Contributed by Eric D. Lussier
I'm knee deep in a project right now that I'll call it what it really is: bailing the Owner out. Know what you get when you don't create bidding documents and rely solely on a low price? You get what you get. And if I say that phrase aloud in front of my 5 and 8-year-old, they add "and you don't pitch a fit".
Well, when one doesn't create an RFP, not to mention any sort of construction specification or drawing, how can one hold any level of expectation about their finished product? This Owner bought off a non-descriptive proposal and carried what matters most in the construction industry too much of the time: the lowest price.
I don't have the time, the space, nor the want, to fully go down the road of the low-bid scenario. I will call it as I see it as a subcontractor: it's the short end of the stick. And yet it is still the "solution" for the most popular project delivery method in the construction industry today: design-bid-build.
Let us Cliffs Notes design-bid-build within a tweet's 280-character limit:
Owner has vision. Owner works with architect on design for vision. Architect develops schematics. Fine tunes. Vision formalized. Architect develops formal drawings & specifications for GC. Duration? Years? GC gets days to decipher vision. End result? Be cheapest.
But that's simplifying things, you say. Sure, that may be. But in a nutshell, that's the process.
One of the frustrating things about working with designers and developing specifications is becoming the basis of design, or an approved equal, only to be just breaking the sweat of the marathon race. Once you're named in a spec, you now must win the spec. And how do you ultimately win the spec? Match it and be the cheapest and ultimately, hope. Hope? Sure. Hope your price lands in the lap of the estimator in time. Hope they have time to read it. Hope they pick up what you're putting down. Hope they want to work with you. Hope you meet their qualifications to work together. Hope you can meet your estimate and make goal profit margin. Hope it all goes to plan. Hope you get paid in full in a timely fashion.
Contributed by Jake Ortego
Construction projects can be highly complex and unique endeavors. A successful project relies on each person/company performing their function as required. However, in many cases the exact roles and responsibilities of each entity is not mutually agreed upon, nor understood. Consider the following contrasts in expected functions.
Chances are that you have an opinion for each one of these examples. These examples focus on the architect, owner, and constructor. But that is only the tip of the iceberg. There are many more parties involved in the construction process and each major group can be made up of multiple professions with a wide range of functions, as well as approaches, to accomplish their scope. This includes estimators, schedulers, specifiers, owner’s reps, material reps, accountants, and legal counsel to name a few.
As you read this, you are probably thinking that you already know who does what for the entire construction process. And it’s possible that your views are shared by people within your company or some of your local professional groups. But the standards can vary between industries, geography, project complexity, corporations, and even between two people sitting next to each other. To be clear, the primary definitions of many project roles can be agreed upon. Estimators estimate, schedulers schedule, engineers engineer, and so forth. But gray areas of responsibilities do exist, and it is these areas that may be the root of disagreements that can derail a project.
So, what is the solution? A universal standard may seem to be the easiest answer. But imagine the complexities of having one standard that covers every possible industry, culture, and available resources for each project. Ideal…but probably not achievable.
Contributed by Elias Saltz
In my very first post on this site, the one titled, “Is Construction Broken?” I listed a few ways in which the profession of architecture is contributing to the ways in which construction is broken and needs to be fixed. I’m providing the link so readers can go back and refresh their memories on the whole discussion but for the rest of this post I will be addressing one observation, which reads in part:
(Most but not all) Architects have very poor knowledge of how much construction costs, and use loose rules of thumb to try to determine whether or not their designs are within their clients’ budgets. They rarely know how the details they create affect the project cost, and the resulting necessary Value Engineering (VE) costs them time, money and prestige.
As I’ve thought more about this, it occurs to me that this is one of the biggest problems facing the profession. The Owner’s money is not an unlimited fountain and most projects have some sort of budget, either a hard limit or a ‘this is where we’d like to be’ type of budget. Owners rely on architects to curate the expenditure of amounts of money that massively outweigh the architects’ own fees. They also rely on architects to develop designs that meet their facility needs.
