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  • Writer's pictureRobert Gittens

Detailing in the AEC World

Updated: Dec 1, 2023

In defense of detailers

Detailers are more important than you may think.

The Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) industry comprises various stakeholders, each with distinct specialities and responsibilities throughout the project lifecycle. This includes professionals such as architects, engineers, and general contractors, as well as various trades and subcontractors, collectively forming the comprehensive AEC team. We will focus on one…detailers.

Just who are these people who we call detailers? They are the workers who generate the specific details of each part and piece of the whole job relating to their particular area of expertise. Generically and somewhat inaccurately, they are responsible for what is called “creating fabrication and construction drawings.”

Detailing occurs in the “C” or construction portion of the AEC process as does the majority of the work in any given project. During this phase (See image below), the design moves from concept to physical and this is when all the missing items of the original design will show themselves. Once construction begins everything speeds up, or at least it appears to speed up and each of the smaller portions of the “C” takes its part and digs into the design.

Technology and BIM

BIM has become a dirty word in many areas of the industry however, it is a critical tool as we move into the digital future. It is important to continue innovating in most industries and in the building and construction field we will need to adjust as technology changes. This technology is what helps the detailer complete their job in an efficient manner and preserves the intent of the original design.

The concept of BIM is reliant on computers and software, but it does require experienced users to produce quality data output. There are various tools that can be used but it is most important for the operator to have a solid concept of the objective and that is a completed structure.

Back to detailers

Now, let’s talk about a misconception of who detailers are and the importance of their role in the process. There is an attitude in our industry conveying that detailers are “cad jockeys” and are only re-drawing what the architects and engineers have designed. This is a gross oversimplification of what a detailer does and explains why detailers feel disregarded many times.

This secondary treatment is sometimes revealed by the simple act of ignoring or delaying the answers to questions and thus disregarding the detailer’s contribution and what they are trying to achieve. There is a belief that architects, engineers, and other disciplines’ drawings and models represent a complete design and are sufficient for construction.

Some new architects will even refer to part of their job as detailing, but creating typical sections and details as well as schedules is not detailing. Every detailer will say that there is almost never anything “typical” on any given job. The act of believing that the design is complete when the contract documents are issued is the impetus behind this situation. Basically, “Just read the drawings” is the implication.

By now we have all seen the meme showing several versions of a certain superhero pointing at one another and this has been adapted in some cases to state “See architectural, see structural, see civil, see mechanical, etc.” This is an accurate depiction of the detailer’s experience many times when researching the contract documents. Once the referenced information is found there are often missing dimensions or relevant data because of a lack of responsibility for ownership.

The lengthy and many times vague contract language makes it unclear just who is responsible for any given piece of information and requires the detailer to infer and interpret what the intent is, create an RFI, and then wait. This RFI is passed through multiple hands before reaching the correct person and once that person receives it, they will have to dig back through the contract documents to find the answer. What happens is that they are already on another project and “do not have time” to look for the answer, so the RFI sits in limbo…eventually answered.

Early detailing

This is why I believe that detailers should enter the project earlier in the process. Working with the engineer and not afterwards would immediately remove most of the RFI process. If one can simply ask the design team a question while the project is still in the design phase, any issues will be solved before the contract documents are created or more accurately while they are being created.

The structural detailing process involves creating detailed drawings and documents that provide information for the fabrication and construction of a structure. There are basically five steps in the process: Investigate, model, approve, revise, fabrication/construction. Of course, one important factor here is that these are not simple steps and require a keen eye and a high attention to detail to complete.

These steps may vary slightly depending on the project type, complexity, and the specific requirements of the construction industry or region. There are many other small steps that fall under office tasks. A true realization of the work done by the detailers in the construction process is important and that is coupled with a two-way communication and validation between the various players in the industry. Or let’s all play well together.

I have been detailing and working in the BIM world for over 25 years and have seen many jobs go by that could have been managed better and many that had no issues, but the one leading point is the old “good input equals good output” cliché. My company strives to take on and detail quality projects while understanding that most of the industry is still in the “we do not need BIM” camp. We also understand the importance of a good detailer on a team and look forward to a day when true BIM collaboration is the standard practice.

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