“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?

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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.)

Avalanches & Construction Project Teamwork

The Colorado mountains were host to a tragedy last month, on April 20th. Six skiers and snowboarders triggered an avalanche that killed five of them.

These guys were experienced backcountry travelers; their collective knowledge and experience made them a group who knew, better than most, what they were getting into, and how to avoid triggering an avalanche. But that didn’t actually translate into making them a great team.

Weird group dynamics often contribute to disaster. The larger the group, the less likely people are to speak up with dissenting opinions. An interesting study on data from human-triggered avalanches supports this statement in the context of avalanche danger.

The Denver Post had a great article on this tragedy, and how the “pack mentality” contributed to it.

From the Post article:

In 2004, avalanche researcher Ian McCammon released a seminal study “Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications,” in which he looked at 715 U.S. avalanche accidents from 1972 to 2003. The study found that people traveling alone and parties of six to 10 exposed themselves to significantly more hazard than groups of two, three or four.

McCammon identified six human factors in more than 95 percent of the accidents and concluded that they have the power to lure almost anyone into thinking an avalanche slope is safe. They are:

• Familiarity, which McCammon said “relies on our past actions to guide our behavior in familiar settings.”

• Consistency, which sees people sticking with original assumptions and ignoring new information about potential hazards.

• Acceptance, described by McCammon as “the tendency to engage in activities that we think will get us noticed or accepted.”

• The Expert Halo, which sees group members ascribing avalanche safety skills to a perceived expert, who may lead the group without those skills.

• Social Facilitation, which sees groups tending toward riskier decisions.

• Scarcity, or the “powder fever,” that can overwhelm backcountry travelers hunting for deep, untracked snow.

Many of these cues were clearly evident April 20 when the six skiers and snowboarders were buried in the 800-foot wide avalanche that slid 600 vertical feet off the north-facing flank of Mount Sniktau.

Hey, architects, does any of this sound familiar to you? Working on a team with an owner who listens to the contractor more than to you, because she’s worked with that contractor before, even though you have to stamp the drawings? Keep working on what you designed with an original budget in mind, although the budget has changed? Don’t want to rock the boat because you hope to work with this owner again in the future? Let the contractor select a roofing assembly because you perceive him to be more of an expert on roofs, even though you don’t actually know that he is? Willing to specify a completely new untested product because someone else on the team recommended it? Willing to take on a client, or work with a contractor, who has proven unreliable in the past, just because there’s not much work to be had?

From the study: “In hindsight, the danger was often obvious before these accidents happened, and so people struggle to explain how intelligent people with avalanche training could have seen the hazard, looked straight at it, and behaved as if it wasn’t there.”

We can’t do this design and construction thing alone. But when teams get too big, it’s human nature to speak up less. Architects, keep this human tendency in mind as more and more projects become contractor-led. Don’t forget that, although your life isn’t in danger due to not speaking up when you know better, as it is in the mountain backcountry, your reputation and liability are. You may be part of a pack, but you’re the team member who stamps those construction documents. You’re responsible for their content, no matter who contributed to them. You don’t have to go along with the pack on everything.

Earth Day Thoughts on Green Building

There’s an apartment building under construction near my office. The building’s marketing materials tout “Green Features” such as energy-efficient windows, low-e glazing, and energy-efficient lighting. That’s good, that’s all good.

But for some unknown reason, the juncture of the building wrap and those energy-efficient windows has been constructed using an inexpensive and outdated technique that does not produce an air-tight seal. In other words, those window units themselves may be energy-efficient, but the parts of the building enclosure that include those windows are likely to let hot air in during the summer and let warm air out during the winter. Not energy-efficient.

So, here’s some stuff I’ve said before, but am saying again:

Construction industry professionals cannot become “green skilled” without first becoming generally skilled. Being generally experienced in one’s field is a prerequisite to being “green” experienced.

A person without considerable experience in general architecture, engineering, or construction cannot be an effective “green skilled” employee for an architecture, engineering, or construction firm.

“Green” design and construction skills are icing on a cake made up of plain old experience and hard work. That icing cannot stand up by itself. You can’t just learn “green” design and construction skills and not bother with general design and construction skills.   

Without an understanding of basic building technology, we can’t contribute much to green building initiatives.

Just as the IgCC (International Green Construction Code) is an overlay to the other ICC codes (such as the International Building Code), green building technology does not replace, but enhances, basic building technology.

A building that has green features such as energy-efficient windows, but that does not meet current standards for basic construction of the building envelope, is not a green building.

Yes, I contacted someone who might be able to do something about that weird window/building wrap juncture. He confirmed that it’s weird – informed me that it’s outdated, and also informed me that that installation is likely to void the building wrap’s warranty. I hope it can be fixed. I really, really care about buildings.

