Missing Scope

David Stutzman of Conspectus wrote a blog post last week about his experience finding construction document scope omissions and other issues in a set of progress construction documents. These omissions and issues would have amounted to lots of scope of work missing from the construction documents (leading to change orders), and some potentially serious construction and building performance problems, had he not commented on them to his architect-client.

Dave asked, “So why is the specifier finding this? Well given the time, finding stuff like this and asking questions is all part of the job. This is what goes on in the background and owners are never even aware. Most owners don’t know if a specifier is involved and rarely, if ever, know who it is. Yet it is often the specifier who keeps the projects out of trouble and all without the owner knowing.”

The reasons specifiers often find problems such as Dave found are because of Dave’s reasons above, and also because of the way specifiers approach their work in the planning stages. Like Dave, I prepare a table of contents to include with my fee and services proposals. Sometimes I have the architect’s DD drawings to look at, sometimes I just have a concept design narrative.

The reason I do a table of contents with my proposal is because I approach the project from a point of view of the whole picture. I want to consider every spec section we might possibly need. Then I remove from my list what we don’t need, and there’s my table of contents – my scope.

Instead of gathering up my scope bit by bit, and building up my table of contents, by adding each section I think we’ll need, I consider all of the potential scope, and then delete what I know we don’t need, subtracting from my master table of contents to get down to my project table of contents.1

For me, creating a table of contents is not like building with Legos, it’s like sculpting stone; in creating a table of contents, I just chip away all that is not part of the project.

Like Dave does, in my proposed table of contents next to the sections that I expect to be someone else’s work, I indicate that. I’ve never had an experience as extreme as the one described in Dave’s post, but I regularly have similar experiences on a smaller scale, where some necessary project scope is just missing from the work of architect/consultants/specifier. I’m often the first person to notice the omissions in progress sets, even though I don’t ever see other consultants’ proposals.

As most design professionals who have worked with specifiers know, we are extremely detail-oriented people. We get deep into the details. However, in order to know where to go to dive deep, we have to lay out our plan of action first. We see the big, big picture. That’s partly because we often prepare Division 01, which prompts a whole lot of questions about procedures during construction, and a whole lot of questions about what is in the Owner-Contractor agreement. It’s partly because we lay out our project road map (table of contents) very early, so we don’t get burned, fee-wise.

I never approached projects in this manner when I worked as a project architect. There was no listing of all the drawings that I might need anywhere in my office or anywhere else that I knew of. I actually don’t know any architects who approach projects in the same way most specifiers approach projects.

However, this approach would be a good way for an architect who is the owner’s prime consultant on a project to approach the division of design work, and to verify that all design work, and the production of all construction documents required for the project, is assigned to someone, and is accounted for in consultants’ proposals if the architect isn’t doing it. This would help ensure that the owner is getting what he thinks he’s getting for the contractual design fee – a completely designed project. This would also help prevent massive change orders due to missing scope during construction.

If an architect can’t take this approach, he or she should at least note all explicit exclusions by consultants in their proposals, then verify that the architect or another consultant is covering that work, and if not, verify that the owner does not need that work to be done. If the owner does require that work, the architect should get that work added into someone’s scope before construction begins.

 

Notes:

1. CSI’s MasterFormat is the Master-Master Table of Contents, but I usually just use MasterSpec’s complete Table of Contents as my Master Table of Contents, plus some additions of my own.

Continuous Insulation & Masonry Veneer Anchors

There’s something that architects need to be aware of as we use increasingly thicker continuous insulation behind masonry veneer cladding.

If the distance between the structural steel backup and the back of the masonry veneer cladding exceeds 4-1/2 inches, the masonry veneer anchor spacing must be designed by a structural engineer.1

Masonry veneer anchor spacing is not usually designed by a structural engineer; the code provides prescriptive requirements that we typically follow, and this spacing is most often indicated in the specifications by the architect or the structural engineer.2

Manufacturers of some types of masonry veneer anchors indicate that the legs of the anchors can accommodate up to 4 inches of insulation. But even these can’t be used without having calculations run by an engineer, unless you keep the distance between the structural steel backup and the back of the masonry to 4-1/2 inches. (This would leave very little air space. You need at least 1 inch of air space, per the code, and an air space of 2 inches is recommended by the Brick Industry Association.3)

