Top 10 Secrets To Job Satisfaction And Making Yourself Indispensable At Work As An Architect

Larry Jenks sent this article to me and asked me what I thought of it. He said, “It’s sort of like when James Joyce submitted his manuscript for Ulysses, and it was the largest, longest any of the publishers had ever seen. They asked him, somewhat incredulously, what he would possibly have done if he had more time. He said ‘If I had had more time, I would have made it shorter.'” My response: I like it the way it is. This is a long read, but it is well worth your time. Thanks, Larry!

The following thoughts are things that go through my mind and the minds of other quality assurance checkers when they check drawings. They should go through your mind as well.

1. Keep the Intent in Mind

The drawings may show how you plan to achieve the desired intent, but that intent may not actually be clear to someone who has not spent the last year designing the project. If the intent is not clear, a contractor may have to guess. It may be an educated guess, but the chances are that it will be a wrong guess You can head this off by clarifying the intent.

If it is your intention that all glass within 18 inches of a door is to be tempered, you might do a series of frame types, which may be coded to various places on the plans or elevations. If you do the coding wrong, you’ve got an error. If you include a general note that tells the contractor that the intent is that all glass within 18” of a door is to be tempered, at least you have a leg to stand on when he finds a mistake.

If it is your intent that all mechanical ductwork serving rated corridors is to have a fire damper, you should add a note that says that. You still need to show the dampers on the drawings, but engineers are human and sometimes they get missed.

If it is your intent to provide a fire rated corridor, add a note to inform the contractor that the integrity of the entire rated envelope must be maintained. Then you have a leg to stand on if you haven’t specified a rated ceiling.

2. Think in Three Dimensions

Heads, jambs, and sills for doors or windows should be designed together.

Typical wall conditions should be carried through to corners or other terminations.

Think about conditions above and below, or preceding or following the one at hand.

An excellent way to stay disciplined about this is to draw more of your details showing 3 dimensions. SketchUp is a very useful tool that makes this kind of 3D detailing quite simple.

One of my cases included a masonry cavity wall that was supported by steel studs on a steel beam inside the cavity. The detail was cut between the studs, and showed through-wall flashing connecting the inner wythe and the outer wythe, as you would commonly expect to see happen. Unfortunately, when you carried the idea through to the studs, the flashing could not actually go from one wythe to the other, because the studs were in the way. Stay on your toes, and think these kinds of things through.

3. Pay Attention to the Detail

As architects, we may fancy ourselves to be artists with a special talent for making buildings look beautiful. But the building can’t be built from a rendering. We have to be concerned about the detail in the building and the detail in the drawing. We may think something should be evident to the contractor, but if we don’t address it specifically, we’ve got a loophole again. The word “artist” never sounded so denigrating as when it is uttered by a contractor.

4. Be Thorough

The contractor is going to have to build the whole darned building, so you should design the whole darned building. You may encounter a design-build situation once in awhile were you give the contractor license to figure some things out and do them the way he likes best. When you do that in more traditional situations, you’ll encounter a contractor who is unrelenting in his insistence that he does the construction, you do the design. If you haven’t done it during CDs, you’ll get to do it during CA.

5. Be Consistent In The Use of Architectural Nomenclature or Terminology

Don’t refer to the “First Floor” in one place and “Level One” in another. Gyp. Bd., drywall, sheetrock – are they the same thing, or not? If they are, why did we call it something different? Glass mesh mortar units or cementitious backer board? You get the idea. Create a standardized but editable library of CSI notation to prevent this from happening. And use it. I recently reviewed a project where the architect required through-wall flashing. The details were very clearly drawn by several individuals, because they referred to this flashing using 9 different terms…

  1. “Rigid copper through-wall flashing” (4, 5, 6, and 12/A8.0 at base of wall)
  2. “16 oz. sheet copper flashing” (2/A8.3 Typical Valley Detail)
  3. “16 oz. through-wall copper fabric flashing” (8/A8.1 Flashing Detail at Coping)
  4. “Flashing” (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6/A8.2 soffit details at back of gutter)
  5. Through-wall flashing” 8/A8.2 Copper Gutter at Fascia)
  6. “Through-wall copper flashing” (4/A8.3 Typical Roof Assembly Detail, building elevations)
  7. “Copper Flashing” (Building elevations and sections)
  8. “Copper fabric through-wall flashing” (5, 6, 7, 8, and 10/A8.5 Flashing Details)
  9. Through-wall copper felt flashing” (3/A9.5 Arch Window Head and Sill; 2, 4, and 6/A9.7 Head and Sill Window Details)

Meanwhile, the specifications identified only two types of flashing – rigid and flexible – and regrettably, neither one featured either fabric or felt. You get the idea.

