Construction Product Reps – NOT Just Salespeople

Denver CSI had its annual Symposium today – technically, it’s the Education Symposium and Product Show.  There were about 35 different product reps (my estimate) representing hundreds of construction products.  Unfortunately, I only managed to visit 6, because I spent a very long time with each one I got to talk to…  I always have lots of questions.  I hope to be invited by a product rep again next year, and catch up with the rest of the reps I didn’t get to visit with! 

The Product Show component of today’s event reminded me of a comment I made on someone else’s blog a couple of months ago.  The blog is written by a young architect and the intended audience is intern architects.  The post that prompted me to comment was entitled “The gentle art of product-rep self-defense.”  I’m not the only one who commented – actually, the blog post started a truly excellent discussion among commenters and the blog author.  Here’s the link to the blog and comments:

It’s somewhat embarassing to admit that only in the last few years have I come to understand the importance of the role of product reps in construction projects.  These people can be tremendous resources throughout an entire project, from schematic design through the warranty period. 

Copied below is my comment from the discussion:

“I was just discussing this issue yesterday with a product rep, and fellow Denver CSI member. I’m a spec writer, and a licensed architect, and I practiced as an architect for years before I started writing specs. As soon as I started writing specs, I realized how hugely important product reps are. But when I was working as an architect, my opinion of product reps was the same as yours.

“Product reps know their products better than anyone else could ever hope to – they know them better than architects, spec writers, contractors, owners, and users do.

“These people aren’t just salespeople – many of these people do forensic investigations on their products, when failures occur on projects. Failures usually turn out to be due to improper installation. Sometimes improper installation is a result of poor or incorrect project specifications written by the project specifier, or poor or incorrect details drawn by the project architect. We, as design professionals, may have more to learn from failures than from anything else. These product reps are tremendous technical resources for specifiers and for architects who know how to tap into them.

“My recommendations to your readers: Get to know a product rep for a product you frequently use. Ask this rep to review your project specifications and details that include their product – you may surprise yourself and learn something about a product you thought you knew well! Then you’ll see how much product reps have to offer.”

what an “outline specification” REALLY is…..

I prepare architectural specifications for a lot of school construction projects.  At the Design Development phase, we’re usually contractually obligated to deliver “outline specifications”… but I’m not sure that everyone involved knows what those are.  By everyone, I mean the architect, the engineers, and even (gasp!) the owner’s project manager.  (Oh, yes, an owner’s project manager once said to me at DD, “These sections are just one page.”)

School district projects that I’ve worked on require that at DD, the design team submit “outline specifications that identify major materials and systems and establish in general their quality levels.”  At CD, they usually require “specifications setting forth in detail the quality levels of materials and systems and other requirements for the construction of the Work.”  This language is from the AIA B101, Standard Form of Agreement Between Owner and Architect.  If the architect’s (or prime consultant’s) agreement with the owner actually calls for “outline specifications,” then the architect should make sure that his agreements with his consultants also actually call for “outline specifications.” 

The school districts, and many other owners, don’t want detailed specifications at DD.  They want more general, outline specifications which don’t have details and installation requirements like 3-part specifications do.  I personally prefer outline specifications (non-detailed specifications) at DD for all the same reasons that I believe owners do – they are easy to get fully correct and coordinated, and they are easy to read and understand (for owners and contractors and the entire design team), therefore they are very useful, 1) for pricing, 2) for demonstrating to the owner the scope of work, and 3) for design team coordination.  DD specs, just like DD drawings, should not be progress sets or snapshots of CD sets in progress.  They need to be their own finished, complete, stand-alone thing, especially when they are to be used by an estimator for pricing.

An excerpt from the Construction Specification Institute’s The Project Resource Manual:

Outline specifications include information about manufacturers, materials, manufactured units, equipment, components, and accessories.  They also describe material mixes, fabrications, and finishes, along with installation, erection, and application procedures.  Only a few items from PART 1 GENERAL of SectionFormat are necessary in outline specifications. Reference standards involving products and installation may be listed. Special submittal requirements beyond the norm, such as unusual samples, mock-ups, special testing requirements, and maintenance materials, should be listed.  Special qualifications for manufacturers, fabricators, or installers may also be included, as well as a description of any extended or special warranty requirements.  Include fabrication and workmanship requirements only when such information has an impact on product or installation grades, cost, or time scheduling. Architectural Woodwork Institute (AWI) grade levels, for example, have cost ramifications and should be identified.

