Are Your Specification Concerns Reaching the Right Person?

Owners, contractors: I’m talking to you. The person who writes the specifications for a project is often not the project architect. Why is this important to keep in mind? A story from real life:

Last night as I sat at dinner with my family, we discussed plans for an upcoming weekend away with friends. My husband has employees, and is good at delegating tasks to his associates and assistants. I work for myself and am used to doing everything at the office. Sometimes my husband employs his well-developed delegation skills at home. (Sometimes I’m halfway through doing something before I realize that he has delegated to me a task that he really ought to be doing himself.)

Last night, the delegation was about our travel plans – he was asking me to email something to our friends that he was having trouble communicating clearly to me. I didn’t understand the point he was trying to make, yet he was asking me to reach out to our friends and “let them know.”

I wasn’t going to pass on some unclear nonsense in an email with my signature. After I suggested that he send the email himself, he managed to verbally articulate his concerns clearly to me, and I later sent the email. It would have been better if my husband had sent the email himself, but he doesn’t like typing (and I love him).

Sometimes while my husband is driving, he’ll call me and ask me to contact someone about coordinating the kids’ soccer practice pickups that he and someone else have already communicated about. I know nothing about their plans, the two of them have previous knowledge, I’m supposed to be the middleman, but I don’t have all the information they have. I do my best, I ask questions to make sure that I’m passing on the right info. I really prefer that my husband contact people directly, but sometimes he doesn’t have contact info at hand while he’s driving.

Not everyone who fulfills delegated middleman tasks is as conscientious as I am. Not everyone understands the things they listen to, transcribe, and send on to someone else, yet they send them on, because they know it’s part of their job. Double-checking that you’ve properly understood the meaning of something before you pass it on to someone else is a good practice, whether it’s for work or fun, but not everyone does this.

The owner, the end users, the construction manager, the general contractor, and the subcontractors on a construction project usually communicate with the project architect or the architecture firm’s construction contract administration person. This person may or may not have prepared the project specifications; usually someone else wrote the specs. If a sub has a question about something in the specifications, and has an old-fashioned talking conversation about it with the project architect, important items have the potential to be lost before they get passed on to the specifier. The project architect or contract administrator, the middleman in this case, may not have the deep knowledge about specifications that the subcontractor and specifier have, and might only pass on what was understood, or might even take a guess at what was meant.

Owners, users, construction managers, general contractors, subcontractors: Never assume that your contact at the architecture firm actually wrote the specs. Keep in mind that it’s possible that this person isn’t actually very familiar with the contents of the project manual. If the specifier is not at your project meeting, and items come up that affect the specs, I suggest that you communicate your concerns in writing to the project architect, so that the project architect can send on your concerns to the author of the specifications verbatim, and not risk having the original meaning of your question or comment get lost in translation. Better yet, copy the specifier on your email to the project architect… or maybe even save the specifier a seat at the table for your project meetings.

What Did We Learn About Substitutions?

January’s Panel Discussion on Substitutions at the Denver Chapter CSI meeting included an owner’s rep, a general contractor, a subcontractor, an architecture firm’s construction contract administrator, and a specifier. Here’s some of what we learned.

Many owners welcome substitutions.

The biggest divergence of opinions was about owners’ positions on substitutions. The loud and clear message from the owner’s rep was that owners welcome substitutions, and that many are frustrated with architects’ and specifiers’ reluctance to entertain substitutions. In the eyes of the owner’s rep, there are two crucial things – cost and schedule. Since time is money in construction, schedule is very important to owners, so even a substitution that costs more money but saves time is likely to be favorably received by an owner. Owners wish that more architects and specifiers understood the overall impact of substitutions, time- and money- wise. (It’s important to note that the owner’s rep on the panel primarily represents developers, and recent projects have been multifamily residential projects.)

The specifier pointed out that for private work, substitutions can be good because they give the design team an opportunity to evaluate things they may not have evaluated when they first prepared the documents.

The subcontractor thinks that substitutions are an opportunity for the owner to get a better value. With the developments and changes in products and assemblies that happen all the time, architects and specifiers can’t keep up. Subcontractors, who are specialists in their areas, can keep up, and may be able to offer better solutions.

But some owners don’t want substitutions.

The specifier reminded us that many owners, especially in the public sector, want what they know has worked, and do not want substitutions. Owners such as municipalities, public school districts, and universities may own and maintain many buildings, and need maintenance procedures to be the same from building to building. Public owners’ requirements are sometimes outdated, however, and the specifier does not always have the opportunity to explain to the owner that several of their listed acceptable manufacturers no longer exist.