By the way, these things aren’t spelled out in the text of the International Building Code. They’re in a separate document that is incorporated into the IBC by reference, the TMS 402/ACI 530/ASCE 5. This document is called “Building Code Requirements for Masonry Structures,” and is developed by the Masonry Standards Joint Committee (MSJC). Since it’s referenced in the IBC, it becomes part of the requirements of the IBC.4

So, architects, either stick with 4-1/2 inches or less between the structural steel backup and the back of the veneer masonry, or let your structural engineer know, as soon as possible, that you are exceeding 4-1/2 inches. If it’s too late for your project, sometimes the masonry veneer anchor manufacturer who gets the project will hire a structural engineer to check (or design) the anchor spacing. The cost of this service would get passed on to the general contractor and then to the owner (as an extra cost). Avoid a construction change order – deal with this on the design side, before construction starts.

Notes:

________________________________________________________________________

  1. Chapter 12, section 12.2.2.7.4 of the latest version of TMS 402/ACI 530/ASCE 5 indicates that “A 4-1/2 inch maximum distance between the inside face of the veneer and the steel framing shall be specified. A 1 inch minimum air space shall be specified.” There are alternative procedures allowed by the code that can be used instead of these prescriptive requirements, but the alternative procedures are what require a structural engineer to design the anchor spacing.
  2. Chapter 12, section 12.2.2.5.6 of the latest version of TMS 402/ACI 530/ASCE 5 tells us the prescriptive requirements for anchor spacing: “For adjustable two-piece anchors, anchors of wire size W1.7, and 22 gage corrugated sheet-metal anchors, provide at least one anchor for each 2.67 ft2 of wall area.
    “Space anchors at a maximum of 32 inches horizontally and 25 inches vertically…”
  3. The Brick Industry Association publishes online Technical Notes on Brick Construction. Here’s a link to their Technical Note on “Brick Veneer/ Steel Stud Walls.” http://www.gobrick.com/portals/25/docs/technical%20notes/tn28b.pdf
  4. Section 2101 of the 2012 IBC indicates that “Masonry veneer shall comply with the provisions of… TMS 402/ACI 530/ASCE 5.”

“Or Equal”

equal symbol2“Or Equal” is the most confounding phrase in construction documents.1

It means something different to everyone. Sometimes it’s defined in the documents. Sometimes it’s not defined in the documents, which means that the documents are relying on a generally-accepted understanding of the meaning. The problem is that “Or Equal” means different things when defined on different projects so there’s really no generally-accepted understanding of the meaning.

If “Or Equal” is defined, the definition, or description of procedures, should be somewhere in Division 01 of the specifications. In addition, it’s likely to be somewhere in Division 00 of the Project Manual, usually in the “Instructions to Bidders” form.2

In Division 01, the most likely place to find the definition of “Or Equal” is Section 01 60 00 “Product Requirements.” That’s the place to start, anyway.

The major confusion that I’ve seen among people3 dealing with “Or Equal” is the question of when “equals” can be accepted.  The document that defines “Or Equal” should indicate when they can be submitted on, and how and when they can be accepted.

Recommendation for the contractor team:

If “Or Equal” is used in the construction documents, look it up in the documents for the project. Find out its definition for each project. Make no assumptions on a new project. Understand that the definition may differ from project to project. A tip: use the “find” function in the software you’re viewing the electronic documents with, and search for “or equal” in Divisions 00 and 01.4

Recommendation for architects and specifiers:

If you are going to use “Or Equal,” properly define it in the construction documents. (If the owner uses it in the procurement and contracting requirements, you need to use it.) Use the definition the owner uses. If you can’t find one in the owner’s documents, ask the owner about this. Understand that you may have to expand on the owner’s definition in order to make it clear to the contractor team. Understand that if you are working on a project with a general contractor on board prior to completion of the construction documents, such as a Construction-Manager-at-Risk/Construction-Manager-General-Contractor project, the CM may be issuing instructions to bidding subcontractors, and you should make sure that these do not conflict with the owner’s definition of “Or Equal.” This is part of the architect’s job.