Outline specifications aid in the design process and help form the basis for revised cost estimates and schedules.  As the design process continues, they become the basis for preparation of the project specifications.  Outline specifications serve as a checklist for the project team for choosing products and methods for later incorporation into the project manual.  Properly developed outline specifications establish criteria for the final contract documents. They also help to eliminate fragmented decision making, which can affect previous decisions and cause unnecessary changes and extra work. MasterFormat Division numbers and titles are the recommended basis for organizing outline specifications.

My approach for outline specifications is to indicate what products and materials are to be incorporated into the project, and indicate anything about them, that we already know, that affects pricing.  For example, if I already know that the owner only wants to allow a few specific manufacturers for a certain product, I will indicate those manufacturers.  If the owner or design team has no preference for manufacturers at DD, I will not list any manufacturers.  If we already know some product options that will be used, I will indicate those.  If we know finishes, I will include those.  If we don’t know finishes, I won’t guess – I just won’t indicate finishes.  If there are special or unusual installation requirements, I will indicate those.  I will not mention typical installation requirements in an outline spec. (“Lay out tiles from center marks established with principal walls, discounting minor offsets, so tiles at opposite edges of room are of equal width.  Adjust as necessary to avoid using cut widths that equal less than one-half tile at perimeter.” is a pretty typical VCT installation instruction that I will always include in specs at CD, but will never include in an outline spec at DD.)  If we know that carpet will be installed by direct glue down method, I will indicate that, but will not mention specific installation requirements for that method.  I will list any special submittal requirements, and requirements for mock-ups, but will not indicate that product data is to be submitted, because that doesn’t affect pricing.

I am not an estimator, but if I were a project manager at a construction company doing CMGC on a project, and I were going to be the person doing CD project management as well as DD estimating, the last thing in the world that I would want to receive at DD is a partially-edited, partially incorrect 3-part full length spec.  There are a few reasons for this.  1) A spec with lots of detail implies that decisions regarding these details have actually been made, and that the spec reflects design decisions.  Design professionals know that we often haven’t actually made these decisions at DD, so any detailed spec (or drawing) is likely to change before 100% CD.  2) Partially-edited documents are difficult to wade through, and difficult to extract useful information from. 3) I might be spending a lot of time getting a pretty exact price on a detailed thing (that is going to change), when it might actually be a lot more productive (and fruitful) at DD to spend a lot less time, and assign a price range to the item.  (I don’t know about this for certain – I guess I need to learn more about how estimators work.  But this is an educated guess, based on my own work using detailed information from drawings that look like all the design decisions have been made, and preparing a spec section based on that, only to find out that it was a detail taken from another project, put in a set to make it look more complete, and I have to start all over again later, when the design decisions have actually been made!!)

We, as design professionals, have to keep in mind what is to be done with our documents.  They aren’t merely “deliverables” that are due to our clients.  They are to be used – at DD they’re to be used for pricing and design team coordination.  At CD, they’re to be used for constructing.

MasterSpec master outline spec sections can be purchased from Arcom at .  Once you’ve gathered all the design decision information you need, it doesn’t take too long to complete an outline set.  Or, of course, a full length section could be edited down to be just an outline, but a one-year license for an outline spec library at a cost of several hundred dollars has a pretty quick payback, compared to the hours spent editing full length sections down… 

Now, the question of whether outline specifications are useful documents is a question that many specifiers have been asking lately.  Many prefer Preliminary Project Descriptions at DD.  But that’s a topic for another day.  This is just all about what we, as the design team, are supposed to deliver to the owner when our contracts require “outline specifications!”  Here’s hoping that I never have another owner’s project manager wondering why my spec sections at DD are only one page long…

More on CSI Exams (Because this is SO important)

There are some excellent posts on a CSI LinkedIn Group discussion.  I’m going to quote them here, since not everyone can see that discussion. 

Robert Johnson posted a quote from Kevin Phillips, who wrote about a time when he was starting his first intern job:

“About a month after I started my employment, I took my CDT (Construction Documents Technology) exam offered through CSI. This was my first introduction to CSI. I passed my exam and received a certificate as a Construction Documents Technologist. Studying and taking that exam opened my eyes to a whole new world. I learned so much about construction documents and the industry as a whole. I felt that I had a HUGE advantage over my peers because I learned much more about the industry than they had…in a short period of time.”  (Kevin Phillips)
And I wrote a follow-up:

“The SHORT PERIOD OF TIME is key. A lot of architects think that learning about construction contract administration has to be EITHER a ‘baptism by fire,’ OR ELSE a decade-long apprentice period involving a lot of copying over of someone else’s shop drawing review notes. 

