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

Now You See ‘Em, Now You Don’t: Green Roofs

Some of the projects I work on experience many design changes between initial concept and completion of construction. On healthy projects, the most dramatic changes that I see occur after the schematic design phase, before the beginning of the construction documents phase. A few of these projects of mine have included “green roofs” (vegetated roofs) at the outset of the project. But those were gone before the construction documents phase started. I’m not sure who’s talking whom down from the roof, but it’s outta there, over and over again. Who brought the idea to the project? Was it just something that added a splash of color to the architect’s renderings? Had the owner always wanted to be able to walk in a garden while simultaneously enjoying a great view from a rooftop? Was everyone on board with a green roof until the contractor’s preliminary pricing came in?

Denver voters just passed the Green Roof Initiative last month, mandating vegetated roofs for certain buildings within the City limits. I wrote a commentary about this for the newsletter of our Denver Chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute. It includes a link to the text of the ordinance, and touches on the specifics of the initiative, some green roof risks for owners, and the loopholes in the ordinance. Here’s part of that:

“Denver voters faced Initiated Ordinance 300, the Denver Green Roof Initiative, in our recent election, and voted it in, by a small margin. What does this mean for building owners, developers, architects, engineers, contractors, roofing distributors and product representatives?” Continue reading…

Green roofs have benefits, mostly for the people who get to look out windows and see plants instead of roofing materials, but they can also mitigate urban heat island impacts, and help to improve the quality of stormwater before it hits municipal systems. Perhaps the most idealistic of the selling points made by the supporters of the Green Roof Initiative is the dream of rooftop urban farming. From the mission of the supporters: “Buildings are permitted to use the rooftop space for urban agriculture. This allows for the building to rent out their rooftop space to urban farmers who can then supply their goods around the city.” However, crops need a roof that meets more than just the minimum mandated by the ordinance. Here’s a basic overview of the 3 main types of green roofs. Some require beefier supporting structure, and more complex irrigation systems, than others.

Most owners who are merely looking to build a commercial building in the Denver area will do the minimum green roof, use a loophole to get out of building a green roof altogether, or build outside the City limits.

As I wrote in my commentary, “Building owners will have costs for their green roofs beyond the design and construction phases. They will have risks that owners without green roofs don’t have. Green roof plantings need to be maintained, cared for, and watered, forever. Insurance riders for green roofs will increase the costs of building insurance, but regular insurance policies usually exclude problems stemming from green roofs, so these will be necessary costs. Problems with the waterproofing components of green roof assemblies, discoverable only after moisture intrusion into buildings, are more difficult to diagnose and repair than problems with non-green-roof assemblies. Moisture intrusion is the most common cause of damage to buildings, and roofs are the parts of buildings that are most prone to moisture intrusion…”

Aesthetically, a green roofscape is a lovely goal for Denver, but building owners should not contribute to this blindly. They need to know what risks they are taking on. Sometimes people start projects without knowing a lot, then learn more as design goes on. (And then the green roofs on my projects aren’t there anymore.) In my work as a construction specifications consultant to architects, I expect to see a little bit more of the same pattern I’ve been seeing for my projects – green roofs that are there at schematic design, and gone before construction. Now you see ’em, now you don’t.

green grass

(Not a green roof. Just green.)

 

 

 

 

Exterior Decorating

board formed concreteAre you designing for the function and performance of the building, or just doing some exterior decorating?

Funny things can happen early in design on a project, when an architect or interior designer makes color boards for the owner to make selections from, or to present to a municipality, or some other entity with authority, for approval.

It’s natural for interior construction products to be selected on the basis of color and appearance – color may be the driver that leads a designer to select the product, manufacturer, finish, and size. Performance is often not a big factor in the choice of interior finishes. For example, a specific color is desired for a conference room wet bar backsplash, to coordinate with a company’s logo colors. The material could be natural stone or metal or ceramic tile or epoxy paint… and then the perfect color is found in a ceramic tile. So that tile gets specified.

However, the performance and function of exterior materials is much more important than their colors. Appearance is important, of course, but the primary function of the walls and roof of a building is to keep water, snow, hot air, and cold air out of the building. Performance should be a primary factor in the choice of exterior materials. But sometimes the exterior components of a building get selected based nearly solely on color, too. Once in a while, by mistake, early in a project, exterior material design decisions are made without even an understanding of the way these materials will be attached to, or constructed as part of, the building. Then they get presented to the owner or authorities having jurisdiction, and it’s not until later that the team realizes the selected exterior materials won’t work.

