The Follow-Through

Yale University New Haven Connecticut July 2018 Liz OSullivanLearning isn’t always comfortable.

Some of the lessons we learn most thoroughly come from mistakes we’ve made, or from finding out the consequences of actions we never considered before acting. For a specifier, these lessons hit hardest any time after bid opening, through the first few years of occupancy. (Anytime after pricing is set, or worse, after the building is built.) Sure, we research the things we specify, during the construction documents phase, but unless we’ve been given specific direction, we do our best, trying to keep in mind a general sense of the owner’s need for durability balanced with budget, and go with industry standards that align with those goals.

Discomfort sets in when we realize we need to research something further during construction, or after occupancy, because of a question from the architect. It means our work wasn’t quite right, or wasn’t written clearly enough. We need to follow through, follow up on the work we did, and make sure it was right, so the architect can defend it, or figure out what needs to change in order to make it right. Knowing exactly where and how something is being installed or used (once we’re in the construction phase) sure can illuminate the picture brightly, and let us know in which areas to focus our research. We often end up digging more deeply, because of the specific, now-more-clearly-defined, and now-critical, situation, and we end up learning stuff we’ll never forget.

In the last week I’ve had some good questions from some architect-clients: two questions about submittals. Nothing was wrong with the specified products, nothing was wrong with the specs, but there were some complicating factors that could have led to incorrect products being installed. These issues didn’t show up until the submittals came in during construction.

The most recent question came from the architect because the substrate indicated on the submittal for a type of coating was incorrectly listed. This raised some flags, so I looked into it deeply and realized that the manufacturer’s submittal sheet includes 2 different types of coatings, with very similar names, for various different types of substrates, on the same data sheet. The info I got from the architect indicated that the submittal didn’t use the full name of the product – just the words that were common to both of the different products on the datasheet! The incorrect product would have ended up on the building, if the contractor supplied the product most appropriate for the incorrectly-listed substrate. Lesson learned – I plan to always specify using the full name of a product to reduce the chances of a mistake such as could have happened on this project. The name of this product came from the owner and I didn’t change the way it was written. It was clear, but it could have been spelled out, to make it even more clear.

Another recent submittal question came about the specified thickness of sheet metal for a parapet coping. When I wrote the spec, I selected the default in the specification software I use. It turns out that the color of sheet metal we need isn’t available as standard in the thickness specified for the coping, although it is available as standard in all the other thicknesses of sheet metal specified for other uses. The architect asked why this sheet metal for coping was thicker. I wasn’t exactly sure… dug deep… and am now pretty sure that if this wide coping on this very visible sloped parapet were to be made of a thinner metal than specified, we’d see waviness, oil canning, sagging ugliness. Phew – a good lesson to learn, and just in time. Again, there was nothing wrong with the spec, but if I hadn’t been able to give the architect a good reason to ensure that the spec was complied with, it would have been much easier for the architect to allow thinner metal for the coping, and then we would have had a problem.

The chill that goes through me when I realize that I can’t answer a question about my work product immediately upon being asked is humbling. But no one, no one, could ever know enough about specs to know it all perfectly and thoroughly before ever starting out on the path of writing specs. And yes, the follow-through takes time. Following up on something that is brought to our attention well after we issued our documents requires shifting gears, jumping back to something we thought we were finished with, but we belatedly realize we weren’t. Specifiers must be lifelong learners, no matter how uncomfortable that is. 

Venice Italy September 2019 Liz OSullivan

18 thoughts on “The Follow-Through

  1. Thanks, Liz–great to see you back in my email inbox–and excellent advice (as usual!)
    Yes, we do indeed need to take care with product names–and the resolution of matters such as the availability of colour selections vs metal thicknesses is a constant battle!
    Peter Eedy (Australia)

  2. Liz: You’ve described my day and my work life better than I could. We never achieve 100 hundred percent assurance. We never know enough. But with good relationships with our architect team, we can work with them to extract the best quality possible in the uncertain world that is the construction project. Many thanks for a great post!

  3. I always start my graduate students out with a quote from Socrates. “He is wisest; but not because he possesses special knowledge not had by others. Rather he finds that he is wisest because he recognizes his own lack of knowledge while others think they know, but do not”.

    You can always spot the folks who want to appear to be smart when they employ the use of sarcasm and try to sound real cynical. Believe me, graduate students in Architecture have been subjected to a lot of that kind of dog and pony show.

    But beyond all that huggy-feely being “learners” stuff: the part about not being able to remember why you made the selections you made in an individual section (out of 140?) isn’t a big thing. Sometimes you do, especially when there has been one of those rare instances where you got feedback to a question – but defaulting to a “best guess” along with some “detective work” is often what we (independents) must do. I find once I open the edited section it usually comes back to me. I might even have left myself a couple notes in the comments tab (I am a spec link guy – so it is easier to do). It is also helpful for me to see what other sections I noted as “related sections”.

    Also, I would rather have the benefit of getting an email about an issue rather than a phone call. Talking to people on the phone or having face to face meetings is kind of reckless stuff in our business. I don’t like to do it, especially with salespeople.

    • Thanks, Jeff! I also prefer emails over phone calls. They give me the time to more thoroughly prepare my answers. Some of my clients over the years have strongly preferred the telephone over emails. On more than one occasion I have written a long email as a reply to a question, and immediately called to talk through it. (Literally talk through each sentence.) I prefer writing, for its thoroughness and clarity, and because I can look back through emails very easily to find out what I “said.” But I try to meet my clients where they are. (Some people really prefer to talk than to read.)

  4. I have to admit the lifelong learning was a large part of the delight I had in specifying, especially if someone was paying me for the effort. I sometimes wondered why I had to study & relearn things that I thought had been drilled into my consciousness. The research to get there, however, was almost always more beneficial both to me and the project than I expected.

    • Until a few years ago, I never believed people who said that they had forgotten more than most people had ever learned. Then I started experiencing forgetting technical things that used to come automatically while working, because my head had been filled with new information, and I hadn’t used the other information in a few years. (Mostly Division 03!) Going back and relearning does drive the info in deeper.

  5. Great post again, Liz, and so true. I get a very uneasy feeling when I know I’ve done my homework and then somebody involved in the project (architect, owner, or manufacturer) moves the goal post. Just when I think I’ve learned something, I find out how much more there is.

  6. Hi Liz, so good to see your blog again.

    One of the most enjoyable things about specifying is that it’s a way to keep educating yourself. I’ve learned something new on every project—whether a technical or an administrative issue or just a new way to specify–and that helps keep one fresh and current.

    And you’re so right that some of the best lessons we can learn come from our mistakes. A worthwhile book on this subject is “Success Through Failure—the Paradox of Design” by Henry Petroski.

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