Answers Matter. Questions Matter More.

Tonight, my wife and I were sitting in our daughter’s room practicing ‘tummy time’ and rolling over. Which she has nailed and now prefers to just roll over all the time! At one point, my wife said, “You are my title chicken nugget.” I then spun off of that and ask, “Are you a spicy nugget? Are you baked or fried? Are you breaded or not breaded? If breaded, is it Penko?” I then had to stop myself because I could have gone on and on. At the moment, I came to a realization that I’m asking those questions because I am specifier, and it’s my job to ask questions. This thought led me to another series of questions:

“In the Architecture Industry, are we asking questions? If so, are we asking the right questions? Are we showing/teaching the younger generations the value of asking questions?”

Questions are important in this industry, sometimes even more important than the answers. However, with smaller project budgets and quicker turn arounds, is it just easier to give the answer, than to sit down and explain the answer? Yes, it is. It’s tough to point fingers at that because we are under such burdening constraints, but I think it’s part of the reason why construction documents are not as good, or complete, as they once were.

There are numerous times within the week, where I get emails for a specification section. Those emails go a little something like this:

“Can I get a specification section for stucco?”

Or

“Can I get a specification section for ceramic tile?”

How many of you see issues with that? Those questions solve about 1% of my questions. Which in reality, the only question it CAN solve, is, “What do you want?”. My responses back are usually question filled, for instance with tile:

“Where is the tile? Full mortar bed or thin set? If full mortar, cleavage membrane? Grout type? If in a wet location, waterproofing membrane needed?”

On and on I can go, as many of you can as well.

The way my firm’s master specifications are built, that gets me a pretty good start if I get answers back for that tile request. I also don’t worry about product selection as our standards are good, so the team gets what they get, unless they tell me otherwise.

I hardly get specification requests which thoroughly explain what is needed. I’m just happy if I get 50% of what I need, or they send me a product data sheet with selections. Most of the time I don’t even get answers to my questions, so I ask for the detail and figure it out in my own. Which takes quite a bit of time, especially if the detail is not telling the correct story.

Questions are everything in the industry. There are times, for example, I’ll reach out to a Senior Architect in our office with a quick question. That quick question turns into an how long conversation with each of us discussing and asking questions about the original question. Sometimes at the end, we don’t have an exact answer, but have a better overall picture. My discussions with this person are great, and the projects are better for it, the master specifications are better for it as well. Not only are questions asked, but the right questions are asked.

The other day, I was in a meeting with our President of Standards and a young Designer who was helping us out. The President of Standards and I were discussing some details at the time, and we had mentioned how great it was for this young Designer to be in this meeting, and how much she will learn from helping us out. This person then chimed in and said she was googling items she didn’t understand or know about to gain knowledge of them. At some points, she even asked some questions. The President of Standards and I both agreed how awesome that was and we kept bringing this person up and what they were doing in future meetings. At one point, even recommending her for additional standards work. We couldn’t give her enough praise because she was taking the initiative by asking questions.

Asking questions isn’t an art, it can be done very easily. It just takes the right mentality. A mentality, that, unfortunately not everyone has. It starts with training and supervisors taking the time to sit down and teach their employees. Sometimes I get emails from production level staff in regards to a submittal. Most times it’s something they don’t understand and want clarification. One, this is great because they are asking the questions, but two, where is the supervisor? The supervisor, I believe, should be mentoring, sitting down with the employee going over the submittal together. I can’t imagine some of products that get approved if the supervisor doesn’t review the submittal with them. It also teaches the young employee very little. There is no positive growth by letting them sink or swim on their own all the time.

Becoming a licensed Architect takes a long time, and it’s built upon learning and asking questions. It’s in the nature of profession, but we have deviated from it. Blame it on the Licensing requirements, the project constraints, the generational gap, etc. It is a multi-level problem, that I hope gets turned around.