Substitutions scare architects.

Substitutions scare architects, and for good reason. They spend a lot of time designing around a particular product – that’s why that particular product is specified. Architects worry about how many details in the drawings will be affected – and will no longer be correct – because of a particular substitution. During the months-long design process, design decisions are followed all the way through everything that’s affected by them. There’s often no time to go back and do this again during construction. And when design changes have to be made due to a substitution, it is hard to be sure one has gone back and checked every possible thing that could be affected, as was done when the design was first developed. This is not only due to time constraints, it’s also because this is not how the design process naturally flows.

Architects also wonder if the owner is getting something of a lesser value on the project when a substitution has been accepted because the owner was attracted to cost savings. The architect knows that the owner is happy to be getting something cheaper, but the architect worries that the owner is giving up something of greater value or performance (the specified item), and the general contractor or subcontractor is the one actually saving more money on the substitution.

People have different ideas about what a substitution is.

Panelists agreed that different team members on a design and construction project do not agree about exactly what a substitution is. The general contractor pointed out that team members treat substitutions differently depending on the project delivery method. Substitutions are treated differently on hard bid (design-bid-build), negotiated (construction-manager-at-risk or construction manager/general contractor), and design-build projects.

The general contractor doesn’t want to receive substitutions submitted by subs on hard bid (design-bid-build) projects, because they are usually submitted to the general contractor without enough time to get them approved by the architect prior to the bid. The general contractor then has to decide whether or not to use the price associated with that substitution. If the general contractor is not the low bidder, it doesn’t matter, so there’s an incentive to use the price associated with an unapproved substitution. But if he uses that number and then the substitution is not accepted when submitted to the architect after the bid, he’s losing money.

On negotiated projects, the general contractor wants to see substitutions, get pricing, explain to the owner and the architect that if this product is used instead of a specified product, the owner can save money, or the schedule can be shortened. There’s more of a collaborative effort on negotiated projects.

The specifier (of course) read us the definition of a substitution from MasterSpec. It’s vague. Most of the industry probably agrees that “the devil is in the details” on this issue. We agree that a substitution is a change, but what kind of a change, and how a substitution is supposed to be evaluated, are where the differences of opinion and misunderstandings occur. The owner and design team need to define how casual or formal the process for evaluating substitution requests is. The specifier believes that part of his job is to define that evaluation process succinctly.

For better or worse, “or equal” is flexible.

The owner’s rep doesn’t mind the phrase “or equal” at all. Owners are looking for general contractors who are willing to “turn stones” and look for better options, and the phrase “or equal” in the specs allows for more possibilities.

The contractor says that “or equal” in a spec gives them more flexibility to look at the possibility of using an unspecified product in the bid.

Architects do not like the phrase “or equal” because it is open to multiple interpretations. There’s a lot of information that needs to be evaluated to see if something that is submitted is actually equal, so if someone submits on an “equal” that is not listed in the specs, this contract administrator asks for a substitution request.

The subcontractor likes the phrase even less than architects. He described it as two words in a specification that make subcontractors want to turn away and run as fast as they can in another direction. He thinks that if an architect goes through the exercise of heavily specifying one product that there isn’t an “equal” to that. He described “or equal” as a “cop-out” that allows way too much flexibility. (How is a sub supposed to know what is considered to be equal?)

The specifier does not use “or equal” in his specs, because the phrase is full of uncertainties. “Or equal… determined by whom?” he asked. He believes that the only equal to a product is the next product on the assembly line of the manufacturer who’s making it. “Equal” is too strict a term to be put out there to be determined by anybody. The specifier prefers a phrase like “Alternatives are welcome to be presented” along with a statement about who approves the alternatives. He believes it’s a more honest way to evaluate alternatives.

We got an interesting question at the end of the panel discussion from a chapter member about “or equal” and public work. Some government owners require that “or equal” be added to a list of products or manufacturers. We discussed different ways to define “or equal” in the construction documents, and procedures for evaluation. Some government entities do not actually define “equal,” or give any guidelines for procedures to evaluate “equals,” but still require that the phrase be included.

We’re not sure about “no substitutions.”

The owner’s rep would never advise an owner to require “no substitutions” in the spec.

