A few more miles: Solving problems

I liked Dennis. Not only my client, he became my friend. Honest, upfront, and fair, he lived his life by a series of self-generated maxims – some humorous, some serious, all pithy and exactly on point. One helped soften the blow when things did not meet expectations: Attack the problem, not the person.

Years later, my Mead & Hunt colleagues and I were managing a complex project – a series of additions and renovations to an aging airport terminal that required careful reconstruction of the security screening checkpoint (SSCP) while maintaining continuous airport operations. A key component, the relocation of a poorly placed exit stair, proved to be a difficult design problem. Our solution met the functional requirements while managing engineering retrofits and construction costs. Location was critical to the scheme’s success, with no leeway in dimensional tolerances to avoid structural and mechanical engineering conflicts.

During construction, however, we became concerned that the stair had been framed in incorrectly. Comparing the building’s original 1958 drawings, current construction documents, shop drawings, and photos/sketches with field-dimensioned markups, we confirmed installation was off by 6 inches.

We needed to plan for difficult conversations with the client and contractor. Our team organized the pertinent materials, including our design work from a year earlier, to explain complexities not readily obvious in the construction documents alone. We acknowledged concerns that moving the stair would be a short-term imposition. We reasoned that a modest effort to reconstruct now would best serve the project overall, by avoiding costlier efforts later if insurmountable obstacles arose. We maintained an evidence-backed position that a short-term setback would benefit owner, architect, and contractor and help the entire team meet the prescribed deadline.

We presented our analysis first to our client, who understood the technical issues and requested that the stair be rebuilt, even at the short-term impact to the project’s construction schedule. Tense moments arose in the subsequent conversation with the contractor, though we diffused them by referring always to data illustrated within the documents. Focusing on legitimate scheduling concerns, however, the contractor continued to urge us to reconsider. The conversation ended without clear resolution.

An hour later, much to our surprise, our team received a phone call. After reviewing drawings and photos more thoroughly and discussing our recommendations, the contractor’s team agreed that revising the stair framing was, in fact, an appropriate action. Looking at the entirety of the project – schedule, work-in-place, pitfalls of future insurmountable obstacles – they understood the concerns brought forward and agreed with the validity and soundness of a cautious approach to avoid larger setbacks later in construction.

Thrilled with the outcome and relieved to have a thorny problem resolved, I remembered Dennis’s maxim: “Attack the problem, not the person.” Had we strayed from measurable data and allowed concerns about a difficult construction schedule to prevail, I am convinced the outcome would have been different.

Jeff Gaard

About the Author

Jeff Gaard, AIA, is an architect and project manager for our Architecture & Building Engineering group, and specializes in aviation architecture. He writes about project management and the intersection of Mead & Hunt’s culture and history. A lifelong cyclist, he searches for unexplored routes and vernacular architecture in rural Wisconsin.

Other blog articles by Jeff include:

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