“There is a third option – study for the CDT exam (in conjunction with a little baptism by fire and some copying over of shop drawing review notes) – and you’ll have such a greater understanding of what your role is as the architect on a construction project, in a MUCH shorter period of time than it takes others who don’t take the CDT!”  (Liz O’Sullivan)

Robert Johnson followed up:

“I agree with Liz about the basic knowledge that the CDT education course will give you about contract administration – the roles of each of the elements of the contract documents and the basic roles and responsibilities of the participants during the construction stage.

“Taking the CCCA education course after CDT will carry that to a much further depth. You will now learn more detailed information about the roles and responsibilities of the owner, contractor, and design professional during each of the activities of the construction period. This will include preconstruction submittals, preconstruction meetings, submittals, meetings, closeout submittals, site visits, quality assurance and quality control, interpretations, substitutions, claims and disputes, measurement and payment, and project closeout to name some of the topics.

“As with other similar areas, you can take the long and painful route of learning from your experiences without any education to go with it. The quality of the resulting education will relate to the quality and knowledge of your mentors and how comprehensive your experience is in terms of involvement in all the construction period activities, types of projects, types of project delivery, etc.

“The CCCA education will make your experience much more fruitful and better prepare you for new unexperienced situations in the future. The combination of a good education and experince can’t be beat! If you have contract administration responsibilities and don’t take the CCCA education course, you are shortchanging yourself.”  (Robert Johnson)

Here’s a link to the members-only discussion.  If you’re a CSI member, you can become a member of the group.

CSI can help you put yourself in the shoes of others… and achieve a smoother construction process.

Spec writers joke about how one of our career requirements is the ability to read minds.  We are joking, of course, but sometimes we’re quicker to realize what the architect and the contractor are trying to communicate to each other, and we end up acting as translator between them.  Sometimes this can happen during construction; sometimes it can happen during construction documentation, when a contractor is part of the project team.

Why is it that some spec writers have this ability?  Perhaps it’s because so many of us have taken CSI Certification exams, and are active members of our CSI Chapters. 

CSI draws its membership from specifiers, architects, engineers, contractors, facility mangers, product representatives, manufacturers, and building owners.  So if you’re active in a Chapter, you get to know all kinds of people who use construction documents.  You get to know people outside your immediate field, who can be a tremendous help to you in your work.  For example, architects can get to know product representatives in a setting different from the typical “box lunch” presentation, or a meeting about a specific product for a specific project.  You can get to know people on a more personal professional level, outside the context of a specific product or specific task, and get an overall understanding of how that person does his or her job, and how that person can help you do your job.

There is SO MUCH to be gained from preparing for CSI Certification exams.  The CDT (Construction Documents Technologist) exam covers a wide base of knowledge about preparing, understanding, and interpreting construction documents, and the roles of different groups in the construction process, such as architect, owner, contractor, suppliers, and product representatives. 

When you better understand a team member’s role in your project, you can better communicate with that person.  If you can put yourself in the shoes of another construction project team member, you can have clearer documentation, better communication, and a smoother construction process.  CSI can help you do that.  You don’t even have to be a member to take a Certification exam. 

If you register by Friday, January 28, 2011, you get a discount on registration for CSI Certification exams.  Final deadline is Saturday February 26, 2011.  Exams are offered at computer testing centers between March 28 and April 9.  Check it all out at


Take the CDT exam!

Do you produce construction documents (architects and engineers)?
Do you use construction documents (contractors)?

Do you do both?  (Assist in the production of construction documents, and comply with construction documents, the way product representatives do.)
I encourage you to take CSI’s CDT exam.

Although I was already a licensed architect with several years of construction contract administration experience when I took the CDT exam several years ago, studying for the exam rounded out my knowledge of the construction process, and filled in some gaps in my experience.  I had a number of “aha” moments.  My past experience informed my studying, and the things I learned from studying and testing have helped me to do my current work better. 

The Construction Specifications Institute administers this exam, the Construction Documents Technologist exam, twice a year.

Registration is open now for the spring exam.  go to CSI’s Website