain of command as much as it does to coordination among team members of similar rank. I recall a method used by a director of structural engineering in a large A-E firm: in order to be assured that his intent was clearly communicated when delegating work to a subordinate, he would ask the subordinate to take written notes of the conversation and then read back the direction as received. Verifying understanding of intent (when delegating work) is also an important part of coordination.