I know this happens, because as a specifier, I’ve had some interesting experiences writing specifications based on the information I’ve been given by the architect for different exterior construction products, including fiber cement cladding, aluminum composite material panels, and aluminum windows. Sometimes, for these and other building envelope products, I’ve just been given the manufacturer’s name and the color – but not a product name. I’ve worked backwards from the color finish, and have narrowed my options down to the only product by that manufacturer that comes in that finish, and, viola, I have the product. Usually this is fine, but several times, I’ve ended up specifying a product that is nothing like what the architect thought it was. What happened was the architect selected the finish from the manufacturer’s available finishes, but didn’t check to make sure that the selected finish was available on a product that would work for the application. Then the team figured out later, after more detailed drawings had been developed, that that was not at all what was envisioned.

Few people pick a car to buy based solely on the colors available from a particular dealer or maker. Most people pick the general type of car model they want, maybe compare some different makes and models for performance, safety, and price, and then look at available colors last. Most buildings are meant to last longer than most cars – they certainly shouldn’t be designed with color foremost in mind. Performance and function of exterior materials need to be foremost in the mind of the designer of a building. Color selection should come after that.

There was probably little room for design-team-confusion during the design and specification of the board-formed concrete wall in the photo above. However, most of our exterior construction products do not include their own structure, air/vapor/water barrier, and finish, all in one material, the way this concrete wall does. All of these functions need to be considered when selecting exterior materials. If the exterior finish can’t stand up without backup structure or substrate, but you’re just thinking about finish, you’re just decorating.

If you, the architect, are not designing for the function and performance of the building’s exterior materials, who do you think will do that, and when? This design work should be done by someone on the architect’s team, and should be done in conjunction with, if not before, exterior finish material selection.


I should mention that I did not coin the phrase “exterior decorating” myself. It’s a good one that I like to borrow.

When Things Fall Apart

The best way to learn how buildings get put together may be to build them, or to watch them be built. But another pretty good way to learn how things go together is to see them falling apart.

You may not ever notice the piece of clay tile that plugs up the bottom of a curved tile at the edge of the roof – but here, in the center of the photo below, it’s sliding out, so you see it, and this may make you curious.

birdstop

Some people call these eave closure pieces “birdstops.” Some manufacturers provide such accessory pieces in metal. These, on an old house in Denver, are clay to match the roof tiles. Their purpose is to keep out weather, birds, and little four-legged critters.

Falling apart has an upside – we can learn how things are supposed to be put together.

Guidelines: Grocery Lists & Specs

ginger-rootSometimes when we send construction documents out into cyberspace, we don’t know what we’re going to get back. We look at submittals during construction and wonder how in the world someone could think that a particular item would be an appropriate product to use on the project.

Sometimes I read non-work things and wonder if their writers knew that bear and bare have different meanings, peak is not the same as peek, and to and too are two different words. My default assumption is that people write what they mean, and when things are written properly, I am a quick reader. When things are not written properly, I am a slow reader. (If something doesn’t make sense the way it’s written, I tend to reread it with all the possible misspelled homonyms and autocorrect blunders and alternate punctuation in mind. Some people do not bother to take this extra time, and just go with their first impression.)

I know that we can’t, with our written communications, enforce someone else’s compliance with construction contract documents. But we can make those documents easier to read, and, perhaps then, easier to follow.

The other night, my kids suggested stir-fried tofu for dinner. My husband offered to buy ingredients. The grocery list I texted to him included the following:

1 bunch broccoli (1-1/2 lb)
2″ piece fresh ginger root
1 bunch scallions

When I took the produce out of the bag, I found the items pictured above – 2 large knobs of ginger root.

That’s my hand in the photo – my female, normal-sized hand. So the picture clearly shows a lot more ginger root than the one 2-inch piece I’d asked for. I got almost 10 times what I needed.