When asked how much pricing is affected when competition is limited by specifying “no substitutions,” the general contractor responded that the problem is that you don’t know. The suspicion is that higher pricing does result when there’s no competition.  We’re in a competitive environment, and if someone is sole sourced, they may take advantage of that and bump up their price.

In the subcontractor’s experience, typically an owner doesn’t end up with higher prices when a sole source with no substitutions is specified. For curtainwall, pricing is only given to select vendors, and some can provide better pricing than others in bids, but their numbers probably won’t change based on how many manufacturers are named. Separate from the pricing issue is a service issue; the subcontractor mentioned that some vendors may have more leverage to get replacement products out on the jobsite faster than others.

The earlier a substitution request is made, the better.

Everyone generally agreed that the earlier a substitution request is made, the better.

The specifier pointed out that procedural requirements for substitutions that happen prior to the bid are not part of the contract documents – they’re part of the instructions to bidders. In these cases, approved substitutions are no longer substitutions at the time the contract is signed – they become part of the contract. Procedural requirements for substitutions that happen after the bid are part of the contract documents.  Also, substitutions that happen after the bid are divided into substitutions for cause and substitutions for convenience – requests for substitutions for cause are submitted when things are not available, manufacturers don’t make something anymore, etc. MasterSpec specifications software suggests that all substitutions for convenience should be received within a certain number of days after the construction contract is signed.

The owner’s rep’s projects typically have negotiated contracts, so don’t have hard bid dates. He said that as long as substitutions are decided upon prior to signing the contract, substitutions are fine.

The general contractor believes it’s best to require substitution requests to be submitted prior to the bid, but from a practical standpoint, it makes sense to accept some substitutions after the bid.

The architect’s contract administrator sounded somewhat resigned as she said that substitutions are going to happen before, and after, the contract is signed. It’s better to receive the substitution requests at the right time, before the bid. But even more important than timing is that the general contractor should actually review the substitution request before sending it on to architect (and not just stamp it and pass it on without actually reviewing it).

The subcontractor thinks that it’s good to receive substitution requests during and after the bidding process, because the project benefits from time for the team to collaborate. The best results, best pricing, best performance, best product can come out of collaboration. Any other way is subjective – just one person’s opinion. The project can get to a higher level with collaboration, with everybody involved.

Can we eliminate the substitution process?

A guest attending the meeting asked how we get rid of this substitution process. The subcontractor on the panel said that the only way to get rid of the substitution process is to write performance specifications instead of specifying products, manufacturers, or descriptions that point to specific manufacturers.

CSI’s Construction Specifications Practice Guide defines a performance specification as “a statement of required results with criteria for verifying compliance, but without unnecessary limitations on the methods for achieving the required results.” The book cautions that “an incomplete performance specification results in a major loss of quality control over the materials, equipment, and workmanship going into a project.” The criteria for verifying compliance need to be “capable of measurement, test, evaluation, or other acceptable assurances.”

In performance specifying, no products, manufacturers, or installation requirements are specified. Anything that can meet the required results, and whose compliance with the required results can be verified, meets the spec. In performance specifying, although a product is not named in the spec, it meets the spec if it meets the required results indicated in the spec. Even though it’s not named, a substitution request is not necessary.

Performance specifying transfers some design duties and control from the design team to the contractor team. It allows many more options to be presented to the general contractor. It takes some control away from the architect and the owner – if they don’t like the way something looks, they may not be able to point to the spec and say that something doesn’t meet the spec. If it performs the way the performance specification requires, it meets the specification, and cannot be rejected without a change order.

Thank you to the panelists: Tom DeBerard of DAE Construction Services, Stan Ward of Ward Construction, George Feathers III, currently of Curtain Wall Design & Consulting, Inc., Morayma Salas of Cuningham Group, and David Bishton of Construction Rx, LLC.

Deliberately Misleading

Today a new sign was installed for my office building, on the corner of the building lot. Depending on how fast you drive by, you may only see the first name on the sign. This first name, for a reason known only to my landlord, belongs to a company that hasn’t actually been a tenant in this building for almost 3 years.

It’s one thing to leave up old signs in the building that indicate that this now-relocated company is still upstairs. That might be due to laziness. But to put up a new sign is deliberately misleading, actually costs money, and leaves me shaking my head, or, actually, stalking around the office ranting about its senselessness.

This signage issue might not be such a big deal to me, except that I see misleading things in construction documents sometimes, too. I know how they got there – I know that design professionals use standard details or standard general notes or specification sections from project to project, and sometimes fail forget to edit them. Because of this, things are required by the documents that we don’t actually need for the project.