Recommendation for owners:

Figure out if you want to allow “equals” or not. Figure out if you want them to be treated as substitutions or not. Figure out if you want to allow substitutions-for-contractor’s-convenience after the contract is signed or not. (Remember that substitutions-for-convenience after the contract is signed are usually not allowed on public projects, because it’s not fair to the bidders who did not win the contract.) Then communicate this to the architect, whether the architect asks for this info or not.

The way I work (this is kind of long-winded, so you can skip from here to the bottom if you want):

Except where specifically included in an owner’s requirements (either in procurement requirements, in contract documents, or in instructions to the design team) I do not use the term “Or Equal” in my project specifications.5

For unnamed products by manufacturers that I name in the specs, I use the term “Comparable Products” and specify that submittals for these products are due at the time that the submittal for a named product would come in, during construction.

For unnamed products by unnamed manufacturers, I use the term “Substitution” and, except on projects in which the owner wants substitution requests to be allowed during construction, I indicate that substitution requests must be submitted prior to the bid and will be accepted in the form of an addendum, which will be issued to all bidders.

The latest project I had on which the owner used “Or Equal” in the procurement requirements was a project at Colorado State University. CSU uses State documents. The State’s definition of “Or Equal” includes “Any material or equipment that will fully perform the duties specified will be considered ‘equal,’ provided the bid submits proof that such material or equipment is of equivalent substance and function and is approved, in writing.  Requests for the approval of ‘or equal’ shall be made in writing at least five business days prior to bid opening.  During the bidding period, all approvals shall be issued by the Architect/Engineer in the form of addenda at least two business days prior to the bid opening date.”

Since that’s exactly how I treat substitution requests, in Section 01 60 00 “Product Requirements” I indicated “Or Equal:  For products specified by name and accompanied by the term ‘or equal,’ or ‘or equivalent,’ or ‘or approved equal,’ or ‘or approved,’ comply with requirements in Division 00 Document ‘Procurement Substitution Procedures’ for submitting a substitution request to obtain approval for use of an unnamed product.  These substitution requests must be submitted at least 5 days prior to the bid date.”

The full procedures were indicated in Document 00 26 00 “Procurement Substitution Procedures” in the project manual. That document again defined “Or Equal,” indicated that they had to be submitted prior to the bid, and also defined Procurement Substitution Requests as “Requests for ‘Or Equals,’ and other changes in products, materials, equipment, and methods of construction from those indicated in the Procurement and Contracting Documents submitted prior to receipt of bids.”

So, what does “Or Equal” mean? Whatever the contract documents say it means.

It comes down to this: Owners should define “Or Equal.” Architects and specifiers should explain it. Contractors should look it up. We just need to communicate.

Notes:

______________________________________________________________________

  1. “Or Approved Equal” is equally confounding, and can be substituted for “Or Equal” in this post.
  2. The Colorado Office of the State Architect calls the form “Information for Bidders” instead of “Instructions to Bidders.” Sometimes these instructions aren’t included in the Project Manual, but are instead issued separately, either by the owner or by a Construction-Manager-at-Risk/Construction-Manager-General-Contractor.
  3. By “people” I mean the whole freakin’ team. Owners are confused. Architects are confused. Engineers are confused. General Contractors are confused. Subcontractors are confused. Vendors are confused.
  4. On your computer keyboard, hitting the Control key at the same time as the F key will usually bring up the Find function. It works in Microsoft Word, PDF readers such as Adobe Acrobat Reader, and web browsers.
  5. Sometimes engineers sneak “Or Equal” into the project specifications, though.

“The Strangest Way To Do Business”

Purchasing for construction projects isn’t like purchasing in our personal lives.

When we buy things in our personal lives, we go to a store, or go online, find exactly what we want, and buy it. Sometimes we ask someone else to get something for us. The very particular among us might attach a photo of exactly what we want when we send the email or text message request for the item. (To end up with the right container of anchovies, I might need to send my husband a photo of the jar.)

On construction projects, the architect finds out from the owner the general idea of what is required, then the architect, through the drawings and specifications, tells the general contractor exactly what to provide. OK, so this is complicated, but it still makes sense.

