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On Being the Bridge

One thing that I have observed in my time as a draftsman, is that there exists a certain awkwardness in which people approach you.  You see, when you’re a draftsman in a large engineering, architectural, or contracting firm, you’re not an engineer, architect, or contractor – but depending on how long you’ve been in your particular field, you can certainly play one.

You know why things look the way they do; you have a little library of basic codes and formulas tucked away somewhere, either in your brain or in a constantly updated notebook or file, enough so that you can start on a design if the team is busy.  Maybe you even have picked up enough knowledge that you can field client calls, or have gotten a certification that shows that you can make crucial design decisions in a pinch.

And yet… there will always be that strange sense of otherness, because in the end you are still not an architect/engineer/designer/contractor/specialist.

Worst case scenarios see the drafting department feeling very isolated:  One, maybe two rather frustrated and lonely individuals who can’t really explain what they do, living in a no-man’s land somewhere in the middle of a Venn Diagram of engineering, graphics, and project management, competent on all but responsible for nothing.

Even worse is when there is a lack of camaraderie.  I have consulted at companies where, from the moment I walk in, I can spot who is the one responsible for the drawings:  They are always the ones without a group.  The engineers will lunch together, the designers take breaks in each other’s cubicles, the project managers are always flitting about conferring with a network of people… but the draftsman doesn’t quite fit into any of those categories and so sits in a cube with nothing but rolls of paper for company.

If those above situations seem uncomfortably familiar, know that it’s a common problem, and also one that wastes the most important talent of a good drafter – being the keystone.  While these groups have a bond and a line of communication amongst each other, a problem I see endemic in offices is a lack of communication between the groups.  Project managers and contractors dread the engineers’ tech-speak.  The engineer tries to actively avoid the paperwork and milestones of the PM while communications with contractors sometimes break down into deadline harangues.  I have even seen strong, downright ludicrous divisions between engineering disciplines:  HVAC system engineers will go ahead with their designs, laying their ducts and returns right over where the Electrical designers have placed their lights and conduit runs, and the problem festers – sometimes right up into the construction phase, at which point the construction managers have to battle to try and get them to talk to each other and share the space.  And that’s if the CM bothers… I have met construction managers who, rather than wasting time trying to mediate a squabble between plumbing and sprinkler over who gets to run their water main where, will instead make the team of installers figure it out on the field.  And that then makes the problem of non-communication reverberate right back up the chain to the draftsman, who now has to create as-builts to reflect the field changes.

Software has been developed to try and fix these very human problems.  A whole host of CADD programs have since incorporated clash detection into their programming, allowing the user to check to make sure that plumbing pipes weren’t designed to be in the same space as a cable tray, or that a duct didn’t get cut off by a last-minute change that raised a ceiling 6 inches up.  But software cannot fix the emotional stress of an office riddled with separate teams with separate goals, or the ridiculous but almost traditional clashes between architects and engineers.

And this, I always tell the people I train, is where the real job satisfaction in being a draftsman comes in.  The role of a draftsman falls less into that of being in a camp, and more of being the one who sees all the different aspects of the project coalesce into that final, beautiful drawing package.  More than any of the other teams, the product you care about, the part of the project that you own, is the part that connects them all together.

Every draftsman I have trained, in every class I have given, I have always tried to make this point:  Be the information hub.  When communications break down between two points – whether between HVAC and telecommunications, the engineers and management, or management and contractors – the draftsman has the power to not only bridge that gap, asking questions and delivering answers between the divisions, but also to bring the focus back to the larger picture and the overall project.  Break down the heavy tech-speak so that project managers can better understand why there’s a delay in the design.  Sit HVAC and plumbing down together and show them there’s only 24” of space above the ceiling that they can and must share.  Provide as much technical support to the engineers as possible, so that they can focus on red-lines and design issues and get done faster.

And most importantly, be the ultimate third-party, the one who is on everyone’s side.  Learn architect jokes for the engineers, and vice versa.  Be the ear for the frustrated security designer who can’t understand why landscaping has to be so particular about fencing, and maybe even help that designer investigate for decorative security fencing.

Many times, when I’ve been out to lunch with an engineer/architect/designer/contractor, I have seen them point to a particular building and say with pride, “I created that building.”  As a draftsman, you may have only created the drawings for it… but it was built because of people who can bridge all the gaps and help weave it all together.  So next time you see a building you worked on, point it out with pride and say “I built that.”

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