Contributed by Karl Michels
The recent growth of programs advocating sustainable design is numerous: LEED, Living Building Challenge, mindful MATERIALS, etc. Through all of these, though, there seems to be a disconnect between specified products and installed items. The owner is paying for something he didn’t receive, the architect is delivering a product they didn’t envision, the contractor is building a project that is not as described, and the manufacturer missed out on a sale of a product designed for the task.
The Boss noticed a continuing pattern of building projects where there is a difference in collaboration and specification language of sustainable design between architects, engineers, and contractors and he wants me to look into it. Something’s not right in these specs and I can’t quite figure it out, but, I’m on it. My name is Specman; I carry a bunch of technical sheets.
* * * * * * * * * *
8:15 AM. The sun is bright, the coffee burnt, and my head is splitting. I have been at this since 5 am this morning. I reach into the desk drawer, shake the last two aspirin out of the bottle, and knock them back with the lousy coffee. It’s going to be one of those days. Thank God for the pharmaceutical guys; they’re my helpers. The 010000 General Conditions and 018113 Sustainable Design specifications are pretty clear. Why didn’t this project get built with the appropriate materials as specified? I don’t quite get it.
9:02 AM. I phone the architectural specifier. “Specifier”, she barks into the phone. “What do you want?” She’s a hard driven cookie; smart, but tough. Billable hours are important, there’s no time for small talk. I called her Honey when I first met her; she made it quite clear she wasn’t an ex-wife or current girlfriend. Just because she was female didn’t mean she didn’t know her stuff and I would be well served to address her appropriately. She was right then and right now. She doesn’t know, however, that I call her Toots behind her back. “Look, I need some answers and I know you can give them to me”.
“Yeah. What’s the deal with the intent of sustainable design that only encompasses half of the project?” I ask.
“What are you talking about, Specman?” she answers. “A sustainable project is sustainable throughout. We just finished issuing the documents on that LEED Plutonium Level building. You know, the one intended to be loved and cherished by the community for time immortal. We covered all the bases: Fasteners are made solely of recycled horseshoes; Ventilation is air movement generated by the wings of 100,000 Monarch butterflies and the Finishes are comprised of the most ecologically responsible building materials with a minimum 20% recycled rainbow content verified by an independent third party. What more is there?” I increasingly get the feeling I might be grabbing a tiger by the tail.
“Well”, I answered, “someone else didn’t get the memo. The engineer hired by you to design the parts of the building no one sees in this same project advocated Electrical Wiring as “throughout” and Piping as “leak free.” Will that meet your sustainable design criteria?”
There is a noticeable pause in the reply. “Honestly, I don’t have the the time to review the entire 6 inch project manual filled with 2 inches of collaboration specifications from them”, she tells me. “I simply skim through it and check to see he hasn’t chosen brown outlet covers when everything else is ivory; if so, we’re good to go. We hired the engineer for their expertise and have worked successfully with them in the past; they know what we want. If they aren’t advocating sustainable practices, your beef is there. Go talk to them”.
* * * * * * * * * *
11:30 AM. Traffic is light; I get to the engineers office in a moderate amount of time. “Look you know how it is: 2 buildings, 550,000 total square feet, with cantilevered decking, solar panels, floating structural beams, and a mechanized chariot system to ferry guests between the towers. And what do they give us to work with in the mechanical area? Six inches of clearance in the chase where I have to run all of my related mechanical components. What would you do?” Like most engineers, he is the practical type: logical and to the point. I like that. “I have to shoehorn a size 12 foot into a size 10 shoe. It’s as if the architect forgets I have needs as well. Let’s face it: the basic performance of some common mechanical materials hasn’t changed much since their inception, anyway. It’s not like electrical wiring has changed a whole lot since the days of Ben Franklin and his kite string.”
He’s got a point.
I ask him, “Yeah, but, there have been some noticeable sustainability improvements. Today, some of that “kite string” is encapsulated in lead free, halogen-free materials. If the project in question is a sustainable project, doesn’t it make sense to specify these environmentally friendly products rather than the standard plastic coated type in the project as well? And, shouldn’t you just be employing a best practice of designing around sustainable materials whether you get a plaque or not?”
“Listen, we don’t design all projects to win some type of sustainable award”, he says. “Besides, we always include the language of ‘Drawings and general provisions of the Contract, including General and Supplementary Conditions and Division 01 Specification Sections, apply to this Section’ for them to read if it is sustainable They should be reading the entire specification; not just the part that applies to them. If the subs aren’t installing the stuff in the specs, then the General has a problem. Look pal, go talk to the General.”