6. Graphic Clarity

When your drawings lack clarity, it’s often because they betray a lack of clear thinking. If you allow it, the contractor may do something wrong just because he knows he can get some extra money because the drawings weren’t clear enough. Make sure you know what the correct solution is, and then draw it that way. Don’t hint at it.

7. Make absolutely certain that you understand what the specifications say and don’t say

Be very careful to use the same nomenclature that the specifications use. Keep a draft copy of the specs handy at your desk to help you stay consistent with them. And keep in mind the time-honored axiom that “the drawings quantify and the specifications qualify.” You don’t need to repeat requirements that appear int eh specs on your drawings. You can say “wood window” in your wall section notes, and the specs will let the contractor know which manufacturers are acceptable, whether the wood is clad or painted, things like that. If you add this level of detail to your notes, it almost guarantees that it will change. But it doesn’t guarantee that the change will be made on your drawing. So simply avoid doing it.

8. Don’t Be Willing to Accept Inferior Work, and Don’t Be Willing to Produce it

If the drawings lack clarity, or they aren’t complete, or if we haven’t thought things through, we have produced an inferior product. Don’t accept that.

9. Detail for Realistic Tolerances

Don’t indicate “zero tolerance” situations that can’t be met by human contractors in the field. When two trades are working towards each other, they will never end up in the same place Example: a lay-in ceiling meets a window head, and the drawings show them at a perfectly matching elevation and line. That’s not going to happen. Show a reveal or offset.

10. Be Thorough with the Building Envelope

Mentally track such items as insulation and positive drainage to make sure that your systems are complete. Follow your walls all the way up, particularly if they feature setbacks or projections. Follow the system through where it follows these horizontal transitions to make sure they are continuous. Pinpoint all interfaces between materials on the exterior to make sure you have sealant and flashing to eliminate leaks, and that you have drawn the necessary details to describe each condition. All it takes is one oversight to invalidate the system.

11. Accept Your Responsibility as an Architect

Avoid using notes which say “as required.” The same thing applies to notes like “coordinate” or “coordinate with Architect” or “per code.” The trend today is to pawn off responsibility whenever possible; this is really just plain laziness. There are some things which a Contractor simply can’t be held responsible for. Don’t be led into dreamland by an unreasonable expectation of what the term “performance specifications” can do. We have to perform also.

12. Follow Through on Coordination

If you make a note that says “Re: Elec.” then it is your job to make sure that the Electrical engineer coordinates the item. The same goes for the case when the Electrical engineer puts down “Re: Arch.” If you fail to do this, your job is worse than half done; it is not done at all.

13. Design for Movement

Buildings, unlike jewelry, are living, breathing creatures. They expand and contract. Different materials expand at different rates and all materials will expand and contract within a greater range if exposed to the exterior and/or sunlight than if they are indoors. Plan for slip head details at the top of all partitions below roofs and floors that will deflect (that is, 99% of all floors and 100% of all roofs). Strategize expansion joint locations early in the game. Don’t overlook control joints in materials that require them more frequently than overall building expansion control (such as drywall and masonry). Think through expansion details in three dimensions. Is a particular element going to move in one direction or two? Is the material going to shrink? Or expand? Are you going to have pieces in the same wall that do both (concrete block and brick, for example)? Allow your flat floor slabs-on-grade or topping to move back and forth, or up and down, independently from the vertical walls.

14. Follow Through on Rated Construction

Maintain in your detailing the integrity of all rated partitions. Don’t compromise rated walls by incorporating unrated portions that invalidate the entire wall, or by showing reveals that do the same thing. Make sure that the engineers don’t violate the rules which you set up. Pay special attention to the intersections with unrated walls, and make sure you have given the contractor the information he needs to maintain the integrity of the fire rating. The same rules apply for acoustical walls.

15. Design Lean and Mean

Don’t take the easy way out on solving problems by designing details that rely on massive amounts of overkill to solve a problem which could be handled in a much simpler way. When we take what seems to be the easy way out by showing unheard-of thicknesses of tapered insulation, wood blocking, or mortar beds, we set ourselves up for eventual ridicule by a contractor who is justified in inquiring as to what is going on.

16. Accept Responsibility for Structural Requirements of Architectural Items

Make sure that handrails, guardrails, steps, and other human-body-supporting elements are designed so it can be absolutely assured that they will perform. It is not acceptable to indicate a papier maché handrail and add a note indicating that it is to support a 300 lb. lateral load per code. Understand what information the structural engineer is showing on the structural drawings, and what you need to show on the architectural drawings. You may need the engineer to size a stair stringer for you, but don’t let that make you believe the stringer is necessarily going to be sized on the structural drawings.

