Total control: How architectural supervision can save your project

Strelka Magazine publishes a column by Darya Paramonova, director of Strelka Architects, in which she explains why a project can never be realised well without the architect’s field supervision.

Photo by Natalia Shlyahovaya


Strelka Architects was founded in 2015 and specialises in designing civic infrastructure, including the recent renovation works on the Garden Ring and New Arbat Avenue in Moscow.

There’s an issue in Russia when it come to architectural supervision. On the one hand, clients refuse to pay for it appropriately. On the other hand, architects themselves tend to spend little time on it, and only if it's absolutely unavoidable. But in reality, field supervision is one of the most important stages of project work: the way everything you’ve drawn on paper is going to be realised depends heavily on it.

How field supervision usually happens: an architect arrives on site and makes a quick note or drawing in a special journal. The contractor and the person responsible for the construction site sign this, and then they all part ways. An ideal situation, on the other hand, would be the following: there’s a temporary office on site — a trailer where work on developing and improving various details is taking place in parallel with the construction process. This trailer is equipped with all the necessities: computer, printer, and a full set of all the technical drawings. It’s also where all the materials samples are being stored, as well as the model. The architect responsible for field supervision is present on site at all times, and if any changes occur (which happens often), he or she must be able to solve the problem then and there. This person develops a new drawing, signs it, and immediately hands it to the construction workers.

What does all this contribute to? An impeccably prepared project documentation is a rarity in Russia: even if a project seems to be ready on paper, in reality you always have to perfect it during construction. And architectural supervision is based on meticulously following everything that’s been included in the drawings.

Another issue is a lack of highly-skilled construction workers. People are usually employed on a short-term basis only, and many of them are unaware of the various technological aspects, so you often find yourself conducting a master class right there on the site. You gather the whole brigade around your, summon the brigade leader, and tell them: “This tile you have to put here, and this one here” — and they lay one fragment. After that, you assess the quality of their work and point out a spot where everything was done correctly and instruct them to continue using this as a perfect example. Unless you organise such meetings, you can end up with almost anything. It’s very important to set the right mood on the site right from the start and explain what the priorities are. For example, on the Garden Ring trees were our main priority, and so before the work commenced the architect said to the team: “If we fail to plant trees here, the project will make no sense”. You also search for solutions together: how to move underground utilities, how to go around obstacles, where a whole line of trees can be moved. The architect must pass on an important principle: if the choice is between saving a tree or keeping a bench, the construction worker should always pick the first option.

Finally, there’s always a difference between the way the architect sees the project and how the construction workers realise it. The goal of the person responsible for field supervision is to guide the project so that it strictly adheres to the project documentation, including all the technical aspects. For example: the topographical survey of the site. It is expected to always be up to date, but often the real situation doesn’t match up with what’s in the documents. A certain underground utility line may be absent from the provided plan. Let’s say you are conducting renovation work on a street. Workers consult the drawings and see that they must plant trees on a particular segment of the pavement. They start digging and suddenly come upon an abandoned sewer made of bulletproof concrete that you can neither move nor detonate. This means that the tree planting scheme needs to be adjusted, and with it the pavement scheme as well — you need to re-think the whole design. Another common example: someone installed a front porch on the pavement, but there’s no indication for it on the plan. A city is a complex mechanism that is always changing, and not every detail can be accounted for. That is why it is very important for the architect to be constantly comparing the plans with the actual situation and supervising the process.

On our Strelka Architects team we have a designated architect for each segment of the street. A segment is a fragment of the street that can be efficiently supervised by one person. For example, on New Arbat we had two architects supervising the process, and in addition to that design concept authors visited and examined the site from time to time. On the Garden Ring we had three segments with a total length of 3 kilometres. They were distributed between 4 specialists — authors of the project — who spent days and days going back and forth. They had to examine two sides of the street in two different directions and check everything.

Unfortunately, you cannot delegate this work — only the the person who was responsible for the project knows what was drawn on the plan and why. He or she can foresee many things. For example, there’s a fountain and all the pedestrians can see it. So it’s important for the pavement pattern to start from the fountain and not the other way around. Sometimes a force majeure situation occurs: the workers made a 5 cm error somewhere at the beginning of the street and by the time they are done with the whole segment that blunder has grown to 5 metres. Therefore, the whole segment needs to be relayed in order to find the exact spot where the error was made.

In the case of the My Street programme, the contractors were selected by tender, and they were also responsible for the design and estimate documentation — we could only give approval or disapproval in terms of its faithfulness to the design concept. It’s a lengthy, complex and stressful process. Unsurprisingly, contractors start offering their own solutions, which they consider to be the best ones. It’s a bit like table tennis: they send you their proposal, you answer with comments, receive an updated version, and provide some more feedback. By the end of this process everyone just wants to come to a consensus and approve everything, because the construction work is usually due to start very soon.

In accordance with the law, the contractor must always be present on site, but as they are not the project authors, they are rarely motivated to follow that rule. They play their role, but if something goes against the plan, they refuse to worry about details. After all, there’s no legislation regulating the extent to which the design concept matches the design and estimate documentation.

We once had a case where there was a parking spot in our plan, but in reality the topographical survey failed to include an underground concrete utility chamber right under that spot. The parking spot’s curbstone was really tall — 30 cm, almost the whole height of it had to be buried underground, but it couldn’t go beyond the level of that concrete chamber. The contractor’s immediate reaction was: “Okay, let’s not make a parking spot here, it’s impossible”. But we convinced him that with a bit of sawing and moving we could solve this problem. We were highly motivated to make all the parking spots in accordance with the project. Of course the contractor also has priorities, but the author’s motivation is stronger. Each solution is important, and our responsibility is to make sure that everything is delivered accordingly. But unfortunately, there’s always a chance that something will not be realised: a tree cannot be planted here, a street lamp cannot be installed there, a parking space has to be scrapped — but what remains of the project? Yes, it is a very manual approach to management, but that’s the Russian reality. Of course, one day construction technology will improve, but right now it is what it is — you have to supervise everything personally.

Field supervision means not just being present on site, but also an opportunity to approve various custom-made elements. It’s one thing to develop something on paper, but quite another to install it and ensure that the scale is right. For example, while working on the Garden Ring we were constantly discussing the distance between the trees. There are set requirements for this that allow the crown to develop properly, while maintaining a close distance between the trees. But the gap can vary. We tried to test these requirements by staging the tree scheme in our office, and there all the distances seemed gigantic. But when we saw it on site, they turned out to be tiny. The scale is perceived differently, and so supervision must start before you even commence construction.

When developing a streetlamp typology for the streets of Moscow, we re-created several historical lamps and designed two standard lamps as well as several unique ones. With the measurements provided by the “Lights of Moscow” museum we created life-size styrofoam models in order to make sure that all the elements were the right size and corresponded well to each other in terms of scale. The same applied to trees: the project authors visited every plant nursery that had the desired type of tree, examined the plants, and picked the best ones — healthy, strong and with a bushy crown. The final choice of trees was of course the contractor’s responsibility, but the author of the project could always provide recommendations. Different types of trees behave differently depending on where they are planted.

We spent the whole summer of 2016 on the Garden Ring, every day either our architect or I was present on the site. Many kilometres were walked under the sun and rain. It was truly exhausting, but you can never have too much supervision. 

Translation: Alexandra Tumarkina