What happens next is where it gets weird…

The bidding general contractors solicit bids from subcontractors and vendors, each of whom is a specialist in his or her area. These are the people who read the documents and actually provide what the drawings and specifications require, and the general contractor who is awarded the project coordinates all of that work. These bidders may submit bids on the specified items, or may submit substitution requests, requesting that different products be approved by the architect.

Last week I was talking with a product rep at my CSI Chapter meeting about specifications for toilet partitions and lockers. The rep represents several different manufacturers. She currently has someone working with her who is new to the construction industry.

The new person looks at specifications for all projects that have just hit the street, to see if the specs include manufacturers they represent, or products that they might be able to meet the spec for, even if their manufacturers aren’t specifically listed. If their manufacturers aren’t listed, but they can meet the spec, the product rep will prepare a substitution request and submit it to the general contractor for him to submit to the architect, to see if they can get approved, and therefore be able to provide a bid.

The new employee described this process as “the strangest way to do business.” It is very odd, from a manufacturer’s or distributor’s point of view. The building owner, through the architect, asks for something specific, or maybe says “provide one of these 3″ or maybe says “provide this, or something equal.” Then the manufacturer, distributor, or subcontractor goes through a process which looks a bit like begging to be allowed to play, too.

This isn’t actually that strange when the documents are clear.

The intent, and the outcome, of this process is that the design team can research one, two, or three products that will work on the project, indicate the important characteristics of the desired products, and allow competitive bidding through the substitution request and review process. This can result in a fair price for the owner, set up clear quality requirements so that bidding is fair for contractors, and allow the open competition that is usually required for government projects.1

But when the specifications are poorly written, this process actually IS one of the strangest, most inefficient, ridiculous ways to do business.

Sometimes subs and vendors have to play a guessing game, trying to figure out exactly what products are desired or allowed. Sometimes, bad specifications call for discontinued products, or worse, products by manufacturers who went out of business years ago. Sometimes, bad specifications are uncompleted master specification sections, with multiple options (that were intended to be deleted) indicated. (That looks something like this, with brackets and bold text:  Toilet-Enclosure Style: [Overhead braced] [Floor anchored] [Ceiling hung] [Floor and ceiling anchored].) Sometimes, bad specifications indicate a mix-and-match monster of a product that isn’t available, such as when “manufacturer’s standard polymer integral hinge” is specified for steel toilet compartment doors. (A sub knows the architect doesn’t really want polymer “integral” hinges for a steel door, because there is no such animal, but has no idea if the architect wants hinges that are stainless steel, aluminum, or “chrome-plated zamac.”)

Now, toilet compartments aren’t a huge percentage of construction cost for a whole building. But it’s an easy example. Imagine the confusion and wasted time when errors like this are made in the masonry spec section for a large brick building with CMU backup. For a project that’s bid by several general contractors, there could easily be 3 bidding subs for each of 3 bidding generals – so there could be 9 confused subs who have gone back to their 3 generals, who have gone back to the architect (another confused person) who goes back to whomever wrote the spec. And the person who wrote the spec now has to do what should have been done in the first place – figure out exactly what is needed, and clearly communicate that to the bidders. It’s easier for the specifier to do it right the first time, but it’s not only his or her own time that’s wasted – there could easily be more than a dozen additional people who are all trying to figure out the same thing.

That really is the strangest way to do business – trying to figure out something that lots of other people are also trying to figure out, merely in order to submit an accurate bid that would allow them to deliver what is required, at a fair price, and to make a fair profit.

Bidding for, and building, a construction project shouldn’t be a guessing game in which one tries to interpret documents that make no sense. When the documents are good, and clearly indicate the requirements for a constructible building, bidding goes more smoothly because there are fewer addenda, bids are closer to each other (demonstrating that the owner is getting a fair price), and construction goes more smoothly. Less time is wasted on the design team side and on the construction team side. The design team should get it all figured out in the design phases; changes made in the design phases cost much less than changes made in the construction phase. When the documents are good, both the design team and the construction team have more profit, and the owner has fewer change orders to deal with and pay for.

Isn’t this what we all want?