Diagnostic Icicles

Icicles indicate paths of water flow on buildings, and sometimes can alert us to problems. Water may be the biggest enemy of buildings; even tiny amounts of water can destroy buildings over time. Water can wear away the earth near a foundation and cause structural problems, it can rot away wood framing, and it can cause mold damage or deterioration to finishes if it gets inside a building.

icicles upper roof

The icicles on the roof in the photo above tell us that the roof has no gutter. That’s probably fine; it’s an upper level roof, and water flows right off it onto the lower roof. The lower roof has a gutter and downspout, so the water d0es flow away from the building. (Or it will, after the ice melts.)

icicle gutter hole

The photo above shows an icicle where we shouldn’t have one – descending from that rust spot we shouldn’t have. There’s a hole in this gutter. If you see an icicle coming from the middle of the bottom of your gutter, you probably have a hole in your gutter, and you should consider replacement. Water dripping out of this hole could travel along the outside of the gutter, get between the fascia and gutter, and cause rot.

icicle roof leak

The weird icicles above are telling us about several problems on the garage in the photo. My kids asked why the icicles are rusty. I think the water that formed them was just dirty water, but it’s possible that it was rusty water. Those icicles coming down on the face of the garage door indicate that the roof is not keeping water out of the building. The icicles descending from the face of the wall above the door indicate that the roof isn’t flashed into the gutter. The icicles descending from the gutter indicate that the gutter is, well, broken. I should probably mention these things to the homeowner, because this isn’t the first season we’ve seen these rusty icicles. (Homeowners, don’t put off fixing things like this!)

icicle April Colorado

The icicle in the photo above is a fairly normal sight. If you see this, you might be in Colorado in April. If you live in a place that gets snow but no icicles, it means you live under perpetually cloudy skies, and that is sad.

What Do Architects NOT Do?

Sometimes I tell people I’m a Renaissance Man. (Since I am female, this statement often momentarily confuses people.1) I mean that I am interested in, am capable of, and dabble in, a wide variety of pursuits.

Many, many architects could have taken career paths other than architecture. Our brains work mathematically, scientifically, and artistically. I am an architect, but while I am doing some of the other things I enjoy (making a gorgeous cake, managing my family’s investments, repairing a threshold in my home, carving a jack-o-lantern), I’m not practicing architecture.

Some practicing architects are builders as well as architects. Some practicing architects are also developers. But while they’re doing general contracting or real estate development, they’re still architects, but they are not practicing architecture. Construction, development, and architecture all require different agreements with clients and different liability insurance policies, even within design-build firms.

A bit over a week ago, I read a blog post that I can’t stop thinking about: “Being a Professional Architect is about much more than just designing nice buildings.” This post is on the blog of Build, LLC, a Seattle company that offers architecture and construction services. It was written to outline “a common code of conduct that all professions should abide by.”

The post was inspired by a community news blog post account of a designer in Seattle who declared bankruptcy and “walked away from more than $10 million in debt…” Ten million dollars doesn’t sound like an amount of debt that a small architecture firm could easily rack up, right?

The community news blog post keeps referring to the “architect,” and mentions that the “architecture firm imploded.” But it appears as if it was a development company that failed, and the guy isn’t actually an architect. (Yes, he designs buildings, but he isn’t a licensed architect.)

I’ve written about protection of the title “Architect” before.2 And I’ve written about a news writer’s obligation to use appropriate titles to refer to different types of design professionals.3 This situation is a good example of why I think the title should be protected - some of the comments on both posts are about this guy giving all architects a bad name.

This shouldn’t be happening; this designer’s actions shouldn’t be giving architects a bad name, because what he was doing that caused problems wasn’t actually the practice of architecture, and he isn’t actually an architect.

Financing the construction of buildings is not part of practicing architecture. Practicing architecture does not include constructing buildings.4 Yes, people who practice architecture sometimes do these things, but they are not doing these things at the same time that they’re practicing architecture. Everyone should be ethical in his or her work, but in practicing different types of work, we have completely different obligations to our clients and to the public.

Some consumers actually have no idea what an architect does. Architects themselves should not muddy this issue further. Practicing architecture as a profession is all about designing buildings. An architect discusses a project’s needs with the client, and based on those criteria and other requirements such as building codes, the architect designs, and prepares construction documents for, the building. The architect observes the construction of the building to verify that the building is being constructed in general conformance with the construction documents.

Mixing up the roles of architect, contractor and developer misleads consumers, and might be giving all architects a bad name.

Architects love being architects. But let’s be clear with clients and with the public that when we’re not actually practicing architecture, we’re not working as architects.

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Notes:

  1. “Renaissance Woman” doesn’t conjure up images of someone engaged in artistic or intellectual or scientific pursuits…  I just think of peaceful women sitting or lying down, posing for paintings.
  2. Recent posts of mine about protection of the title “Architect”: “’Sunset Review’ of Licensure for Architects”:  and “Really?!? ‘Who Cares Who’s a Licensed Architect?’”
  3. Post of mine about obligation of a journalist to use the correct title:  “Perpetuating a Misconception”  Note: In February 2013, AIA Colorado sent personalized letters to more than 50 editors and other journalists throughout the state educating them about the title “architect.”  I am thrilled.  http://www.aiacolorado.org/advocacy/about-architect.aspx
  4. Colorado law specifically excludes the “performance of the construction of buildings” from the definition of the “practice of architecture.” I suspect that other states do the same.

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