Teamwork and Detailing

Welcome back to my little column of unsolicited studying advice. Today is Act 3 and we are looking at two more topics, this time a little more outside the basic university requirements: how to work in a team and detailing a building.

How to work in a team

In 8 years of studying to become an architect, I cannot recall a single time I heard someone get excited by the prospect of group work. Instead, most people tended to sigh and moan and generally have a good old gripe. In my opinion, this is silly. Working in a team means, theoretically, that you get to do less work! Ok, maybe not in terms of hours spent, but in terms of topics covered this ‘should’ be the case. A group project gives you the opportunity to make the most of everyone’s individual skill sets to create a piece of work that is far better than something you could produce by yourself.

Unfortunately, this does not always happen. I am going to break down the way I have seen team projects tend to go in the past, and then point out a more idealised alternative. Hopefully, this will all make sense and seem worthwhile to you.

The Typical Process

Step 1: the tutor announces that the next project will be group work. This could be a group research project, a full semester-long project to design a building, a short hackathon type design challenge over a few days, or anything in between. Queue groans.

Step 2: everyone separates off into groups or, occasionally, are assigned groups by staff. This tends to result in friends grouping with friends (understandably) and often has a knock-on effect of pairing together like-minded teammates.

Step 3: the newly formed groups sit around discussing what they need to do until they hit on an idea nobody hates. This can take minutes or days.

Step 4: the group separates out work largely based on who volunteers to do what. In this instance, volunteering can often mean you ‘demand to do the one single thing they like and refuses to entertain the notion of anybody else doing it’.

Step 4a: Someone ends up with all the bit-pieces nobody else wanted to do. Depending on who ends up in this position, this can lead to resentment.

Step 5: everyone splits up, whether in the studio or not, and works on their own little part of the project. Communication at this stage varies drastically between teams.

Step 6: the group meets up again to discuss what everyone has done. At least one person has gone off on a tangent and done something else/not done what they agreed to do/done the exact same thing as another person because that person was assigned the task this person secretly wanted. Everyone talks about what has been produced and what needs to be produced, and who is going to start collating things together (if that is required). 

Step 7: Repeat steps 5 and 6 until either the project is deemed finished by all team members or the deadline arrives.

Step 8: if everyone finishes on time, do a final once-over of everything to check what can be tweaked/improved upon. More likely, as the deadline is tomorrow, everyone panic and rush to finish individual bits and send them to the poor sod given responsibility for making sure everything fits together.

Do you see any issues in the above? I do. I’m sure there are some lucky people reading this thinking “that sounds terrible, my group work never went like that”. Unfortunately in my experience (and clearly in the experience of many others, else Step 1 would not exist) a lot of teamwork seems to end up going this way. I think this is likely due to the fact that as a rule we architects tend to have something of an ego. We have to have some self-worth, else we wouldn’t believe that what we are doing is something anybody else would be interested in. 

This is further exacerbated by the propensity of our architecture courses to focus on the design studio as a solitary endeavour. Most of our work over 5 years of study is done on our own, yet very few buildings are designed by a single person. Even a sole-practitioner creating a house extension will have to work with a builder and an engineer at some point in the process. Yet at university we are trained to have unfettered dreams, creating fantastical structures entirely by ourselves. This obviously has merit in some areas, but in training us to work in practice it is wholly flawed. As such, the above process should ideally work somewhat differently.

The Ideal Process

Step 1: the group project is announced. 

Step 2: ideally, groups would be assigned by tutors and contain a range of interests and abilities. Instead of everyone who regularly gets high marks working together, encourage them to share their knowledge with those who may have to work harder to achieve high marks. Since this is not something we students can necessarily decide, short of insisting our tutors do this, try and form groups with people you wouldn’t normally spend time with different skills and ideas. This more accurately reflects the work environment. You don’t always get to work with your buddies.

Step 2a: if one is not appointed by your tutor (though if I’m being honest they should be) appoint a team leader. In practice, this would be the project architect or a partner/director, but in university team projects there is rarely a leader. Having a leader is vital to successful teamwork. They can make executive decisions if everyone is refusing to agree on something, and they can act as a central point to make sure everyone is carrying out the tasks they get assigned. This can be achieved in a variety of ways, whether by voting, volunteering, drawing names out of a hat, or any other way that makes sense. What is most important is that everyone agrees to the principle that one team member is ostensibly “in charge”, even if their main role is to simply speed things up and reduce disagreements.

Step 3: unfortunately this step is largely the same. Coming up with a great creative idea simply can take a long time. However, to try and be more efficient, everyone can be sent away for a few hours to do some preliminary research and ideas, then come back and present to the group. This will avoid lots of unnecessary “I have this idea” followed by everyone vaguely agreeing before someone says something everyone likes better. This can then be followed up by a group session, perhaps with a big piece of paper for everyone to scribble on so that everyone can begin making connections between ideas. Ultimately this is a key place where a team leader is essential: if time is of the essence they need to be able to make a decision about what design/subject/idea to focus on.