Remember, the drawings and the specs are contract documents. Along with the agreement, they make up the contract for construction. The contractor is required, by the contract, to provide everything indicated in the documents.

It may seem to the people producing the documents as if these errors, these things that indicate that something is necessary for the project even though it’s not, are minor errors of omission, like leaving up an old sign. They forgot to take them out, no big deal. But to the contractor, it is a big deal. The contractor doesn’t look at construction documents with the process of their creation in mind. The contractor looks at the construction documents as if they were created as the contract documents for this project – which is how they should be viewed.

Don’t inadvertently, or deliberately, mislead. For every project, check your general notes and your standard details to make sure they’re applicable. And don’t install brand new signs with old tenants’ names on them. Still shaking my head…

Construction Industry Waste – Where Does It Start?

Construction industry waste – where does it start? Sometimes it starts with the contractor team. Sometimes it starts with the design team. And sometimes it starts with… owners.

Have you ever suddenly needed ice to make an icepack for a child’s injury, or drinks for unexpected guests, gone to the freezer, and found nothing but empty ice trays? Ever needed toilet paper and suddenly realized all you had in the bathroom was an empty cardboard roll?

These are familiar experiences for people living with children. But we understand that we just need to teach the children to consider the needs of the people who come after them. (This may be an ongoing effort.)

When people living with only other adults experience these things, it’s incredibly frustrating. (Why didn’t she just tell me we were out of toilet paper? Why didn’t he just fill the ice tray after he emptied it? It’s so much harder for me to get ice at this point – it will take hours to freeze after I fill the trays. If he had just filled the trays when he used the last ice cubes last night, there would be ice for all of us now.) The shirker saves herself a little time, but creates a problem for someone else in the household. Adults should know better, but sometimes, like children, adults need to be reminded, too.

A little work done at the right time by the right person means that things get done the right way. If they don’t get done right, the next person has to expend more work, or more time, which is inefficient in the big picture. It’s not the right way to work.

Lately, my deadlines have been moving targets. One week last month, I had 3 bid sets going out 3 days in a row. I turned in the first one, a relatively small project, early on the due date, and got going on wrapping up the next one. A few hours after I turned in the first project, my architect-client emailed me with an address change for the building. (Head smack.) The building’s address was on every header of the project manual, and scattered throughout Division 00. (When I use my own master spec sections, changing all headers is not terribly time-consuming, but I had to use the owner’s messy “master” spec sections on this project, and had to change each header manually.)

If I’d had the correct address before I’d started the project, instead of the address that I was given (without any warning that it may not be the correct address) I would have wasted no time. If I’d been given the correct address after I’d put in the wrong address, but before I’d done the final edits for the project, I’d have wasted only about an hour, at a much more convenient time. If I’d been using my own masters instead of the messy documents, I’d have wasted only about a half hour. As it was, I wasted 2 hours redoing the address, at the most inconvenient time imaginable in the entire month of October.

I could have refused to make the changes, because I had 2 other clients’ projects to consider, but then the documents would have had an incorrect address throughout, causing confusion for bidders, the building department, and the constructor. I couldn’t have delayed until after my other 2 deadlines – we were going to bid and permit that day – three days later would not have been acceptable. Laying blame: The city had assigned an address to the project that was not the address the owner wanted. The owner should have spoken up right away, or should have told the architect that the address they had was probably not correct, and the architect should have told me, so we could plan for that situation. (I would have waited on my final edits until after I had the info. I would not have wasted time compiling the project manual and getting it over to the architect.)

Though distressing to me at the time, because of my other work, this address issue was just a small thing. The last-minute change-of-address affected very little of the project, and affected none of the design. But some owners give answers to the architect’s questions about products and assemblies, just to give answers, knowing that they’ll probably change their minds later, but not letting the architect know that the answer was not their final answer. Some owners assign communication duties to a person that they’ve given zero decision-making authority to, so the architect expends a lot of time and energy trying to get information from, and through, the middleman. Some owners give the architect no guidelines about important building assemblies such as roofs, expect the architect to just know what they want as far as type, service life, and warranty, and don’t answer questions in a timely manner.