While cooking that stir-fry, I realized that maybe if I had described the ginger differently, I might have had better results. (I wouldn’t be trying to figure out how to use up some ginger root tonight.) I could have written:

1 bunch broccoli (1-1/2 lb)
1 2-inch piece fresh ginger root
1 bunch scallions

I could have been more parallel and consistent in my writing, and could have used the number of units I wanted for the ginger the way I had for the broccoli and scallion. Maybe then I’d have just gotten one piece, as I’d wanted.

Or, maybe the inch symbol seemed to be a typo. If I’d spelled out “inch,” instead of using the inch symbol, it would have been obvious that I actually meant to write inch, and maybe I’d have gotten ginger root in the size I’d wanted.

There are some good guidelines for specifications writing that I usually try to use in all my writing (even my grocery list text messages). I try to use parallel construction – I write sentences using the same grammatical pattern of words. I use words instead of symbols for “degree,” “percent,” “plus,” “minus,” and “at.” I use full size numbers for fractions, instead of superscript and subscript fractions.

There are good reasons for these, and other, guidelines. If instructions in Part 3 of the spec section are not written in a parallel way, they could be mixed up or overlooked. (“Examine products before installation. Reject damaged materials.” reads better than “Examine products before installation. Damaged materials shall be rejected.”)  If the specs get printed on paper, and subsequently photocopied, symbols and small characters can become illegible. If the specs get converted from one font to another in a word processing program, or converted from one digital program to another, some symbols might actually get generated as different symbols, or could be lost completely.

Someone’s made these mistakes before, and people have created guidelines to prevent others from having to learn through their own experiences. These guidelines and others exist to help us write more clearly, in ways that are less likely to be misinterpreted. Sometimes I encounter specifications that run the risk of being misinterpreted, or are actually incorrect, due to the use of symbols or superscript or subscript characters that have become illegible or are conveying a different meaning that intended. These are usually manufacturers’ guide specifications and documents from building owners.

Everyone who writes specifications or other construction communication could benefit from learning some of these writing guidelines. Check out Construction Specifications Writing: Principles and Procedures by Harold J. Rosen, Mark Kalin, Robert S. Weygant, and John R. Regener, Jr., published by Wiley, and The CSI Construction Specifications Practice Guide, published by The Construction Specifications Institute.

 

 

 

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.

What, Exactly, Are We Communicating?

Respect Private Property

What’s a hiker to think? You can see the summit from here, the hiking trail guidebook says the trailhead is up here somewhere, but the street signs don’t match the road names on the maps or in the guidebook, and now you see these conflicting signs on what you’re pretty sure is the right road. The green sign at the beginning of the road says “Private Property Beyond This Point, No Trespassing,” which usually means that one should not proceed. End of story, right?

Well, there’s another sign, farther away, up this same road. That brown sign says “Respect Private Land, Stay on Main Road,” which implies that it’s actually ok to proceed up this “No Trespassing” road, but only if you don’t veer off the road. Then, of course, there’s that little tacked-on “No Parking” sign, which implies that it’s ok to drive up this road, but only if you don’t park on it.

I’m a rule follower, so these conflicting signs confound and paralyze me. Surely we’d never create anything as confusing as this in the construction industry, would we?

I did a whole bunch of invoicing last month, because I had a ridiculous amount of work in April. I took a good, hard, look at my time on one of those projects, and confirmed my suspicions that I’d gone waayyy over my budgeted hours on this lump-sum-fee project. Wow, what a deal my client got, right? All those extra hours spent making the specs perfect? Well, not exactly.

Every few days while I was working on the project, I was sent a digital pile of information by my architect-client, who received stuff from the owner team. Many of these documents conflicted with each other, sometimes giving as many as 3 different conflicting instructions for one thing. I spent a lot of time trying to reconcile all the different directives – time that I actually needed for other things, like product research for the project, coordination for the project, work on other projects, family time, and sleep.

As most of the info was related almost solely to the specifications, and it came from the owner team, who should have known what they wanted since this wasn’t their first one of these buildings, the architect didn’t spend too much time reviewing it before forwarding it on. So my questions about this info were confusing to them, and, for some reason, some were unanswerable by the owner.

I’ve never been on the contractor team for a project, but I think I know how estimators feel when the architectural drawings say one thing, the structural drawings say something different, and the specs say a third different thing. An estimator may want to just take the risk of pricing what makes the most sense, and hoping it’s right. Asking questions during the bid period is sometimes an inefficient use of time, and experience may show that some answers aren’t worth the time spent. Perhaps this is why the design team sees surprises when submittals come in.

