Interview with Peter Gluck

As AIA Design Awards Chairman for 2013, I had the privilege of inviting Peter Gluck to be our lead Juror and guest speaker at our annual gala. Mr. Gluck surpassed my expectations as architect, general contractor and just plain reformer. His views and lucid responses on challenges facing architects today are a rally-cry for young architects.


DANIEL GARCIA: You’re a relentless advocate for architects taking on more work and liability by becoming general contractors as well.

PETER GLUCK:  You can achieve a higher level of architecture by taking control of the entire process. And there really is very little risk. Everybody talks about risk. You know what risk is? Risk is being the architect and putting your stamp, your name on something, and then having someone else build it however they want. That’s risk! I give this talk all the time, and architects respond by saying things like, “why don’t they just listen to us? We’re the ones who understand, we’re the artists,” and so on. Architect-led design-build (ALDB), this is not bullshit, this is for making really good buildings. It’s not for making things cheaper.

DG: So you would say the level of design in your office has improved as a result of ALDB?

PG: I’d go one further, I don’t think we would have gotten any of these projects built if we weren’t building them ourselves.

DG: How is it any different from working with good contractors and having a good working relationship?

PG: You worked for Grimshaw, so you know; some architects are in a different world (in a positive sense). But on a budget of that scale, they’ll have a negotiation over the design with highly specialized contractors and they are going to figure out how to build it. This is what people don’t understand; in the real world, the contractor and his subs, they are constantly talking through it. It’s not down and dirty, there’s this misconception that construction is down and dirty. It is a continuation of the design process. They go back and forth until the sub has drawings he can build from, work from; and the architect has what they want. But in the real world, the world in which most architects live, that doesn’t work. There are some architects out there drawing works of pure fantasy. And then they get involved in construction and you can’t get it built, and then the architect gets frustrated, saying “they don’t understand the vision” and so on. These architects are talented but need to apply their talent in a reasonable manner.

DG: ALDB is predicated on the assumption that the current system for project delivery is overly antagonistic and leads to failure.

PG: Yes, by the end of the process, everybody (client, contractor and architect) is pointing fingers at one another and nobody wants to see anybody again. ALDB is the future in the real world.

DGALDB improves design, but doesn’t it also pass savings to the owner? That’s the standard upsell of design build outfits. How do you eliminate more waste in construction?

PG: If you’re a sub and you’re bidding, sometimes you’re looking at a drawing and it doesn’t show everything in your trade so you’re not sure how to price things…

DG: so you fudge a bit…

PG:  …well, you put a contingency on it. So every trade has this 10% contingency and it really adds up. You could have a million dollars worth of contingency for unknowns on a $10M project. And that’s just in the subs’ pricing, not the GC’s contingency, if he’s guaranteeing a price.

DG: And that’s where good shop drawings come in, because conventionally, subs draw the shop drawings, but they are getting paid to do it. The owner is paying for things to be drawn two, three, or more times.

PG: Instead, we go straight from design to shop drawings, and we’ve figured out how to do it.

DG: In theory, architect led shop drawings would eliminate more unknowns, bringing contingency down. But what about unknowns for the architect? What if they don’t know how to put together a plumbing riser diagram or a rebar placement shop drawing for example?

PG: Once you start building buildings, you have to understand these things. As long as you’re not the contractor, you don’t understand anything. That’s the problem.

DG: But there is a lot of risk to the architect providing unit measurements.

PG:  Sure, the AIA tells you to never ever do that. But you’re not just the architect. You can develop a relationship with your clients in which they understand that you’re doing this on their behalf and for their benefit. And you still carry contingency. They’re the winners, and if there’s an extra, you deal with it depending on what kind of extra it is of course. Now, the first thing a lawyer will say about doing the shop drawings with units is “What about the context? What about the stuff that get doesn’t picked up in anyone’s trade?” Well, we know how to build, so we make sure that we cover that.  For example, a lot of times, a project is burdened because three or four contractors are erecting the same scaffolding. And it’s normal; if the standard of care is higher, the business is accustomed to a certain amount of waste. Well, we know how to eliminate that. But again, you don’t understand that if you are divorced from the building process.

DG: Isn’t that one traditional source of antagonism? The shop drawing process can start a feud between the architect and the GC or his subs.