Do questions show weakness? In my mind, no. Asking questions shows the ability to learn and the acceptance that you don’t know everything. I believe that somewhere along the line, and this is true for everyone in every job, admitting you don’t know something is taken as a fault, and can potentially cost your job. That mentality should be changed to one of acceptance and where asking questions is okay. We don’t know everything, and we shouldn’t expect others to know everything. What we should expect are the questions.

So let’s get back to asking the questions and maybe, just maybe, some of our construction documents will be better for it.

Or Equal… Or are they?

Do you ever feel your hands are tied with accepting substitution requests because of the phrase the “or equal”? Just because a product is tested to the same performance standards and acceptance criteria, doesn’t necessarily make it an equal does it? Or how about manufacturer’s that manipulate their testing data and claim their product performs the same or better as the specified product, but we know it doesn’t, what do we do then? These days, simply saying “no” on a substitution request doesn’t cut. The Contractors and manufacturers want an explanation. Even if you give them one, they will likely send you letter after letter claiming they should be accepted. So….

Are two products really ever equal? Let me ask you this, is an In-N-Out Burger equal to a Five Guys Burger? They are both burgers, have buns, lettuce, ect. If they were tested to performance standards such as cook time, weight, calorie count, etc., I bet they would turn out to be “equals” in the eyes of some people. Because would you reject a minute less cook time if the burger comes out just as good if not better? I bet some of your brains are turning right now. How can an In-N-Out burger be equal to a Five Guys Burger? Exactly my point. They are both considered burgers, but one is thinner, one is grilled vs. charred, one has a secret sauce, and the list goes on. So then, when we say “or equal” in the specs, what does that really mean.

Let’s back up a minute, what does equal mean? I define equal as something having the same certain value as something else, X=1, 2+2=4, 300 psi = 300 psi, 12 inches = 1 foot. I think you get my point. So…

Example 1: Take rubber flooring products for example and we specify only one characteristic and nothing else, a minimum 300 psi static load limit. During the bidding phase, we get a substituted product that has a static load limit of 450 psi. The project Specification requires a minimum 300 psi because all the flooring products we specify and know are great products are at least 300 psi. We want to deny the substitution because we know it’s a crappy product, but we can’t because it exceeds the minimum psi we specified. We ultimately have to accept it based off the criteria in the specification.

Where am I going with this, well here I go.

Those two flooring products are “equivalent”, not “equal”. Equivalent to me means something that is comparable, not necessarily equal, to one another. This orange is equivalent to this orange, Kobe is equivalent to MJ (although some might disagree on that one), or Nike is equivalent to Under Armor.

The flooring products in the example above are all equivalent. Are both acceptable, well that depends on the project requirements and Architect’s interpretation. What if both flooring products meet the same testing standards, but differ in one place, say static load limit by 50 psi. Are those flooring products equal? No, they are equivalent. If you know the substituted product will perform just as well, that 50 psi difference won’t matter to you. If that flooring product is crap and you say that 50 psi is the difference maker and deny, chances are you will get letter after letter, email after email, giving you reasons to accept. Plus the Contractor says it will save the Owner a bunch money and the Owner agrees, but you know as the Architect and past experience, the product is crap. Let’s face it, sometimes the Architect’s opinion doesn’t matter and the only other reason Owners come to the Architect besides design is because they have to for that stamp. The industry favors the Contractor and their opinion, not the Architect.

When you look at flooring products, most test to all the same ASTMs and yet you can argue that each one is proprietary and truly not an “equal”. We all have those products that we know, even though they test to the same values as the Basis-of-Design, are just cheaper products. We eliminate those cheaper products from the specifications and attempt to deny the substitution requests when they come in. Yet it’s extremely difficult because they test and “perform” to the same standards. But in reality are just a cheaper product.

Example 2: I had a substitution request come in the other day on elevators. The substituted company submitted a side by side comparison and all the correct documents. However, I know this elevator was a “cheaper” product, but because it met all the specification requirements, I couldn’t recommend to deny. I had to consider the product an “equal” based on the requirements of the spec. The Owner is now getting a known cheaper product.