Back to that hike. As it turns out, if you can get to a place where you can receive a strong enough cellular signal, and you can look at a satellite view of the area with the conflicting signage, you can figure out whether or not you were on the right road to the trailhead.

Or maybe you skip that research, you just take that risk of trespassing, and you drive up that road. It’s a rutted 4-wheel-drive road, so you are hoping it’s the right road because it’s going to be a rough ride.

Turns out the trailhead and parking area are a half mile up that road! Apparently, you just have to ignore that first sign.

What a terribly inefficient standard operating procedure for communications of any type. Issuing conflicting instructions to a group requires multiple parties to either all risk making the wrong guess (and risk losing time or money), or all spend time doing the same research to figure out which of the conflicting instructions is the intended one. Whether the group you’re trying to communicate with is hikers, bidders, or your design team, isn’t it best to just issue clear, concise, correct, and complete information the first time?

Or maybe we could just shoot for non-conflicting.

 Black Diamond

Cramming It All In

IMG_2877Mid-January is unquestionably wintertime. No matter where we are in the northern hemisphere, the long hours of darkness tell our bodies to slow down and hibernate. The cold weather and the piles of snow here in Denver magnify that desire for dormancy.

We have as little daylight now as we had in early December, but every year, all through that crazy month of December, no matter what our bodies tell us to do, our calendars tell us there’s a holiday lunch for work, holiday parties with friends, a holiday program at the kids’ school, we should bring a holiday dish for our December board meeting… everyone wants to celebrate. There are gifts to send, cards to mail, cookies to bake, and get-togethers with family to travel to.

All of this activity is on top of our already full schedules – work and school and laundry and kids’ basketball practices don’t stop to make room for the holiday season, or for extra sleep during the darkness.

I know our world has been this way for a long time – we cram a lot into December, without taking anything out of our already busy lives to make it all fit neatly. Some of the benefits of the holiday season are lost to exhaustion. We can’t actually get to all the parties without physically wearing ourselves out. If we try to fit everything in, the celebrating becomes more work than fun, which certainly defeats its purpose.

Wouldn’t it be nice if work stopped to make room for this extra activity? I think it used to at least slow down for everyone, long, long ago, at the end of the year. Maybe that’s just me, looking back, through rose-colored glasses, at my family’s life when I was an elementary school student.

At the start of this past holiday season, I heard a young emerging professional, an intern architect, talk about not being a very good project manager. She was actually doing a great job of managing her project – always keeping team members in the loop, always following up on things, asking and answering all the right questions. In my eyes, she was just overwhelmed because she was doing everything – she was her firm’s contact person for the owner, contractor, and consultants, she was doing all the production on the drawings for the project, and she was making design and technical decisions, but she doesn’t yet know a whole lot about how a building gets put together. She didn’t realize that she’s actually really good at project management, but there is other architecture stuff that she’s still learning.

All architects should be lifelong learners, but at her firm, and at many small firms these past couple of decades, emerging professionals get thrust into project management positions before knowing much about how buildings get built and how to draw them so someone can build them. Baptism by fire is one way to learn, but it’s best to just focus on one thing at a time while in the fray. Figuring out how to draw construction documents without much input from a supervisor, and being a project manager for the first time at the same time, while also doing all the production on a project, is cramming too much into the job. Some of the benefits of learning fast by taking on a lot of responsibility early are lost… because there’s no time for some important things to be learned at all. But the project goes on anyway, whether or not the project manager ever learns enough about building technology to draw details that are weatherproof.

I may be looking through rose-colored glasses again, but from the stories I’ve heard about the olden days, it seems to me that architecture firms used to have interns just drawing and learning – working under licensed architects who were also working on the drawings regularly. Those architects who were managing the interns were not managing the project – someone else was managing the project (handling communication with consultants and the owner.) So there are three different jobs – the manager managing the overall project, an architect in charge of the drawings but not doing all the drawings single-handedly, and the interns learning and helping out a licensed architect with the drawings.

