January 2021

Zoom Tinted Spectacles

Making Time On Site Count

When we can’t be on site all the time, we have to make our visits count. 

Ask a passer-by what an architect does, and they will invariably tell you that we design buildings. And of course, that is true, in its widest sense, when consider that besides the shape and the plan and all the big stuff that makes a building, we also design the small stuff; the junctions and interfaces; and the finer selection and placement of materials to create the overall object. But this is only half the battle, and I would consider it to be the easy half, because good architects don’t just design buildings, they get them built and get them built well.

Fundamental to that promise to our clients is seeing the construction process through first hand, not on the phone with a photo or even on the end of a camera, but physically, with our own eyes; squinting, one cheek on a freshly plastered wall; elbow deep in a ceiling void; jumping up and down on a plywood deck. There is no technology I have encountered in this last year that can replace simply being on site. As lockdown stretches into the coming months and we are forced to limit our time on site, we have to make that precious time on site count, we cannot allow ourselves to be duped by the lens. 

When I am on site, I have developed three simple techniques to help me make the most of a visit, both during the time on site and afterwards when following up with the construction team. 

  • Assume it’s the last time you are going to be there (ever). This is a simple trick. Aside from the obvious tools we have such as photography and video to record the site as it is. A trusted set of site notes provides context, opinion and understanding of the things we see. It is well known that the act of passing information from the eye to the hand cements memory as it passes from one side of the brain to the other, making recall much easier even weeks later. It is key to spend precious moments away from the questions and the site meeting to just look around; to fully absorb the process of construction and cut through the chaos of a busy building site; to commit this moment to your long-term memory as if you might never be here again. It is in these moments that we see all the things we weren’t looking for, lurking at the edge of our vision and it’s here when we spot something that might be amiss. 

  • Check the junctions (not much happens in between). I remember this from my days as a student, dragging endless lines of ink across velum sheets, but only really worrying about where the line stops and starts. So, it is too on site. Buildings are a collection of junctions and interfaces with great expanses of nothing in between. It is easy to be fooled by a beautiful expanse of surface or even be seduced by the physical realisation of your “great work”, that things are coming together well. But where that surface ends and collides with another, bad things can happen. If I do nothing else in a space during a site visit, I will always run my eye over all the junctions; wall to ceiling to window head to membrane to brickwork to air; floor to frame to upstand to fall to bed to stone. We track these junctions over and over again, week after week, layer upon layer. 

  • You need to think four dimensionally (Marty). In case you missed out on the classic 1985 movie, Back to The Future, the metaphor is simple, don’t think about what you are looking at now, understand that what you see now is a point on a journey and what you see now, has consequences, in the future. I try to look at details on site as a movie clip – drag to the right and see finished building, drag to the left and peel away the layers to see how it was formed. This approach allows us to see if we are on the right track. Something that looks right at the moment, may end up completely wrong as we fast forward through the timeline and critically, a problem highlighted now, can be easy to rectify. Hindsight is an incredibly painful luxury in construction, so we have to become expert time travellers. 

Today we must work from home if we can, but it is clear that site presence and site inspection form an essential, physical part of our undertaking to get buildings built well. In these difficult times, we all have a duty to minimise our time away from home and our time on site is precious, we all need to make it count.