Peer Review

A wildly underused tool that contributes to quality results

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Craig Colligan


Craig Colligan


Perspective 2023 vol 1
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These days there just doesn’t seem to be enough architects to handle the number of projects out there, with aggressive timelines for projects, owners and their teams want things done efficiently and effectively.

Keeping projects on time, budget and with the highest level of quality becomes even more difficult when operating with a lean team. Routinely doing peer reviews, where accredited professionals review all the nuts and bolts of a design, would seem to be the antidote to addressing any questions before a build begins. Peer review is a process by which experts review a project and offer suggestions and observation, bringing a level of predictability to the project before it goes to bid. 

A peer review can save time, rework, and issues of liability down the road, not to mention the possible cost later of correcting elements of the design that are missing or wrong.   Unlike a constructability review which can take place at almost any time in the design process, a peer review has deadlines. It’s the absolute last stop in the construction document stages.

Design documents are the peer reviewer’s key to a successful evaluation of a project. A good reviewer will read the plans and specifications cover to cover, taking notes as he or she goes along.  Sometimes they pick up omissions, like contracts with RFIs but no deadline for responding. Deadlines are absolutely required so all the T’s get crossed and the I’s get dotted, and everything comes together at once.  Peer reviewers will not sign off on a set of construction documents that’s not 100% complete.

Even with so many new technologies at hand, construction is complex. Design teams are routinely asked to make revisions and updates and a peer review can be a reassuring, second set of eyes and help improve designs, save time during construction, or prevent any rework.

To keep track of all the changes, architects would benefit from their own teams of outside consultants – electricians, masons, etc. – to make sure all the plans are as they should be. To be avoided are instances where, for example, a major piece of ductwork gets left out of the lobby drawings, or where elaborate waterproofing is called for in the project specifications, but the drawings don’t indicate where it goes. In a recent example, drawings called for a room to hold flammable materials; explosion-proof light switches designed not to spark were recommended in a peer review.

Who is the right person to execute a peer review?

The best candidates to do a peer review are seasoned industry professionals from various facets of design and construction who have at least a couple decades of hands-on experience in all kinds of projects, including on-site experience that is considered invaluable. For anyone who has worked in the field and managed construction projects, a successful peer review almost becomes instinct. That instinct translates to an ability to immediately identify items missing from drawings, or places where things can be done simpler.

The experience of years working on an actual construction site sharpens a peer reviewer’s eye in incalculable ways, and goes a long way toward forging astute professionals – Are there walkway pads? Are there enough? Is there a rainwater leader boot on the downspout to protect it from getting dented? Is there a trap primer to prevent toxic sewer gas from seeping up into a building? This kind of field experience is imperative; they learn so much out in the field that working from drawings alone can’t possibly teach them.

While they are not interchangeable, both the constructability review and the peer review will have core teams of hyper-specialized professionals to consult, depending on the type of project.  If it’s an infrastructure or transportation project, an expert doing a peer review will bring in a specialist with expertise in those categories.  Same with health care facilities or air terminals – just about everything requires specialization.  Experienced professionals will know all the requisite building codes or ADA requirements, for example, as they might be specific to the type of project.  

Any omissions in plans today may be a function of the way drawings are done — which is not nearly as good as they were before computerization, according to some construction veterans. Architects used to draw everything by hand but since computerization, practitioners rely on a vocabulary of icons they can drop into any project drawing. It’s much less expensive than doing things manually, but the nature of the software is such that designers end up expressing even the most important idea with a simple graphic that leaves little room for subtle details.

Maybe it’s time the industry began training professionals to do peer reviews. Without it, interesting profitable projects will be replaced by smaller ones executed to lower and lower standards. As they say, reputations get ruined the way one goes broke or gets sick: slowly and then all at once. Just like a good medical check-up, healthy projects start with early prevention.