PG:  Yes. Contractors are good; their weakness is that sometimes they can’t draw. The good ones are very smart anyways. So if you’re the contractor, you can figure out the best way to save cost through shop drawings. Why wouldn’t you do the shop drawings? Contractors are delighted when you do a really good set of shop drawings. They don’t have to flail away at it. As long as the shop drawings make sense. We had this project where there was a very complicated finished wood system. And we gave millwork drawings to the mill so that they could mill each piece down perfectly. Then we had a carpenter on site who had a different set of piece drawings. He was so happy he brought his family to the job and said, “this is the most fun I’ve ever had. This is the nicest project I’ve ever worked on. I’ll never have another project like this.” He was delighted, and he was very proud of his work.

DG: So on a project like Little Ajax, your office invented new ways of cutting metal siding, for example. How do you then get a sub on board with doing it that way?

PG: Well, first, we bid our projects hard. We talk to multiple subs starting very early in design. As your relationship progresses and you have been communicating with that sub through design, you get a good feel for who is going to be able to build the job correctly. And the subcontractors have a lot to teach you. Little Ajax presented many problems that traditional construction couldn’t have easily resolved. It’s not your typical layout for one. The site was essentially unbuildable by conventional standards; we did remediation, and dug out some of the hill and nested the units into the hillside. The site then dictated difficult angles in the exterior siding; we had to invent a new jig in order to cut the metal with precision. The level of precision makes a huge difference in the overall longevity and quality of the project. We also created bid packages and shop drawings for each sub, like the GC or CM typically pays a sub to do. It’s part of their preconstruction fee. But we assumed the role earlier in the process, and the subs know exactly what they are building before they build it.

DG: And at East Harlem School, GLUCK+ was very successful with the GMP and you gave back some contingency right?

PG: Half a million dollars.

DG: What drives that mentality?

PG: Once you get in and realize what the school is doing, and how desperately they need the money, you want to be a part of that.

DG: You’ve been building for a long time. Didn’t you start with your parents’ house in Long Island? How long did it take to learn?

PG: I started while I was in school. We were building our own designs. We did some complicated framing. We got to be really good framers. And then we got to electric, so we went to the equivalent of Home Depot in those days, and bought a book on how to do electric. There it was! We got to plumbing and did that. We got to some fairly complicated flashing details and we figured we’d go to our professors, and they didn’t have a clue. That’s when I really figured it out. What do you say when your teachers don’t know how to guide you?

DG: I think you say there’s a good bit missing from architectural education…

PG: So you start with a small project and it’s a microcosm. You continue learning and learning and you get better and better.

DG: See, every architect leaves school hoping they can improve the world through design. This is a very tangible way of doing it. Better design, more savings, more risk, more reward. It seems you feel you are a revolutionary.

PG: Yeah, I obviously am. I don’t understand it. I can’t understand it. I really can’t understand it. I’m almost done talking to architects, because I talk and they all say, “oh that’s really great,” and then they don’t have the courage to go do it. I talk to all these younger guys – they all want to do it.

DG: Almost every architect wants to build a glass house. GLUCK+ has built many, including a new house for Thomas Gluck on your family property in the Catskills.

PG: It’s really neat. We just finished a new video of this house. It’s one that really explains the house, architecturally. That was a very sophisticated glass system. There was a guy up there that we knew, he was a maintenance man at a hotel. We got a hold of him, he was a smart guy, clever; so we taught him how to build the design and he did it very well.

DGSo was he a GC before that?

PG: No, but like I said, he was a smart guy, and as sophisticated as the construction was, it went together smoothly and he did a great job. That’s the beauty of ALDB, it makes better design possible by taking control of the process as early as possible.

DGWhich is also why you’re now developing. For example, 205 Race Street just got fantastic news from the city of Philadelphia.

PG: Yes indeed, we got a variance to develop a project that people in the old city wanted.

DGAnd how is that one challenging from a design point of view?

PG: It’s design and beyond. The project stalled at one point, stuck in approvals because of the civic association’s opinions. We discovered, through the use of social media, that real people in the Old City really wanted the project. So we pushed. We became activists, so to speak. We believed the height of the project was appropriate for the context, being next to a multi-modal bridge, and knew it would provide critical retail functions for that part of the city. You have young couples there that can’t buy groceries from little bodegas all the time and want more retail options. Our project does that. If you don’t know how to build successfully, you won’t have the confidence to push a project through opposition like we have.

DGThere seems to be no limit to the amount of change that this model can effect.

PG: Yes, that’s why I do these talks [the AIA Gala presentation], because if its only us, then it’s not so believable. But if architects all over are doing it, then people really stop and notice.


Many thanks to the AIA for bringing in Mr. Gluck. And my apologies as this post is two months after the fact, but better late than never. The above is a condensed and edited version of our conversation. I really appreciated his thoughts and hope you will too.

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