When architects begin with the ‘design concept’ as the primary driver, or if they have a personal ‘favorite move’, the client’s budget is already at risk. Swoopy curves and other grand gestures may be considered the fun part for the architect and even for the building occupant, but complexity often carries a heavy premium. I learned recently of an office that designed an S-shaped, low-slung residence with structural insulated panels (SIP) instead of normal framing and sheathing for the roof structure. Each SIP would have needed to be custom made in a trapezoidal shape. Is there any wonder this project was significantly over budget? The resulting VE exercise cost the architects most of their interesting design as well as their (uncompensated) time, while it cost the client its seasonal construction window. It also generally cost goodwill all around.
Contributed by Margaret Fisher
Submitted Title 'Waaaaay too much information!'
The Prequalification Form Gone Rogue
Ever since man stood up and decided he wanted something to cover the opening of his cave, the question exists, “Who can I rely on to do this work?” It was the dawn of the pre-construction qualification process. Back then, word of mouth or whoever was standing nearby got the job. Things stayed pretty much the same until just a few short decades ago. As the availability of more folks to do the job appeared on the scene, it became necessary to try to find some way to pick just one. But, what should the criteria be? So some GC’s, not all, started coming up with forms that ask fairly routine questions including your companies vital stats, such as your location, number of employees, last year’s sales, one or two recent projects that they can check out if they are so inclined, etc. This seems reasonable. In the end, the GC most often thought about who they worked with last and how it went. If it was a pretty good experience, they went with that gut feeling, the comfortable choice.
“More” Isn’t Better; it’s Just More
Today, we are in pre-qualification hell. It is not unusual to be asked to complete a 10-17 page form that takes a minimum of 10 hours to complete. More than one full work day for some. Smaller trades with less than 25 employees probably do not have one person who can afford to dedicate one full day completing these forms. If they are to be completed online, this adds another layer of complexity and additional time. In some cases, the forms cannot advance to the next page if you don’t have one answer at the ready and need to come back to it.
Asking, Asking and More Asking . . .
More and more subcontractors are now calling into question the very nature of some of these questions. The savvy subcontractor has brought prequalification questions to their attorney and accountant prior to completing forms. Generally, recommended by our attorney and our accountant, we do not answer some questions on manual or electronic. Basically, these would be the ones you wouldn’t ask in a hiring situation: Universally unacceptable to ask are questions regarding: Race, Religion, Marital Status, Gender, Sexual Orientation, Age, Military Involvement, Criminal conviction, Political Background, Ethnic Origin. HIPPA laws prohibit additional info sharing.
Here are some examples gathered from various prequalification forms I have seen that are highly questionable:
That last one, well, if you think about it, how long would it take you to put that info together on just one project that you did 4-5 years ago? Now multiply that times perhaps 50 projects per year and multiply that times 5. As you can guess, it would take weeks to create that whole list and it would be about 125 pages long. How does this help anything? And I’m sure all those contacts they are asking for would not be pleased to find out we broadcast their phone numbers and email addresses on a form that could be viewed by who knows how many people. Again, how does ALL this prove skill or quality? That important information never comes up.
Contributed by Keith Robinson
Actually estimators do not dislike specifiers, they dislike what specifiers produce when timely and productive research is not done during the documentation of project requirements.
I never cease to be amazed at the way people read and interpret our specifications. Each reader has a different perspective; and depending on the that individual’s point of view, the subsequent communication essential to the reasons why we spend so much time and effort creating specifications.
There are many readers who view the specification as “just a listing of products”; a few weeks ago I discussed with estimators their needs, and was stunned by their assertion that the specification content does not work for them --> that the specifier did understand what they needed to do their work more effectively. Being a naturally inquisitive person; I saw this as an opportunity to as “why do you believe that?”, and sought out an answer.
There were several outcomes to this conversation; one of the most prominent points being that there needs to be a relationship established between specifiers and estimators, and the other being that the people who read the specifications are consumers. Consumers look to the product quality; the specification product is information, meaning that better information leads to a better product for the consumer.
The Issue with Product Orientated Specifications
So what are the estimators saying they need for a better product? Turns out that there are people out in the wide world of document preparation (and who may not be real specifiers) that insist on making their specifications “fair” to the greatest number of potential installers/suppliers/manufacturers/fabricators as possible. These types of specifications typically include soup-to-nuts, and throw in the kitchen sink to round things out… and perhaps the nuts aren’t edible --> they are actually fasteners.