Example 3: I also had a substitution request on a shelving product. Again, I knew the substituted product met the spec from the submitted documents. The only difference was that the specification called for the manufacturer to have an ISO certified QA process, where the substituted product was a in-house process. The ISO qualification was clearly something specific to the manufacturer listed that probably shouldn’t be listed in the master, and my response back to the PM was “how picky do you want to be?” Could we deny, yes, but the substitution request contained information for the internal QA process that I deemed “equivalent” to the ISO process… So are we looking for equals or equivalents? If it was equivalent, I could deny because I deemed the product to be cheaper.

Saying a product is cheaper is not necessarily quantifiable when it meets all the specified criteria.

Personally, I would love to get rid of the phrase “or equal” and revise it to “or equivalent as determined by the Architect”, which in reality means “Whatever is acceptable to the Architect is final”. Determining an equivalent product is really up the Architect and in some cases the Owner. Not the contractor and certainly not manufacturers.

Example 5: Rubber flooring again (because it’s easy to explain, and I promise I am not picking on you). The commercial rubber flooring we specify are tested to the same standards, yet some degrade faster in hospital settings due to foot traffic, cleaning chemicals, hand sanitizers, etc. So how are they all equal? They aren’t. But we list them as equals and we treat them as equals. If we specified products we know don’t degrade due to hand sanitizer, yet we get a substitution request for a product we know degraded quickly when exposed to hand sanitizer, how can we deny it if it meets the specification. If we put our reasons about the affect hand sanitizer has on the flooring, we most certainly would get letters from the manufacturer saying their product is not effected if maintained properly or some other “excuse”. However, we all know that proper maintenance doesn’t always happen.

Let’s get rid of “or equal” and replace it with “or equivalent as determined by the Architect” because nothing is truly equal to something else outside of the mathematics realm. Just because some product had the same value as another, doesn’t mean they are equal, so let’s stop treating them that way. All products are proprietary anyways. They all have patents on something in their product that make it unique and perform a slightly different way. So why do we consider them equals? If we understand that things are equivalent, then we, as the Architect, should be able to simply reject a substitution by simply saying “Even though product meets performance standards, product does not meet Architect’s interpretation of quality”. Done. No bid protests, no complaining by the Contractor or manufacturer. End of story.

It’s up to the Architect to determine quality, not such performance standards. Those performance standards serve as a guideline to help, but ultimately, it should be based on the Architect’s interpretation of what is acceptable. Long story short, Architects shouldn’t be responsible for accepting substitution requests of products that meet specified performance standards, yet have never heard of the company or product or are known to be cheaper. We shouldn’t have to look for one tiny data point that is different to reject. Architects shouldn’t be spending more than 30 minutes on a substitution request if everything asked for is given. Anything longer means trouble.

Last Example: What if a company sold a product that they claimed performed a certain way and knowingly lied about its performance because they manipulated the tests? Then were sued and had to pay a huge sum to fix the problems. Then say, they developed another product that met the same end goal as the previous product. You know their past so do my want to place in your master and don’t want to even begin specifying, but then get a substitution request for that new product. Everything checks out and it meets the specified criteria. How do you reject it? You simply can’t deny based off of company history or that they are not a good company. And if you do find one small difference you know it’s gonna be a fight because the manufacturer will send letter after letter claiming that small difference doesn’t make a difference and to accept their product! Now what…

That’s why I am arguing for the decision to be based off the Architect’s interpretation of what is equivalent and not rely on “or equal”, as “equivalent” gives the Architect more room to accept and deny product substitutions.

For those manufacturer reps, doesn’t this ring a bell? How many times do you get bid out because a known lesser product wins the bid. Although it meets the criteria specified, you know it’s a much cheaper product and won’t last or perform the way your product will. Understanding that products are equivalent, gives the Architect more power in determining acceptable products, and I firmly believe we get rid of “or equal” and replace with “or equivalent as determined by the Architect” in the public bid world. It will finally give power back to the Architect and limit bid protests for erroneous reasons.