___________________________________________________________________________________________

Notes:

  1. For further reading on the substitution process, check out this great article by Ron Geren, “Substitutions: Flexibility within Limits” http://www.specsandcodes.com/Articles/Keynotes%20No.%208%20-%20Substitutions.pdf and the article he cites, “Prior Approval, A Specification System,” by H. Maynard Blumer http://lizosullivanaia.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/prior-approval-a-specification-system2.pdf  As Ron Geren points out, the Prior Approval System was the first formalized substitution procedure. (Yes, we’ve had a formal substitution procedure for decades now. I know, this is news to many.)

Square Peg, Round Hole?

Does anyone else think it’s funny to see CSI MasterFormat 2004 section numbers rammed into the old CSI MasterFormat 1995 categories in construction estimates?

This is what most of the construction estimates that I see look like:

Division 1 General Requirements

01 50 00 Temporary Facilities and Controls

Division 2 Site Work

02 41 19 Selective Demolition

31 00 00 Earthwork

32 12 16 Asphalt Paving

Division 15 Mechanical

22 00 00 Plumbing

23 00 00 HVAC

Division 16 Electrical

26 00 00 Electrical

It looks funny to see section numbers that start with 22 put under Division number 15.  In the olden days, like maybe in 2003, the same info would have looked something like:

Division 1 General Requirements

01500 Temporary Facilities and Controls

01732 Selective Demolition

Division 2 Site Work

02300 Earthwork

02741 Asphalt Paving

Division 15 Mechanical

15000 Mechanical

Division 16 Electrical

16000 Electrical

See how nice and neat that looks with those first 2 numbers of each section matching the Division number of the category?  But then the spec writers went and started using different section numbers.  So there was some confusion, a period of transition…

But now, 9 years after MasterFormat 2004 was published, I’d expect this same info to be categorized like this:

Division 01 General Requirements

01 50 00 Temporary Facilities and Controls

Division 02 Existing Conditions

02 41 19 Selective Demolition

Division 22 Plumbing

22 00 00 Plumbing

Division 23 Heating Ventilating and Air Conditioning

23 00 00 HVAC

Division 26 Electrical

26 00 00 Electrical

Division 31 Earthwork

31 00 00 Earthwork

Division 32 Exterior Improvements

32 12 16 Asphalt Paving

But mostly, it’s not.  Those square pegs keep getting rammed into those round holes.

  

Communication Breakdown?

Ever feel like you just aren’t being heard?  Ever feel like you aren’t sure exactly what someone’s talking about?  I do.

We hear a lot about how we work in “silos” today; we often work a little bit too independently from the rest of the people we’re supposed to be teaming with.  We make assumptions about the work of others (and then build our work from there); we sometimes make incorrect assumptions (and that affects our work negatively).

I love working independently, and I love working with other architects, but… the more I understand about the other people affected by my work, the better I can do my work.

When architects understand more about the point of view of a contractor, a subcontractor, a manufacturer, a supplier, or an owner, we can understand them better, we can make ourselves understood better, we can have a better team.  We can have a better construction process!

I often work on trying to learn more about the perspectives of others in the construction industry, but my first big step towards a better understanding was taking the CSI CDT exam.

The CDT (Construction Documents Technologist) exam covers a lot of information about preparing, understanding, and interpreting construction documents, and the roles of different groups in the construction process.

It was my first non-project-related introduction to the processes involved on the contractor side of the team.  There’s a lot I’d still like to learn, about the perspectives of the owner and the contractor during construction, but the CDT exam was a good start.

Learning more about where others are coming from can help you avoid communication breakdowns.

  • Final registration deadline for CSI Spring Certification Exams is February 28th.
  • Exams will be offered April 1 – 27, 2013, in the U.S. & Canada.
  • Learn more at http://csinet.org/certification

What is “Building Technology”?

I often mention “building technology” in my blog posts.  I’ve realized that I’m using a term that many people aren’t familiar with.

When I use the term “building technology,” I am not talking about information technology within a building.  I am not talking about the software technologies used to design buildings.  I’m not talking about only high-performance buildings.  I am not talking about only new technologies in building systems.

I am talking about “technology” in terms of its most basic, stripped-down definition: “1. The practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area. 2. A manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge.”  (Definition is from Merriam Webster.)

And I am talking about “building” as defined by Webster, too: “The art or business of assembling materials into a structure.”

When I use the term “building technology,” I mean knowledge of the technical processes and methods of assembling buildings.  Drawing proper construction details requires understanding building technology.  Identifying conflicts between the construction documents and the way things are being built on the job site requires understanding building technology.

