School Supplies

school-suppliesGone are the days when my sweet firstborn wanted to buy his school supplies months ahead of the start of school. Shopping seems to have become almost as much of a chore for him as it is for me. This year, we bought school supplies 2 days before school started.

As we have in previous years, we spent a considerable amount of time wandering around stores searching for some very specific items indicated on the school supply list, and then, when we couldn’t find some of them, we bought things that are similar but not exactly what the list indicated. “It’s like they just write down something they want us to get without researching to see if it exists,” said the 13-year-old. Yep, he’s right. When we did research online on the specified spiral notebook manufacturer’s website, we found that the specified brand of notebook, with the specified number of subjects and pages, and the specified size of ruled lines, does not exist without perforated pages, but the teacher specified non-perforated pages. So it’s not just that the stores we went to don’t have it – the teacher made up the product, or specified a discontinued product. Yet, there it is on the list.

Not surprisingly, some kids showed up at school the first day this year without one item that all kids were supposed to have, but which wasn’t indicated on the individual class lists, only on the first page of the school supply list packet, which included lists for each preschool, elementary, and middle school grade. This item, a new item this year, and the only item listed at the top of this packet, was in red text in the PDF, as opposed to the black text of every single other item, but it just wasn’t listed in the right place. I’m sure I wasn’t the only parent who printed out only the page with my kids’ lists, and didn’t print out the first page, which included that one item that everyone needed. We did get that item – but we had to go to 4 different stores to get 2 of them, one for each of my kids. It was a bit of a hard-to-find specialty item, one that I’d have listed on each grade’s list, if I were generating the school supply lists.

Another item, specific solid-colored gym shorts, also a new requirement this year, was deleted from the school supply lists, via email, about 17 hours before the first day of school started, right after my husband and kids returned home from purchasing those actual shorts. While commiserating with other parents the next day, one said that she’d just ignore the “fine print” from now on, since her friends did that regarding the gym shorts (never even noticed the gym shorts requirement), and everything worked out fine for them.

These are just school supplies, of course. Really, it shouldn’t be this hard to specify what you want in a way that the reader can understand it and be able to purchase it. Sometimes in my life it’s just school supplies, sometimes it’s construction materials.

Most of us know that buildings are built out of real products bought from real-life distributors, but sometimes not enough time is spent researching a product or assembly to see if different combinations of options are available. It would be better to specify more generically than to send some subcontractor on a wild-goose-chase for an impossibly specific product and to show some impossible combination of options in the drawings.

We all know that line in some contracts that tells us that “the Contract Documents are complementary, and what is required by one shall be as binding as if required by all,” but this is not a license to put information in the wrong place and think that’s fine. Even if it’s in red text. Especially if it’s a specialty product.

Changes happen; there are no perfect documents. But when such changes are made too late, it’s aggravating for everyone – the change itself isn’t that big a deal, but when it comes so late, people, rightly or wrongly, get upset.

Inconsistent communications, requirements listed in the wrong place, and untimely changes make people question the true intent of communications, and, ultimately, ignore the odd ones. Those people may be right – those odd ones often turn out to be accidental, or get value-engineered out – but this throws into question everything that comes from that one communicator – the communicator loses credibility.

All of this speaks to the importance of putting accurate information in the right place and issuing changes in a timely manner. You don’t want the people you are trying to communicate with to vow to ignore your “fine print” from now on.

10 thoughts on “School Supplies

  1. A great down-to-earth example and in the spirit of your example, we may want to consider the following: the poor person who had to make up the school supply list may have been asked to complete the task at the very last minute. Why? Because putting the list together was interpreted by the staff and teachers as low-value activity. It is difficult to get things done right when you don’t have anything like the adequate time to do the job right.

    Too many of the folks in specifications do not have the capacity to push back upstream and make demands on the amount of design fee (thus time) used for the vital task of producing all the crucial non-visual information. It’s like training people to be great at baking a tricky pastry which takes an hour to cook in the oven and giving them only 20 minutes. No matter how great the pastry chef, the product cannot be adequate. Asking the chef to train more or get a certification is useless. He already knows how to do it, he just needs the appropriate time (and staff if needed) to get a good result. It is the abject inability of specifiers to have any significant influence on such a basic thing as the time allotted to produce the specifications that is at the heart of many of the problems. Too often people are complaining that their pastries (or specifications) are under-cooked without seeing the real problem.

    But of course, to talk about forcing anyone at an architectural firm to take specifications seriously is outside the ambit of the discussion because specifiers have no authority.

    Contractors have all too often been provided under-cooked specifications and it is no wonder then that they seem to suffer from a long-term case of indigestion. Thus, they perennially ignore the “fine print” and try to find their own ovens to finish the cooking.

    • Great comment. I love the baking analogy. I have often thought that specs are a bit like recipes.
      The school supply list is always a cut-and-paste endeavor – take the last one, add some new stuff, try (or not) to match the font and the format, try to remember to take out the inapplicable stuff. I think this is why info ends up in the wrong places sometimes. The list’s format has looked the same for the last 10 years. I’ve just used different pages of it.
      That happens with specs, and with drawings, too.

  2. Now, Liz, let’s move this conversation into building operations. First is the specification of the item. Second is the submittal, third is the approval. forth is the installation, fifth is the acceptance, and finally the owner should receive the item’s O&M manual. We have all experienced the owner contacting us four years after construction looking for the information.
    Providing the owner ALL information about their shiny new building is more important and more over looked than we like to admit. The standard boiler plate about marked up drawing, file folders, 3 ring binders simply does not provide adequate information or access needed by today’s professional building operators.
    The design and construction community needs to stop treating digital information like paper. If we change the way building information is turned over to owners, the buildings will be maintained in a more sustainable manner, also. Rant over. Thanks Thom

    • Good points. Owners should tell the design team very early on their requirements for maintenance and operations information, record submittals, record drawings and specifications, BIM models with useful, accurate, as-built info embedded into them, whatever it is that they need, so that these requirements can be specified and made part of the contract for construction, and so the design team can account for the extra time that these requirements take to fulfill in their fees.

      Not everyone intends to hold the buildings they pay to construct (and some don’t want to pay for someone else’s future ease of maintenance or sustainability in maintenance), so different boiler plate language isn’t what we need. Discussions about individual owners’ requirements are what we need.

  3. Liz, as Larry Winget said at CONSTRUCT, you’ve got to have more fun. Maybe you can offer to prepare their Project Manual of required supplies next year. Division 01 would contain those items that are common to all grades. Each grade could have its own Section. Prepare it according to SectionFormat, with the administrative and procedural requirements for acquiring the supplies in Part 1, the actual supplies in Part 2, of course, and how to prepare and deliver them to the kid’s desks in part 3!

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