The Disconnect

Napkin Sketch by David Fox (image:

The Disconnect: Communication Between Designer and Designer

For architects, it is odd to view component manufacturers as “designers” because they do not typically make decisions determining the quality of space, aesthetic, and form. However, the component manufacturing industry is filled with “designers,” and they pride themselves on the skills required to fill this role. Truss designers are responsible for preparing the truss shop drawings, which entails determining truss spacing and the exact locations of the truss members according to what is structurally necessary, often reflecting some knowledge of field assembly and concern for avoiding field issues. Essentially, these designers are given the sometimes complicated task of “filling the box” that architects create, as Sean Shields of the Structural Building Components Association explains.

Through the attendance of sessions and conversations with manufacturers at the Building Components Manufacturing Conference October 19-20, 2016 we learned that the architectural design information provided to components manufacturers for any given project often contains inaccuracies or is incomplete. As a result, truss designers understand their role to be not only to “fill the box” but to also accurately define the box boundary, which the architect might have designed for nominal lumber or misunderstood the actual location of a top plate required for their anticipated ceiling height, for example. We heard a surprising number of reports of manufacturers receiving napkin-sketch-equivalents to design from architects. Even more often, the architect has no interaction with the manufacturer whatsoever, and the interaction is solely between the contractor-manufacturer; or, the projects they receive don’t involve an architect at all.

Time loss occurs for truss designers when they must resolve inaccuracies or fill in incomplete information provided to them. As a result of increased design time, the cost can be affected. In absence of direct communication, the architects’ designs become inflexible toward potential simplification or material conservation strategies. To this point architects’ limited direct contact with the building components industry generally is notable. Beyond improved communication, our research points to architects’ opportunities for leveraging custom fabrication possible in the component industry – if architects develop knowledge of the industry and its processes.


The Disconnect: Goals and Mindsets

The logic of manufacturing is rooted in economies of scale, conflicting with the efforts inherent in the design of small, custom projects. Despite this logic, plant managers prefer business strategies involving personal relationships, not always adhering to the most “efficient” methods of production. For example, word of mouth is preferred to strategic marketing, and where excessive design time causes a fee change, the increase is generalized based on the designers’ experience with past projects, thus not highly calculated.

Leaders of the Metrics for Managers session at the 2016 BCMC explained that the tendency to “under-estimate complexity” is costly for manufacturers, suggesting that complexity should be avoided. Customers with overly-complex requests are known as “shop-stoppers” who hinder profitable operations. While an iterative design process is often desirable for the architect, it is unprofitable for the truss designer.

Sean Shields observed that, despite these general observations, the business tactics manufacturers take vary widely, and there are occasions, although rare, when truss designers and architects effectively work together with mutual benefit.



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