Knowledge of building technology is an important part of the practice of architecture, but it’s an area in which many of today’s young architects are weak.  This is an area in which I was weak, until I started writing specs and suddenly had starting points for researching my questions (or rather, I suddenly realized what questions I ought to be asking).1

We hear a lot about high-performance new technologies in buildings, but somehow, we seem to have lost the basics of knowledge about detailing foundation, roof, and exterior wall assemblies that meet the minimum of the applicable code requirements.

Without an understanding of basic building technology, an architect cannot properly prepare construction documents for submittal to the authorities having jurisdiction for the purposes of obtaining a building permit.

From the 2009 International Building Code (which has been adopted by many municipalities), Chapter 1, 107.2.4 “Exterior Wall Envelope”:

“Construction documents for all buildings shall describe the exterior wall envelope in sufficient detail to determine compliance with this code. The construction documents shall provide details of the exterior wall envelope as required, including flashing, intersections with dissimilar materials, corners, end details, control joints, intersections at roof, eaves or parapets, means of drainage, water-resistive membrane and details around openings.” 

Without an understanding of basic building technology, an architect cannot demonstrate (to an owner, to a contractor, or to the building department) the constructability of a design.  A building is not made up of bits and pieces erected next to each other; a building is composed of interrelated systems and assemblies that work together to contribute to the building’s proper functioning.  If these components are not carefully selected, specified, and detailed, with the designer taking into account these components’ effects on all the other parts of the building, the completed building may not be able to protect its occupants from drafts, moisture intrusion, mold, condensation, cold, outside noise, or excessive heat.

When I worked as a project architect, I often put off the detailing of tricky conditions until the last possible time.  I know that some other architects do, too.  Drawing construction details is hard work.  There are other, more fun, more easily achieved, tasks that also must be accomplished before a set of construction documents is finished.  But waiting to detail the tough transitions is a problem – when we finally get into the meat of these things, sometimes we realize that the assumptions we’d carried all along were incorrect, and we need a taller parapet, or we need more rigid insulation in the cavity, or we need a building expansion joint.

This detailing work can be less tedious, less torturous, and less time-consuming when we have more knowledge and more understanding of these things.  We produce better construction documents, and help to get better buildings built, when we know more about building technology.

Without an understanding of basic building technology, we can’t contribute much to high-performance building initiatives, such as those by the Building Enclosure Technology and Environment Council (BETEC) of the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS), and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy Building Technologies Program, the U.S. Green Building Council, and many cities and states.  Just as the IgCC (International Green Construction Code) is an overlay to the other ICC codes (such as the International Building Code), high-performance building technology does not replace, but enhances, basic building technology.

But… who’s teaching architects about basic building technology today?

Architecture school curricula have gotten heavier on design; architecture graduates are supposed to learn almost everything else they need to know during their internships.  But as more and more knowledgeable gray-haired architects retire, many of the mentors for interns and young architects know less about basic building technology than the mentors of the past.

CSI (the Construction Specifications Institute) recognizes this problem, and is currently exploring the concept of a Building Technology Education Program.  The task team for this program has been charged with formulating “the concept of a building technology education program for participants in the design/construction industry that will benefit the industry by raising the technical knowledge of the participants.”  I don’t think a program like this exists today, and I don’t think that any other organization is working on anything comprehensive like this proposed education program.2

This program is envisioned as being for everyone in the construction industry – not just for intern architects and emerging professionals.  (Architects, remember: we’re part of the construction industry.)  The more that everyone in the industry can understand the concept that all parts of a building are interrelated, and that a modification to one assembly may require modifications to other assemblies, the more effective all of us in the construction industry can be.

Notes:________________________________________________________________________________

  1. Here are some links to past blog posts of mine that discuss technical weakness in architects – including my own past technical weakness.  I have greatly increased my understanding of building technology – anyone can.
    1. http://lizosullivanaia.wordpress.com/2012/02/06/architects-take-back-the-reins/
    2. http://lizosullivanaia.wordpress.com/2012/05/30/the-fervor-of-a-convert-part-one/
    3. http://lizosullivanaia.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/the-fervor-of-a-convert-part-two/
  2. Here’s the roster of the Building Technology Education Program Task Team on the CSI website http://new.csinet.org/csi_services/committees.aspx.  (Scroll down to “FY 2013 Building Technology Education Task Team.”)  If you have suggestions for the team, please contact one of the members.

