by Scott Benjamin
There’s no mistaking it. Advances in the technology involved in architectural design have been absolutely remarkable. From its relatively humble roots as a digital alternative to hand drafting, the latest design software has opened up a brave new world of building information modeling (BIM), advanced visualization, and a bevy of analytical tools that help guide decisions ranging from structural design to solar orientation. Architects today don’t just represent buildings as a series of abstract 2-D drawings; rather, they construct virtual models of the buildings which, with the coordinated efforts of their team of consultants, can be accurate right down to the last drain pipe and air duct.
These advances have not only changed the nature of the design process, but have significantly impacted architectural form itself. Rapid visualization of complex 3-D forms, facilitated structural analysis of non-standard shapes, and new opportunities to directly link digital design files to computer-assisted fabrication have resulted in extraordinary and dramatic departures from architecture’s formal orthodoxy. In this technological landscape, it seems that everyone – architects, owners, consultants, and contractor – stands to win when new technology facilitates not only architectural design, but also scheduling, cost-estimating, and coordination. In short, money talks, and we all know what walks, so when a tool comes along which promises to put more lucre in everyone’s pockets, people stand up and take notice.
There is, however, a point in the gestation of a new building in which the digital train stops dead in its tracks; a place where the efficiencies gained from computer mice and expensive software give way to men and women in the field armed with rolls of blue tape, pencils, and legal pads. Welcome to the world of construction administration (CA), proud home of the “punch list”.
The construction punch list, a familiar and time-tested component of the contract documents, is used to identify and track the status of items pending final completion – the last step before final payment of the contractor, and the delivery of a finished building. Blemishes on paint, leaking windows, missing electrical outlets – these are all items which could potentially find a home on a punch list, and each and every one of them is fastidiously documented in the field, then magically transformed by the architect into an enumerated list. Along with a description of the item, this list can also include annotated plan references, photographs from the field, and references to strips of that most gutless of all adhesive products – blue painter’s tape – placed in situ to mark the location of outstanding construction issues. It is, however, this process of transformation – the architect’s lengthy (some might say “agonizing”, particularly in the case of very large buildings) transcription of a tangle of semi-decipherable field notes into an organized and actionable task list to present to the contractor – which deserves our attention. This is particularly true in that even the slightest delay between observation of a condition requiring remediation and contractor action has the potential to adversely affect both schedule and budget – the death knell not only for client satisfaction, but also a deal killer for the holy grail of project completion: a glowing referral for future business.
Thus, in our quest to continually improve the quality of our service, we architects owe it to ourselves to ask: Is there a better way? Can the efficiencies and capabilities of the computer age be leveraged to improve the CA – and particularly, the punch list – process? Can we somehow set aside the pencils, legal pads and blue tape, and resurrect the punch list as something more consistent with the level of technology which has paid such handsome dividends in the design process?
Some attempts have already been made. Digital cameras have made their way into the field, allowing photographs to be more easily incorporated into punch lists. Tablet computers have been introduced which, combined with custom software applications, increase efficiency by minimizing or eliminating altogether the transcription step between field notes and publication of the final punch list. Many opportunities, however, remain unaddressed. While the design phase can now produce a virtual building model of exquisite detail, the potential for providing links in the field to this model and its enormous database of information remains largely untapped. Integration of the now ubiquitous location-based services, as well as the cameras built into most portable computing devices, could both expedite and simplify the field documentation process. Similarly, live links to construction details, the building code, vendor installation information, and (for the young architect still cutting his teeth) an item-specific primer on the applicable standard of care could all lend efficiency in both documentation and elucidation of issues in the field.
In the future, perhaps speech recognition will supplant manual input of field notes. Eye tracking and augmented reality could aid in rapid recording and location of field issues, and artificial intelligence could prompt the architect with context-specific suggestions for issues to observe in the field. Embodied with sufficient ease-of-use, reliability, and the very real potential to save time and money, such tools could prove invaluable and, if we’re lucky, spare the lives of countless rolls of innocent blue tape.