17. Provide Adequate Documentation of Elevation Transitions

When you have steps or a ramp, don’t show your elevation targets wandering off in the middle of the space. Show a target at the top (on the line of transition), and another at the bottom of the transition. This may seem like basic common sense, but it is frequently ignored.

18. Don’t Overdraw Proprietary Sections

It makes little sense to spend an entire day drawing the particulars of a specific manufacturer’s window sill detail, when there are 6:1 odds that you will end up with a different product. A good detailer determines what the essence is of a particular product section, and does no more. There are no awards for showing the most curlicues on an aluminum extrusion. Window manufacturers now provide CAD details of their windows in cross section and plan. It doesn’t really make sense not to use them. But use them in a way that makes it VERY clear what is part of the window fabrication, and what is work the contractor is going to have to complete. You may want to try ghosting the window profile a bit, or hatching it to help differentiate it from actual construction work.

19. Make Detail Alignment Consistent with the Plans

If your plans are organized with north on the top of the sheet, then your plan details (and your blow-up plans) must be done with the same orientation. The argument that “it fit better on the sheet that way” won’t hold water if your drawings leave the contractor scratching his head.

20. Use the Office Standards

All it takes is a minimum of effort and caring. What you did at another office doesn’t mean diddly in the one you’re in now.

21. Know How Details Are Going to Be Built

If you show an unusual wood profile or metal shape, you had better know how it is going to be made (or at least know of one viable option). Sooner or later –probably sooner– the contractor will throw this one back at you. Solve the problem today rather than letting it come back tomorrow. Generally this is an area where interior designers and specialists like graphic designers do better than architects. Let’s learn to do better.

22. Plan Your Documentation Strategy for Simplicity, Clarity, and Economy

Decide whether partition types and ceiling heights should be indicated on the 1/8” plans, the 1/4” plans, or the reflected ceiling plans. Don’t show this kind of information more than once. Before you begin the interior elevations, determine how much of the information usually required there can be handled by an alternative method, such as a typical drawing that shows standard mounting heights for all kinds of toilet room and other appurtenances.

23. Question standard or traditional approaches.

Ask yourself whether you really need a door schedule or a finish schedule before you jump in and make one. Ask yourself whether one of the alternative scheduling methods will suffice for this particular project. Think about whether building sections are really necessary, or the finishes plans. Don’t do it simply because it was done that way on your last project or in your last office. Choose the most economical method that gets the job done.

24. Don’t layer several kinds of information on top of each other.

For example, don’t put reference bubbles on top of dimensions, or room names on top of sprinkler heads, etc. Be especially attentive to this when creating CAD drawings, if some layers are not visible.

25. Naming details

Give some indication as to location, and to whether it is a plan detail or a sectional detail (unless it is patently obvious). Use language such as: “Plan Detail at Cafetorium Column”. We don’t want the detail names to become unwieldy, but they should also stand alone when someone is working their way backwards through a set of drawings.

26. Roof details

Show more clearly the limits and extents of the roof membrane, and the relationship of the membrane to other materials. Use a special line type to clearly differentiate the membrane. Spread the materials out a little graphically so you can clearly follow the path of the membrane. The membrane should extend up the side of the parapet and over the top, except at very tall parapets. You may want to use a dashed line as we sometimes do to distinguish plastic laminate, if it will help clarify this path.

27. Expansion Joints

Show expansion joints all the way through the building — floors, walls, ceilings, roofs. Think about how the building is being isolated for movement, and design your wall locations accordingly. We don’t want wall systems crossing over the expansion joint without a break. If you’ve placed a partition over an expansion joint to conceal it, make sure you show attachment on only one side of the joint; let the other side be free to accommodate the movement around it.

28. Symbols and Notation

Use symbols to identify marker boards, tackboards, fire hose/extinguisher cabinets, etc. Use language such as: MB — 8’ or HC or TB. For those kinds of items, we can dispense with the CSI reference number.

29. Stair Sections

Do not draw shop drawings of stairs for stair fabricators. * If we have a plain old exit stair that doesn’t require any special embellishments, we can rely on the stair fabricator to provide the necessary details using components from his (or her) system. We need to provide only the basic rise and run information, and the conditions at the top and bottom of the flight so (s)he can determine the connection details. * This will require you to become familiar with the components of any of the systems you might get (the “approved” manufacturers in the specs) to make sure you can live with the components provided.