Right, or Not Wrong… or Just Plain Wrong

The gist of David Stutzman’s August 2010 blog post, “’Right’ or ‘Not Wrong’ – Choose Your Specs Wisely,” has remained in my head since I first read it.  “Right” or “not wrong” is something that I think about as I make my way through the preparation of project specifications in an early design phase of a project.  For progress sets in Design Development Phase and early Construction Documents Phase, I always shoot for “right” or “with-lots-of-notes-to-architect.”

In that post, Dave wrote:

Specifications can be written so they are “right” or so they are “not wrong.”   These two are very different.

“Sometimes specifiers are forced to write a “not wrong” spec. This usually occurs when the design schedule is short, when the specifier is asked to start near project completion, when little documentation of product selections exists, or any combination of these. The “not wrong” spec is generic, non-specific. It lists basic products and materials, but does little to address project specific conditions. The detail of terminations and interfaces with adjacent materials – issues that can easily lead to failures – are glossed over or not even mentioned.  This lack of specificity can lead to unnecessary, expensive change orders. Processing these change orders increases construction administration costs, and can result in budgetary disaster on a project.

“To produce a spec that is “right,” the specifier must understand the project and the design intent.” ~ David Stutzman

When “not wrong” specs are further edited to be project-specific, and therefore “right,” they can save time and money for the contractor, owner, and architect.  “Not wrong” specs tend to push design decisions into the construction phase.  Design decisions cost less money when they’re made in the design phases, and specs that are “right” are issued.

Now, from the “Things I Shouldn’t Even Have To Say” file:

“Not wrong” specs are not great, but sometimes I see “just plain wrong” specs.  Sometimes such specs actually contain mentions of the wrong owner, the wrong building, or the wrong city.  (If the spec section is for an engineering discipline, or audio-visual systems, or kitchen equipment, this is often the only way I, an architect, know it’s wrong.)  This is an embarrassment to the entire design team.

I think this happens because of a combination of two factors:

First, in early design, people figure, “oh, we’ll do it like that one project, except for this, and that…” and they think it’s ok to issue, as part of a progress set, the finished specifications from that old project, to make the set look more complete.  It’s not ok.  Every project is different.  If you need a “placeholder,” then consider issuing a complete Table of Contents for the Project Manual, naming all the spec sections that will be included in the final issue, and indicating which sections are not included in this progress issue, but will be included in the next.  Do not issue something that is wrong.

Second, many design professionals simply do not understand the importance of specifications.  Specs are much more than just a “deliverable” due to the owner.  Specifications are an inextricable component of the construction documents, even in early design phases.  If someone is estimating the cost of the project (and someone almost always is, even in early design phases) that person is using the issued progress set specs to help to determine what is supposed to be in the project, and therefore, how much the project will cost.  Don’t issue a spec section if it doesn’t say what you want it to say.  Hint – you must read it before you can know whether it says what you want it to say or not.

“Not wrong” specs can lead an estimator down the correct path, just not quite far enough.  “Just plain wrong” specs usually lead that estimator all the way down the wrong path, wasting time and money for everyone.

If you’re not finished preparing your specs when your deadline comes, issue something less, issue something smaller, but don’t ever issue something that’s just plain wrong.

A Holiday Tale About [Construction] Communication

Some dear relatives-by-marriage of mine hosted us for the Thanksgiving weekend in a warm place.

For Thanksgiving dinner, in addition to my husband, kids, and me, they invited some friends. Twice during the day Thursday, I asked what time people were coming over. The first time, I didn’t get an answer. The second time, I was told that the turkey should come out of the oven at 5:30, so we’d probably eat at 6:30, and that the guests would come over “whenever we tell them to.”

I went for a run, came back to an empty house, and took a shower.

So at 5:00, I was in the kitchen slicing crudités, in strange comfy clothes, with wet hair half up on my head, and wearing no mascara. My husband was still at the beach with the children, one of the hosts was on the lanai, smoking and still wearing golf clothes, and the other was in the shower…

… and the guests walked in.  