Except when dealing with a sophisticated owner, architects may want to consider explaining to the owner, up front, why decisions need to be made, and when. Explain why the glazing tint choice is an important thing to firmly decide on early (it affects other design decisions, and several design professionals, including, but not limited to, mechanical systems and the mechanical engineer). Explain why the roofing assembly is an important thing to select early (it affects COMcheck calculations, which are used to help determine that all other assemblies making up the building envelope are in compliance, and, of course, lots of drawing details). Explain why a completed geotech report very early in the design process is necessary (it affects foundation design, which affects, well, everything).

Some things, such as the desirability of avoiding last-minute address changes on projects, seem so self-evident, but others are much less obvious to owners. Except for those of us who’ve had many different jobs in this industry, we do not know what it is like to be the people downstream from us. We can know, intellectually, what they will be doing with the information we provide, but it’s hard to know exactly how late changes will affect them, unless they tell us.

Owners who make thoughtless or late changes are a bit like the people who don’t replace the toilet paper and ice after they use up the last of them. Maybe they are like adults, and just aren’t thinking. Or maybe they’re like children, and no one’s ever told them to refill toilet paper and ice trays, so how could they know? They may just need to be told what’s expected by the people doing work downstream from them.

Another Case for Licensure and Regulation

Last week I had an experience that makes another good case for the licensure of architects and the regulation of use of the word “architect” and its derivatives.

I was chatting with a parent outside our kids’ after-school activity. She asked what I do for work and I gave my standard brief initial answer, “I’m an architect.”

She immediately told me her story. Her family is building an addition on to the house they recently bought. But they’re months behind with getting going on construction because of the first architect they hired.

After 3 months of working with the first architect, the drawings that they received for bidding to contractors couldn’t be built from – one bidder after another said he couldn’t build from those and needed other drawings. The night before the architect was planning to submit for permit, she checked the code, and found that the addition she’d been designing extended 5 feet into the setback. They’d have to redesign. My acquaintance went back to her with what the contractors said, she replied defensively that she “could do this,” she could submit the drawings and get a permit, this is what she does.

They fired her, and began looking for another architect.

Do the services provided sound like the services of someone who has worked for at least 3 years under the direct supervision of a licensed architect?

Not to me. But imagine the confusion of someone who has never hired an architect before.

Many single-family residential architects and designers draw more-constructible details, and are more familiar with building codes than many commercial architects (who have much more to learn about, and often, much bigger buildings to work on). They learn from working with experienced residential architects or designers, and from time spent on the jobsite. Less documentation is required for residential builders – contractors who do houses are used to building from pretty sparse documents. If they couldn’t build from what my acquaintance had given them, then those documents were pretty bad “construction documents.”

The services provided to my acquaintance sound to me like those of an unlicensed designer who hasn’t done any building envelope work, only interiors, and had no idea that she wasn’t competent enough to design an addition. She probably hadn’t worked under a licensed architect for very long, if at all.

(Only if you’ve worked for at least 3 years under the direct supervision of a licensed architect, and have passed your licensing exams, can you legally call yourself an architect.)

Knowing that my new acquaintance had moved to Colorado recently, I figured she didn’t know that in Colorado, you don’t actually need an architect for single-family residential work. Many Colorado home designers are not architects. Unfortunately, some of them imply to the public and to their clients that they are architects. Many of them did go to architecture school, and have degrees in architecture. However, a degree in architecture means only that you learned a lot of design and theory, and not much of the stuff you need to know in order to get buildings actually built. That’s why you have to work for at least 3 years under the direct supervision of a licensed architect (and pass your exams) before you can go out and offer architectural services to the public on your own. It’s actually possible that the designer my acquaintance hired is an architect, but just a really incompetent one. In my opinion, it’s much more likely that she’s not licensed.

I feel bad about the money and time lost by my acquaintance. But even more than that, I’m embarrassed to be associated with this “architect” in the mind of my new acquaintance, and in the mind of all consumers who have similar experiences. I’m embarrassed for all architects. People who are not competent at architectural services, and who call themselves architects, bring down all architects in the eyes of the public. Incompetent practitioners in all professions create a bad name for those professionals, of course. But in Colorado, we have a lot of people who are not competent at architectural services simply because of the fact that they do not have enough experience working under someone competent to actually take their exams – but they go ahead and call themselves architects anyway.