I’m already headed for the door. That fallback position of referring to the canned language always frustrates me. Wouldn’t it be more helpful to include the full sustainable intent language into the Part 1 General Section of each specification of the particular trade rather than referencing an earlier section that won’t be read? “Oh. One last thing”, he says.
“That sustainable stuff never pencils out.”
* * * * * * * * * *
12:20 PM and I am racing like crazy to get to the food truck pod. The Wednesday special of Hawaiian ahi poke is a favorite of mine and always a sellout. If I don’t get there quick, the poke will be gone and then I will have to consider the meatless choices. I am a rep, I don’t make much money, I’m hungry, and I hate kale salad.
* * * * * * * * * *
It’s 3 PM. The lacquered nailed young receptionist is gracious and friendly. “Can I get you something to drink while you wait?” she asks. My reply of “Yeah, how about a scotch? Neat.” gets the obligatory laugh and smile while all the while I know she’s thinking: this guy is an idiot. Hey, I got the shtick down and been using it a long time; it’s not about to change now. I wave off the offer and hang out for a few minutes. The leather couch in the office reception area framed with yellowing pictures of a bunch of pudgy middle-aged guys in suits with shovels turning some dirt on a project from 15 years ago is cushy and soft. “The project manager will see you now”.
“Understand, Mr. Specman, I am sympathetic to your issue, however, we build the project at the direction and under approval of the architect. He’s our boss.” I’m speaking with a young project manager in the firm. This is the first major project assigned to him after managing a bunch of small tenant improvement projects. His last one was the creation of a Subway sandwich shop out of a former insurance agent’s office. He continues, “We issue a 6 inch stack of specifications, the sub copies the 40 pages relevant to his craft, and the installer gets the 2 pages that pertain to them. He then chooses one of the 5 manufacturers listed as acceptable in section 2 of the CSI Materials format. He may or may not have material that meets the sustainable requirements of documents. And time is money. We can’t always wait for the exact material to get shipped on site. Besides, if the lights go on and function after we build it, what difference does it make if it is not comprised of your precious hand spun, halogen free, electrical wire?”
The fact that the aspirin I took 7 hours ago had fully evaporated a mere 30 minutes later and the intent of that question initiates the launch sequence of my frustration of the entire day. “I tell you what difference it makes: It’s guys like you that put guys like me in a tough position”. I suddenly realize my voice is now a bit more intense, my speech a bit more rapid. “The full faith and hope of a future generation are resting on our shoulders; my grandkids, your grandkids, the grandkids of the people you employ. The idea that sustainable design only extends to shiny bike racks, bio-swales, and green roofs and cannot be achieved elsewhere on a project is misguided. The function of the material may not have changed, but the sustainable attributes associated with it have. If those type of products are not used, what will end up being installed is what is readily available, cheapest and, I guarantee it, not meeting the sustainable goals of the project”, I answer. “And that, builder boy, was not what you contracted to deliver!”
* * * * * * * * * *
Drawing strange looks from those around me, I am walking down the street talking aloud retelling my story to no one in particular. My shirt is rumpled, I think my elbow may be sprained, and my one pant leg is torn at the knee as it got banged on the exit door while being hustled out by a couple of guys. I am sore, but hey, I will make it. I’ve been thrown out of better offices; might be a while before I am back in that one. Through it all, though, there is one nagging thing I know I am forgetting and can’t seem to remember. How do we address the need for “better communication” between all parties? Everyone will agree it is important, but how should it be accomplished? I think that inserting the Sustainable Design Requirements CSI Section 01 81 13 into all applicable sections of specifications is a start. To simply reference an earlier section and point to it as meeting the goals of the project appears shortsighted. Wouldn’t it be easier to include this in all sections of the Master Specification? Should the project not be sustainable based as described by the architect, it can certainly be omitted from the particular job specification. Better yet, shouldn’t all interested parties in a sustainable project be fully focused on that goal for all of the projects they create? I am not sure I have the answer.
I walk past a drugstore and then it hits me: the thing I was trying to remember. I need to pick up a bottle of aspirin.
Let's Fix Construction is nominated for Best Construction Blog from Construction Marketing Ideas AGAIN.
Please VOTE here.
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.
Get blog post notifications here