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Is Construction Broken?



I was recently asked to participate in a new initiative that is being established by several of my colleagues in the Construction Specifications Institute. The purpose of the initiative is to separate the complaints from the solutions when we discuss things that go wrong in construction projects, and then to promote the solutions.

This project is named “Let’s Fix Construction,” which implies that construction is broken—or at least not operating optimally. To support that premise I think it’s necessary to rewind and determine what exactly we believe to be out of order.

architect desk / Unsplash / CCO License

The idea that we’re going to fix construction means identifying the problems, giving them serious thought individually and collectively and then proposing solutions.

I come to this project from a professional vantage point: that of an architectural school graduate and an employee at an architecture firm. My 22 year career in design has solely been in firms; I’ve moved from intern to project architect to project manager and to full-time specifier. What this means is that I’ve been well-versed in one part of the story.

The Architect’s Role

The facility design and construction process (at least in the traditional design-bid-build or design-negotiate-build methods) is, for the most part, driven by the architect. The architect is the one who is presented with the project goals by the owner and is tasked with generating the design and construction documents. The architect facilitates the project’s execution. In this architect-centric view, the responsibility to faithfully and skillfully execute the work lies with the architect.

The architect comes up with the conceptual design; develops that design, adding more and more technical detail; coordinates the work of engineering and other consultants; incorporates the information from myriad sources into one package; and shepherds that package through procurement and entitlement, until the job can be built by a contractor. The architect maintains responsibility throughout construction, working to verify that the project is being built so that it conforms to the design.

Identifying the Problems

As the center of all that activity, the architect is the source of (or at least contributing to) many problems that, if solved, would go a long way toward “fixing” construction.

For the remaining part of this post I will describe what I see are some of the most serious of those problems, and hope for other stakeholders to weigh in and perhaps add their own. Please note: the words “many, but not all” should be a given in front of each item below.

  • Architects don’t view their work as providing a professional service in which they have a duty to put their clients’ interests above all others and to make sure they communicate honestly with their clients and obtain informed consent for all important decisions. Instead, architects see themselves as designing for themselves, or believe they’re working for the good of society, the environment, “improving life” or other lofty goals that create real conflicts of interest that designers don’t even recognize.
  • Architects have inadequate practical knowledge of construction. They don’t understand how their designs and details get translated into physical components in a building and what it really takes for human beings to assemble what they’ve designed.
  • Architects and humans in general, to be fair, have an overly optimistic view of their own knowledge and competence. This is known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. As a result, they forcefully promote decisions made based on faulty information that they have high levels of confidence in. Most “green” advocacy falls into this category.
  • Architects are slow to recognize and adapt to changes in construction technology, and end up lazily copying solutions from project to project long after they’re obsolete.
  • Architects are hesitant to participate in the code-writing process, even though the content of the codes and the way they are developed directly impact their work.
  • Architects have very poor knowledge of how much construction actually costs. They use loose rules of thumb to try to determine whether or not their designs are within clients’ budgets. They rarely know how the details they create affect the project cost, and the resulting necessary value engineering costs them time, money and prestige.

The idea that we’re going to fix construction means that these and other problems should be identified, given serious thought individually and collectively, and only then, I think, should solutions be proposed. I look forward to working to affect the changes that the industry so desperately needs.

About the Author

Elias Saltz

Elias Saltz, CSI, CCS, LEED AP, is an architect and construction specifier with Eckenhoff Saunders Architects in Chicago. He has been working in the industry for over 20 years and is primarily responsible for preparation of construction specifications for all of his firm's projects, spanning the range of project size from tenant improvements to new hospital facilities. His responsibilities include understanding project requirements, code requirements, building envelope performance, and construction document quality control. Additionally, he has a blog called “The Skeptical Specifier” and participates in  He is the past president of the Chicago Chapter of CSI.

You can follow him on Twitter @EliasSaltzCSI.


Let's Fix Construction is written by a collective group of construction professionals involved in, an online impartial platform to provide forward-thinking solutions to many longstanding issues that have plagued construction. Organizers and contributors seek to better the industry by sharing knowledge, while creating open and positive communication and collaboration. Many of the posts have appeared first on and are republished on Durability + Design with permission. Author information is available at the bottom of each blog entry.



Tagged categories: Architects; Business management; Construction; Consultants; Contractors; Design; Designers; Developers; Engineers; Good Technical Practice; Specifiers; Aesthetics; Architecture; Building science; Business matters; Construction Specifications Institute

Comment from Steven Nadler, (11/18/2016, 9:57 AM)

I don't believe construction is broken, just what is being delivered to the owner versus what is expected. And, the owner is equally responsible for the disconnect due to low fees (thinking they can get more for less). Quality and performance suffer. The industry will have to change and become truly collaborative across all aspects, budgeting, planning , design, construction document and fabrication detailing, construction, testing, and commissioning among other elements of the process in order to achieve best value.

Comment from Elias Saltz, (11/18/2016, 10:40 AM)

Hi Steven, The whole last sentence of your comment is exactly what Let's Fix Construction is all about. If you have specific suggestions for how it changes to become truly collaborative, why don't you come write for us?

Comment from john schultz, (11/21/2016, 8:45 AM)

We had a building erected in 2000. With the amount of oversight starting with the architect, the contractor, the bank and the building department, the only thing installed per spec were the doorknobs and ceiling tiles. My experience with architects and construction is that architects don't CONTROL the job the GC does and they won't redo their work - so if a wall is supposed to be 16" oc and they put it up on 24 it is going to stay that way. Beyond that, the projects are bid not to spec but on some other measure as evidenced in recent jobs by the painters who give a price without knowing the price of the products.

Comment from peter gibson, (11/22/2016, 10:33 AM)

Totally agree on the arrogance of architects. Big dreamers,not in the real world. Always trying to create a work of art.

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