I suspect that things changed with the introduction of CAD, when the older architects no longer understood exactly how the interns were producing the drawings. A production team disconnect began at the same time that production could be carried out more quickly on computers. More production work could be done by fewer people, smaller production teams were required, so less-experienced people were being promoted to project manager. This disconnect pattern has been continued, perhaps magnified, with BIM, as more information gets input into the model by less-experienced people. The person reviewing and stamping the drawings may not quite like how they look, but accepts the explanation “That’s how the program generates the drawings.”

I think that in the distant past (before CAD, and before my own internship), intern architects were better prepared before being thrust into project management. They knew more about how a building gets built before they had to go walk the site with the owner as the only representative of their firm, or answer the contractor’s question about something on the drawings on the spot while standing in the trailer, or communicate with the structural engineer about the building department’s latest amendments to the International Building Code. In the quest for staffing efficiency, firms give recent grads more responsibility, and emerging professionals take it, and cram it all into the job, in the quest for experience, more autonomy, and higher pay. At the same time, for new grads overall, the time period between graduation from architecture school and achievement of licensure has lengthened.

During the holiday season every December, we juggle our already-full daily lives, plus the seasonal urge to slow down, plus holiday celebrations and traditions. The price we pay for this juggling is that a few of these balls get dropped every year. But that probably just means losing a bit of sleep, showing up at the meeting late and with baked goods from a store instead of from your own oven, and skipping a few parties.

What price does the architecture profession pay for having its emerging professionals try to learn too much on the job, in too short a time period, with too little guidance? What balls get dropped when we try to cram too much into the internship all at once?

 

What Do You Design First?

I used to dream about floor plans. I know, I know, this is not an uncommon occurrence for people who grow up to be architects. But what’s odd is that I don’t think much about floor plans anymore – I spend more time wondering about what’s inside the walls that comprise those plans.

I remember being a kid and drawing dream home floor plans. The homes were mansions, of course, with ballrooms, indoor pools, morning rooms, lounges, probably a dozen bedrooms, and… I don’t remember what else. My floor plans were made up of single, thick, dull, pencil lines which divided the rooms from each other, and the interior from the exterior. I was little; I didn’t know what was in the walls.

Even when I was older, in architecture school, and when I was already an architect, the plans – how the spaces work – are what I thought about first. Then I thought about the elevations – how the building looks – and then I developed those plans and elevations in tandem so they’d work together without too much design backtracking. This is pretty typical. I didn’t think much about what was in those walls until after plans and elevations were somewhat far along, and some external force (the schedule, my boss, or a work plan) required that I draw details.

But a funny thing happened on the way to becoming a good spec writer – I became a better architect than I’d been before.

Now when I think about unbuilt buildings, I think about wall and roof assemblies first, before I think much about plans and appearances. I even think about the tricky transitions. (I don’t design in my work anymore, but I have sometimes thought about designing a home addition, and a house in the mountains.) When I see interesting buildings, I wonder about their wall assemblies, and how those influenced the building’s appearance.

The building blocks for real buildings aren’t those single thick lines I scratched out as a kid; they never were. Today’s building blocks are complicated assemblies. Before getting too far along with plans and elevations (the fun stuff), determine all the wall assemblies, roof assemblies, and foundation and slab components (the hard stuff). You can design these assemblies nearly independently of the plans and elevations – so nail them all down early! Then use these assemblies, these building blocks, as you design the plans and elevations.

That way you can work through the tricky details as you further develop your elevations and plans, rather than trying to resolve a terribly messy detail that you are stuck with because you took the aesthetic design too far before doing much technical detailing.

Once in a while, I prepare 100% Construction Documents specifications based on a pretty good drawing progress set that happens to include a couple of excessively unresolved areas, which haven’t changed much between Design Development and 90% Construction Documents. Then, when I review the Bid Set drawings, I find unexpected new things, that are not coordinated with the specs, because a challenging assembly or transition finally got designed as the inevitable deadline approached. This happens even on projects designed in Revit, even on projects with COMcheck requirements, and even on projects which have “wall types” for all assemblies (interior and exterior) figured out, but in plan detail only, from the beginning.

Waiting to resolve tough details can result in uncoordinated documents, or worse, conditions that get resolved awkwardly (and look bad), or need to be drastically changed at the last minute.

Understanding what’s represented by the lines we design with is what separates the grown-up architects from the kids.

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.