30. Grab Bars and ADA Requirements

When dimensioning grab bars, show the dimension from the front edge of the water closet to the extended end of grab bar (and make certain that dimension complies with ADA requirements) — do not dimension the length of grab bar (which should be handled by a model #). If the bar does not extend to the wall behind the water closet, dimension the distance from the wall to the end of the grab bar. Make sure that all of the dimensions add up to the ADA minimums/maximums.

31. Detailing Techniques

Show masonry in plan details without holes or joints. Use a simple diagonal poché for brick. You may need to confirm that the coursing works out properly, but handle that with a dimension — after you’ve sketched it for your own satisfaction.

At scales of 1” = 1’–0 or smaller, show structural steel members cut in section as solid black. Use a small enough pen weight that the edges of the steel are sharp and clear, and fill in the internal space with solid black fill. On small-scale drawings, the diagonal poché for steel only serves to obfuscate the drawing, and our goal is clarity.

32. Interior Elevations

Do not indicate direction of door swings on interior elevations; door swings are handled adequately on floor plans. By showing swing direction on elevations, you’ve just added one more thing that could be wrong, and has to be checked and coordinated. And also, do not show interior elevations on building cross-sections.

33. Building Elevations

Show materials in elevation with a break line rather than covering the entire visible surface. This helps to define the planes of the building better and makes the drawing easier to read.

34. Plans

Make proper use of dashed lines — use dashed lines to:

  • Indicate items provided (furnished and installed) by owner ➝ Items otherwise not in contract (NIC)
  • Items below grade or otherwise hidden from view
  • Items above the cutting plane

See the Linetype Symbols for more information on what types of dashed lines to use for each purpose.

Do not use dashed lines to:

  • Indicate the work of other disciplines (if it is part of the Work)

Do not use solid lines to:

  • Indicate any item that is NIC

35. Wall Sections

Do not indicate dampproofing on the outside of foundation walls where there is no interior space on the other side. We seem to do this by rote, without thinking about it very much. The purpose of dampproofing is to discourage moisture percolating down from the surface from entering the building through cracks or form tie holes. Obviously, if there is dirt on the other side of that wall, we probably don’t care if percolating moisture makes it through the wall or not (of course, there are exceptions, so make sure you understand the recommendations of the soils report).

If you are concerned about ground water rising up from below, you should be using waterproofing, not dampproofing. Check your soils report for their recommendations.

When noting wall sections, building sections, and elevations:

  • Identify only assemblies and systems on small scale drawings; don’t itemize individual components. Identify components of the systems or assemblies on the details


OK. Top 35 Secrets to Job Satisfaction and Making Yourself Indispensable at Work. Feel free to pick out any 10. When you have mastered those 10, come back again and choose another 10. Feel free to e-mail me with any comments or suggestions of anything I may have left out. I love hearing from you. 

36. General

Do not use the expression “By Others.” That is an expression reserved for use by subcontractors who are referring to someone else also under subcontract with the General who will provide some work that surrounds or is surrounded by that trade. As architects, we must use the term “NIC,” or we must indicate who specifically is responsible for the referenced work.

About the Author

Before starting his own private consulting practice, Larry D. Jenks was a principal with one of the Denver Business Journal’s “Top 10” architectural firms, Klipp Colussy Jenks DuBois. As the firm’s Director of Operations and Principal in Charge of the firm’s Training and Development program, he developed in-house training programs that twice received national recognition for excellence from the American Institute of Architects. As the firm’s Director of Operations, Jenks provided leadership and guidance in the areas of technical design and documentation strategies, always seeking methods of communicating more clearly, more completely and more succinctly with contractors.

From 1989 to 1995, Jenks chaired the Denver Chapter Office Practice Committee of the AIA. In this role, he was the principal author and editor of a manual of architectural standards and practices, which was published by McGraw-Hill in 1995. Since 1995, he has been expanding the scope of this manual for release on CD. Jenks is now retained on occasion by McGraw-Hill to review manuscripts and proposals for new books which are submitted by authors known nationally for related works. In 1996 and 1997, he was Co-Chair of the Professional Development Committee of the AIA (Denver Chapter), which has oversight responsibility for all continuing education programs for architects. More recently, he served on the AIA Design Conference Planning Committee, and as a member of the AIA/AGC/ACEC Liaison Committee.

JNX Group, LLC was established in the spring of 2003, with the mission of “improving architectural practice through the education and training of intern architects.” This education and training includes publication of the AOPS Manual (as mentioned above), a Working Drawings Manual, and providing consultations and leading workshops on practice-related issues together with documentation strategies and methodologies as presented in the AOPS Manual. In the Spring of 2009, JNX Group expanded its practice to include construction litigation consulting.

Image of bighouse by Bjarke Ingels Group courtesy seier