Why does this matter, beyond my personal embarrassment? I believe that consumers should be protected, and so do the people of Colorado. That’s why the profession of architecture in Colorado is regulated by the Department of Regulatory Agencies. That’s why the Colorado Revised Statutes (our laws) require that a person be licensed to practice architecture in Colorado in order to be able to use the titles “architect,” “architects,” “architecture,” “architectural,” or “licensed architect.” In addition, our laws require that a person be licensed to practice architecture in Colorado in order to use the words “architect,” “architects,” “architecture,” “architectural,” or “licensed architect” in any offer to the public to perform architectural services (this includes marketing materials and websites). (A person who is working under the supervision of an architect and is in the process of completing required practice hours in preparation for the architect licensing examination is explicitly allowed to use the term “architectural intern.”)

Residential designers are perfectly within their legal rights to design houses and additions to houses. Many of them are very good at what they do. But unless they’re licensed architects they’re not allowed to imply to their clients that they are architects. Licensure does not guarantee competence, but it sure can weed out the least competent.

 

Specs, Lost in Translation

Do you ever see funny notes in completed construction drawings? I’ve seen notes on CDs out to bid that said things like “Match Lakeview storefront” (when Lakeview must have been an old project), and “Complete sill detail” (pointing to an incomplete sill detail). These notes simply make no sense to the people using the drawings (the contractor and subs). But you and I know that what happened is that a brand new architecture school grad was given sheets of drawings that were marked up in red, and she just incorporated the redlines verbatim as if they were drawing notes to add, instead of instructions to the person picking up redlines, and then her work never got checked before issuing.

You and I know what happened with those redlines because we made the same mistakes when we were intern architects, and later, we saw the same sort of thing show up on redlines we prepared for someone else.

In my work as an independent specifications consultant, I prepare the architectural specification sections for the architect, based on the drawings and the architect’s design decisions. I ask some questions. I make some decisions based on my experience and technical knowledge. I give the specs to the architect for review.

I partially prepare the structural-related sections based on the drawings, and pass them on to the structural engineer for editing, completion, and review.

I receive the completed Mechanical/ Electrical/ Plumbing (MEP) engineering spec sections from the engineers and incorporate them into the project manual with the other sections.

At the MEP firms, I sometimes deal primarily with administrative assistants. Sometimes the project engineers prepare the sections in Word and give them to the assistant to turn into PDFs and send on to me. Sometimes the assistant prints out the office masters on paper, the project engineers mark them up with red pen (or red pencil, for some reason), and the assistant does the word processing, turns them into PDFs, and emails them to me. And sometimes… I’m not sure exactly what happens over there.

This practice of handing off specs to an administrative person to process has been going on forever. Sometimes, in the olden days, the secretaries in an office were the only people who knew how to type, so this hand-off of specifications preparation was a very natural practice. Also, people used to actually cut (paper) and paste (with glue) to produce construction documents, including specs. It would be silly to have a project architect spend time doing this type of work for specs, so secretaries used to do this work. After many years of doing this, some assistants gain an incredible amount of technical knowledge.

There’s nothing wrong with this hand-off practice, when you have a careful engineer and a good assistant, or you have an extra-conscientious engineer and a decent assistant, or you have a decent engineer and a truly fantastic and experienced assistant. There’s nothing wrong with this practice when an experienced design professional is reviewing the work. Sometimes, I think, we have less-ideal situations, though.

Sometimes, the MEP specs have funny mistakes in them – things the engineer would know weren’t right, but an administrative assistant wouldn’t. Whoops – looks like the engineer didn’t do a final review after the assistant did the word processing. This is kind of like the situation with the intern architect and the redlines. When someone without technical knowledge (an emerging professional or an administrative assistant) is inputting markups, the person who created the markups ought to be reviewing the final document before it’s issued.

An administrative assistant may or may not have any idea what’s going on with the markups on the MEP specs. With specs, maybe even more than with drawings, if you mess up one word, you can totally change the meaning of the document.

As I heard an engineer say last week in a presentation, “If you’re only looking at the drawings, you’re only looking at half the project.” The contract for construction, a legal document, is made up of the owner-contractor agreement, the drawings, and the specifications. Who prepares your architectural specifications, which are half of the contract? How much time is spent on them? Are the right people working on them, or reviewing them? If you’re not giving input, and answering the specifier’s questions, are you at least reviewing the specs? Are experienced people with technical knowledge (and knowledge of the project) making the decisions and preparing or reviewing the final specification documents, or… not?

Minor incorrect items in drawings can be funny (“complete sill detail” pointing to an incomplete sill detail). But minor incorrect items in specs have the potential to cause major problems. There’s greater risk when your spec redlines get lost in translation. Review them, like you review your drawing redlines, or have them prepared by an experienced specifier who will know what all your markups mean.

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.