|To Document, or Not to
Basic documentation requirements
by Grant A. Simpson, FAIA, and James B. Atkins, FAIA
Many architects think of documentation as an irritation that encroaches on their design efforts. They view documentation as a task of drudgery forced on them by the “technical guys” or the “lawyers.” Actually, documentation is as integral to architecture as are sketchbooks, renderings, construction drawings, and change orders. It is not a new concept, as history reveals that Leonardo da Vinci kept detailed notebooks in the 14th century.
The review of documentation in this article ranges from simple, handwritten “to-do lists” kept only for the purpose of organizing one’s workday to more complex contracts that have significant legal implications. All of these forms of documentation with which architects interact and are required to create, manage, and maintain form a necessary part of the culture and practice of architecture. For some architects, documentation is a naturally occurring habit; for others, it is a burden that is often resisted and sometimes avoided altogether.
Over the past quarter century, the sheer quantity of documentation generated through the design process has grown significantly. Projects that required only a few file boxes in the 1980s result in many times that amount today. Documentation has become a time-consuming endeavor in the design and construction process that must be understood and managed.
A management tool
The most effective managers develop personal documentation habits that incorporate it into their daily work. Documentation is not drudgery to them because it is essential to the way they manage their projects. Writing a meeting report, making handwritten notes, or sending a client a contract proposal becomes second nature to their design activities. On the other hand, attending a meeting without an agenda, or making a site visit without preparing a field observation report creates angst for the effective manager. This is counter to the smooth flow of communications and information on a successful project more so than concerns about risks.
The need for tangible evidence
During the design and construction process, many communications affecting time and cost are exchanged. Affirmative documentation, such as phase completion sign-offs, authorizations to proceed, site observation reports, meeting reports, and schedules are efficient tools of management that facilitate a more efficient and effective project delivery.
As we move closer to “paperless project” methods, such as the building information model (BIM), which consists of data manipulated through 3D parametric modeling, this need for tangible evidence by our legal industry eventually may diminish. However, for now, documentation will remain the hallmark of good project management.
Types and adequacy of documentation
Different individuals develop different habits for making and maintaining documentation. Just as there are messy desks and there are clean desks, there will be managers who produce clear pristine documentation, and others who will keep files of ragged notes on whatever paper is at hand. Accordingly, the range of documentation considered to be adequate varies from almost nothing at all to an archive of properly filed and fully executed documents. Below are a few examples.
Agreements: Contracts are the basic vehicle by which the obligations of the parties to a legal agreement are set forth. Contracts can take many forms. When given a choice, the following are listed from most preferred to least.
Although recognized by law as binding in many (although not all) states, oral agreements are disputable and difficult to substantiate, due to the lack of documentation. The old joke rings true when you consider that “oral agreements aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.”
Approvals, notices and phase completion sign-offs: These are forms of documentation that can be generated by the owner, contractor or the architect. The AIA documents contain many instances where such actions are required. The preferences for these types of documents are, again listed from most preferred to least.
Meeting Reports and Memos: Some architects do not prepare meeting reports and they believe they are a waste of time. If an architect attending a meeting does not prepare notes from his or her observations during the meeting—no matter how informal—we believe there is no justification for attending the meeting. Meeting notes are most effectively used as a project management tool if they are issued to the project team in a timely manner. Reporting need not be a burdensome endeavor and can be useful in several formats.
As was observed in the first article of this series, the meeting report “is essentially a tool for reporting project progress to the owner. If you issue the report, you will be able to recount the events as you experienced them. If you do not issue the report, you will likely read results or opinions that do not coincide with your own. If your contract or your project organizational structure does not allow you to issue the project meeting report, it will be necessary for you to rebut in writing each and every issue and event that is not consistent with your experiences and understandings. Rebuttal is a laborious process that too frequently falls through the cracks of a busy schedule.”
The nature of informal options for communication and documentation can be challenging when proving these four points, especially in proving that you sent the documentation and the other party received and agreed with it. In the event of a dispute where you have no proof of acknowledgment, the problem can sometimes be solved by “discovering” copies of it in their files. However, a formal documented acknowledgement is preferred to a passive acknowledgement in all cases.
Registered mail or other forms of “return receipt” is effective in establishing acknowledgement of your correspondence. In any case, some form of receipt record is the only way to be assured that the other party is in receipt of the document. Simply knowing that they received the message is no guarantee that they understand or agree with it.
Transmittal letters can also be useful in describing why a bundle of mixed items have been issued. For example, a roll of drawings with different dates might be transmitted for purposes of making a building-permit submittal and may be transmitted on a date that is different from the one shown on the drawings.
The modern equivalent of the journal may be considered to be the handheld personal organizer such as a Blackberry or a Palm Pilot. These devices record schedules, schedule archives, and contemporaneous notes, and can even send e-mail at an architect’s fingertips.
The restaurant napkin
Documentation can be viewed as a burdensome drudgery or it can become a part of the way we work. Effective project managers typically develop a routine for documenting their projects so that documentation becomes a useful habit that is as easy as filing or making copies. But like it or not, documentation is an essential part of the fabric of effective project management. And effective project management that results in successful projects is always the best form of risk management.
We’ll leave you with a final thought: Be careful out there.