There is also the mistake of being overly specific and considering only one product; the one that was last seen in the manufacturer’s trade show, the one we’d just love to find a home for… and that may be specialized to the point that the estimators do not know where or how to obtain the product.
Estimators and specifiers look to product listings as being examples of the performance aspects required for the project. They are not a shopping list --- pick one, any one --- product listings must be thoroughly researched and compared to the needs of the project. Fairness is achieved using a thorough investigative approach to the product listings, and realization that there may be other products in the marketplace that can deliver the needs of the project --> and is the reason why proposed substitutions should be considered when presented by the constructor (more on that topic in a different posting).
Once in a long while --- the concept of a single product specification can work; there are always exceptions to what we do, but the success of the few instances should not be seen as solution for all situations.
The Issue with Manufacturer’s Installation Instructions
The other aspect of Product Oriented Specifications is that they are usually accompanied by a simplified execution requirement stated as “Install in accordance with manufacturer’s written instructions”.
Again, once in a long while this is fine, and is appropriate when there is a very specialized item that does not depend on or influence any other elements of the building… as long as the assembly actually has manufacturer’s installation instructions, so again research – research --- research. In the usual trail of events, however, creating the statement “Install in accordance with manufacturer’s installation instructions” is not enough information.
Manufacturer’s instructions include several different and perhaps conflicting instructions, which the specifier needs to select to make appropriate to the project, or by describing enough of the actual installation instructions for the consumer to understand what is intended or required without actually stating precise site installation requirements.
Sometimes several different manufacturers are acceptable, and they may have slightly different installation instructions. That’s the main reason that specifications often rely on “Install in accordance with…” statements. Research must be done to compare installation instructions and compile common requirements and identify those that are different; enough information is provided to clearly communicate which of the different installation instructions are intended to be used in the project --> and which then makes the estimator a very happy person.
As a for instance --- a statement like “apply primer at a rate required by the manufacturer appropriate to the substrate” is preferable over a statement such as “apply primer at a rate of 400 mL/m2 for gypsum sheathing or 300 mL/m2 for concrete masonry units”. There is a point where one manufacturer could require X grams per m2 coverage and the other manufacturer needs Y grams per m2, and where the manufacturer’s rate of installation curing is directly related to a site condition.
This is also a good reason to allow drawing notes to reflect only the layer description and forego any additional descriptors. We often encounter drawing notes that pretend to be instructions rather than an indication of intent, causing a note such as “APPLY AIR/VAPOR BARRIER TO PRIMED SUBSTRATES”. The drawing note in this case should read “AIR/VAPOR MEMBRANE” --- apply the KISS Principle. Overly detailed drawing notes that are not coordinated with the specification is a sure way to drive the estimator batty --> particularly when the drawing note has potential to contradict the manufacturers written instructions where a primer is not specifically required for a particular substrate.
My conversation with the estimators had a positive outcome, we are going to work together to bring about industry accepted limits to interpretation, recognize that the various parties consuming the specification have different needs. The estimator needs clear direction to product selection and substitution procedures with project specific installation requirements that could affect price; the designer needs to see that an appropriate number of pre-construction meetings and mock-ups are listed to confirm that the owner’s design program is met; the contract administrator needs to see that shop drawings are submitted when appropriate (shop drawings indicate a design solutions) and when meetings are to occur; lawyers need to confirm that language in the specification match terminology in the contract; and so on --- with each subsequent consumer taking away specific kernels of information that lead to a complete understanding of project needs.
One of my new found peers called estimators and specifiers doppelgangers of each other --> we share similar office requirements (a square box with a door --- door contains a round hole at the top to insert drawings and a square slot at the bottom to output the specification or estimate). It was meant in jest of course, but was a good metaphor to the similar roles we perform on opposite sides of the Bid Period.
If the estimator and the specifier could actually sit in the same room during document production, or estimate preparation... a multitude of issues could be solved. There are a number of concepts surrounding these two specific skills sets that are mutually compatible, and could provide the Owner (our client) with a timelier, better quality and perhaps less costly project. Only time will tell --- it is truly amazing what a conversation can lead to... stay tuned for updates.
Let's Fix Construction is an avenue to offer creative solutions, separate myths from facts and erase misconceptions about the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry.
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