They’d been told several days earlier to arrive at 5:00 on Thanksgiving. They could tell that we weren’t ready, and they appeared to be quite uncomfortable. Of the 6 adults involved in dinner, only half of us seemed to be bothered by this mixup, failure-to-communicate, lack-of-modification-of-original-instructions, whatever it was.

Surely an unusual situation, right? And those of us who were unsettled should maybe just lighten up?

Well, no. One story, two messages:

The first message: This kind of thing happens ALL THE TIME in construction communications, and in… well, let’s put my personal life aside. It shouldn’t be happening. Construction documents must communicate clearly.

Sometimes, the Instructions to Bidders document will list one time, date, or location for the bid opening, and another procurement document will indicate another. (Oh, well, it was a typo, no big deal, right? WRONG! These are legal documents! Seemingly tiny conflicts like this could cause a project to have to be bid all over again, or worse! Architects or Owners must check for consistency before issuing documents like this!)

Sometimes, General Notes on the drawings might indicate different window treatments than the rest of the drawings and the specifications show. (Oh, but we talked to the Construction-Manager-as-Contractor about the roller shades; he knows we don’t want those horizontal blinds that the General Notes mention, so it’s ok to just leave that note, right? NOOoooooo! Of course it’s not! It’s not ok to knowingly issue documents with conflicts in them! How are the bidding subcontractors supposed to know what the design team wants? What if they only see the General Notes, and not the drawing notes where what is actually desired is called out? Architects must make sure General Notes on the drawings are relevant and correct.)

Sometimes, drawings will call out storefront, but the specs have a section for curtain wall instead. (But the bidders will figure it out, right? NO!!! Storefront and curtain wall are different things. Architects have to make the documents clear, so as not to waste the bidders’ time, and their own time, during bidding, answering the inevitable question. Architects must ensure that the drawings and the specs are coordinated.)

The entity who is responsible for sending out communications needs to communicate clearly, completely, unambiguously, and in a way that the entity who is receiving the communications can understand. The communicator is responsible for getting the message across.

The dinner guests were not able to divine that, although they had been told to arrive at 5, they should actually show up an hour later, because the host got distracted by family fun at the beach, changed her mind about what time she wanted to receive guests, and failed to tell them to come later than previously indicated.

Bidders, or the constructor, will not be able to know what’s in the sketches or project notebook on the architect’s desk at the office, or what conversations the architect had with the owner two months ago. All that the bidders have to go by is the construction documents. These have to tell the whole story. This is not just to be nice. This is the architect’s legal duty to the owner.

Yes, bidders have to look at the entire set of contract documents, but if a window treatment sub is getting a whole story by looking at just part of the documents, he’ll save himself some time, and stop after reading those General Notes. In the case above, he may have gotten the wrong whole story, because of the architect’s failure to communicate correctly.

The second message: If you, the architect, can’t get it right for the sake of getting it right, remember the guests, er… bidders. Think about how they’ll feel while trying to solve the mysteries of what you were thinking when you drew something that directly conflicted with other documents. Keep in mind that if you make them feel uncomfortable, or if you cause them to waste precious time during bidding, they will remember you for it!

The whole point of dining etiquette is not about using the right fork – it’s about making sure guests are at ease. We have commonly-accepted guidelines about using the correct silverware so that we are starting on the same page, as much as possible, and so that it’ll be easier for everyone to be comfortable, and have a good time.

Do this construction communication thing right. Issue clear, complete, concise, and correct construction documents, and make everyone comfortable. Bidding will go more smoothly, construction will go more smoothly, and your “guests” will be happy to be invited the next time.

Cor-Ten: Why Does It Look Like Rusty Metal?

Ever seen a gorgeous surface that looked like rusty metal?  Well, if it’s weathering steel, often called by a brand name, Cor-Ten, it looks like rusty metal because it IS rusty metal.

This material is really striking, has a great texture, has an interesting color, and is loved by architects.

However, it has some extremely problematic negative aspects… but we might be able to get around some of those.

Check out my latest technical article, published on the website of the Denver Chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI), “COR-TEN and Other Weathering Steel Alloys in Architectural Applications” .