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

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.

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.

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.