Step 4: work is distributed as fairly as possible, based on each individual’s interests and skills. Again, having a team leader helps as they can assign roles to reduce squabbling. If everyone is given a task, it is much more difficult for someone to claim that another person “stole” their bit of the project. This is particularly useful if any team members refuse to volunteer for anything until the end, only to request doing something completely made up or that has already been assigned to someone else. When doing this, it is essential that each member’s task is a SMART goal (I.e. specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-specific). This makes it very clear what everyone will be doing, rather than one person doing research and another doing renders.

Step 4A: as part of allocating work, a house style should be agreed upon. Teamwork should look coherent and consistent, which is difficult to achieve if everyone simply works in their own way. This is the perfect opportunity for everyone to share their graphical and design tips and tricks with one another to build each other up and improve everyone’s work. It would also be a good idea to assign one person who has a particularly good eye, to check everyone’s work and make any tweaks to ensure consistency.

Step 5: everyone goes and works on their tasks, with clearly defined roles and soft deadlines.

Step 6: work is reviewed regularly as a team in a structured manner, assessing how everyone is getting on with their individual tasks and how they are approaching the ultimate goal. Work is re-allocated as and when it becomes necessary. 

Step 7: Repeat steps 5 and 6 until a self-imposed hard deadline, ideally a few days before the final submission date.

Step 8: the entire team goes over the final product and carries out any last-minute amendments.

I have a feeling that this topic has turned into my longest subject to date, but it is also one of the more complicated ones. Teamwork is something we are rarely specifically taught, and as such, it is difficult to summarise briefly. It also requires knowledge in many of the other areas I have and will cover, in particular the ability to use your tools correctly and manage your time well. This is an area where utilising some sort of shared calendar system could be particularly beneficial. In general, from my experience, the key stumbling blocks in teamwork has always been the lack of a clear leader, the insistence of some members in doing their own thing, and the lack of self-imposed deadlines. With these three things sorted, the rest should (I would hope) be easier to achieve.

Detailing buildings 

The second half of Act 3 is quite different from my previous topics, being far more prescriptive. It is also a particularly detailed topic (no pun intended) and as such I will try to refer more to other sources and keep things brief. This should suffice for most purposes, especially at university.

The first point to make about detailing buildings while at university is that usually, tutors are more interested in seeing that you have made your best effort than that everything is completely correct. Given the general preference for bespoke solutions in architecture (though Modern Methods of Construction are slowly becoming more commonplace) it is unlikely that you will know how to detail everything off the bat. As such, it is best to focus on learning some basic principles and knowing where to go for advice when you get stuck.

  • First things first: think about how you would build it. Most of the time when detailing something you can figure out what to draw by stepping through in your mind how someone might actually go about building it on site. For example, roof tiles get laid last. They are laid on top of the roof structure (whether rafters or joists), which sit on a wall plate that sits on the structure of the walls. This is a particularly simplified description (for example, the insulation has to go somewhere) but should serve to illustrate my point. Thinking about your building in this way will give you the basics for your details.
  • Follow the water. At some point, you will want to stop water from getting into your building. This is usually achieved with a vapour barrier. To figure out where this goes, think about which parts of your building need to stay dry. In the example above, you could theoretically put your vapour barrier under the roof structure, but since this is usually constructed of wood this would not be particularly useful. A similar and equally important consideration is:
  • What needs to be warm? Somewhere your building needs insulating. Usually, this goes within the structure, such as between the leaves of a cavity wall or within the structure of a roof. This is a particularly key thing to consider when detailing junctions, such as a wall to floor joint, as you need to come up with a way to avoid cold-bridging. This usually comes down to figuring out how to wrap insulation around the junction in some way.
  • Know which resources are available. The first 3 points are rough rules of thumb to get you 90% of the way there. To make your detail as perfect as can be you will need to look elsewhere. Some particularly useful resources are:

Resources

This website has lots of useful information, but its founder Emma Walshaw has also produced a series of books filled with technical details. She is also working on a virtual detail library. These provide excellent examples to work from.

While this one is quite dense and finding what you need may take some time, it goes through everything from the substructure up to building services and how they all link together. It is filled with example details and even provides information on calculating U-Values and things such as CDM regulations. These may not be relevant at every stage in your education, but will definitely be useful at some point.

Manufacturers’ websites and representatives. Many manufacturers have example details of their product in-situ which can be altered and tweaked slightly to meet your needs. Velux have dwg files of their roof lights in a variety of roof types, and Kingspan provide descriptions of wall and roof buildups to achieve certain U-values with their products. This can save you a lot of time and effort, and if the manufacturer’s website does not have what you need, they tend to have very helpful employees who will happily assist you in figuring out how to detail something if you ask nicely.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask your tutors, peers, or any practicing architects you know. In the summer a 3rd year I had met during my Part 2 asked me to look at his details for his Technology submission as he was not sure if his junctions were correct. While I did not necessarily know exactly how to achieve what he was after, by this point I obviously had more detailing experience than he did and was happy to help. His details were 90% of the way there, I simply helped tidy them up and make them more realistic. Most of being able to do detailing is common sense, the rest just requires you to find out how different materials tend to be connected together which you will slowly pick up with practice.

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