No two products are ever equal. They are equivalent, but in reality, it is whatever, or should be, whatever is acceptable to the Architect.

It’s important to note that Division 00 or 01 should define what “or equal” is. My firm essentially defines it as meaning equivalent as acceptable by the Architect. But I think this adds confusion as now equal has two different meaning. Just because it is defined somewhere doesn’t necessarily mean that it will hold up in court. It can be argued that “or equal” is universally understood as 2+2=4, which would then make that written definition of meaning equivalent wrong. What I am trying to say is that the Architect shouldn’t have to give a reason why they denied a substitution request. Simply check deny and end of story. I think revising “or equal” to “or equivalent as determined by Architect” would do the trick.

Pen Review – Shaw Grass / Shaw Sports Turf

Rating

Look of Pen

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Feel of Pen / How does it fit in your hand

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Quantity of Ink Cartridge

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Writing

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Overall

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Pros:

The Shaw Grass pen is solid freebie pen. It feels great in the hand when writing. It has a solid cushion, so as to not bruise the fingers or knuckles. The clip is not a cheap clip that will break and will clip onto just about anything. The push function works smoothly and does not recoil. Comes in multiple colors

Cons:

The pen does not glide smoothly, you have to “work” for the pen to write. If not pressed firm, the pen will not discharge enough ink to write. When writing on a smooth, glossy surface, sometimes the pen will stop discharging ink, so then you have to find a pad of paper and scribble for the pen to continue discharging the ink. The ink cartridge is not large, rather skinny, so it will not last long.

I Don’t Have Enough Time

My biggest pet peeve, actually I have a few, but one that always gets me going is hearing, “I don’t have enough time.” This sentence to me is like nails on a chalkboard. I cringe every time I hear it. This phrase is nonsense and I’ll tell you why. When I first started as a spec coordinator, I’ll be honest, I used this phrase quite often, not just at work, but at home as well. As I continued working and learning, I realized how ridiculous this phrase is. I completely cut it out of vocabulary at work and at home. Let me say, it has made a difference. I no longer look at my tasks in a general sense. I break them down by how long each task takes and go from there. Yes, we all wish for more hours in a day, but that doesn’t excuse poor time management skills or being over worked. Projects suffer, teams suffer, and individuals suffer, mentally and physically.

When I hear this phrase now, it is almost always in regard to specs and if the team has reviewed them. The conversation usually goes like this:

Me: You have a submittal next week, did you get a chance to review the project manual?

Project Team Member: No, sorry, I haven’t. I don’t have the time and been too busy with other items.

Me: Okay, but they will need to be reviewed.

Project Team Member: Yes, I will go ahead and review those this weekend or next week.

Me: (thinking in my head) That only gives me like a day to turn the markups AROUND!!

Those markups never come, most of the time.

This is in regards to specs, 50% of the Contract Documents!! How is it that people/teams do not have enough time to review the specs to ensure for a well coordinated project manual? Drawings are not everything. Specs are the first thing lawyers look at. They are exact and almost always have one interpretation.

Side track…

I have come to the conclusion that there are two reasons for this phrase:

1. The person is being overworked and needs help.

2. The person has poor time management.

I usually give people the credit, and think they are overworked and trying the best the can. If it happens over and over, then I start to think they can’t manage their time properly. So, for those that have trouble with this, here are some tips:

1. Write out a daily or weekly agenda in terms of priorities, i.e., due dates.

2. Figure out how long it takes to do your most common tasks and improve those times.

3. Focus on the complicated tasks first, those usually take the most time.

4. Take breaks to refresh the mind

Using these simple tips will certainly help you. It might not solve the full picture, but it’s steps in the right direction. I was trained to look for inefficiencies in production and management. I constantly do that. It is one way I improve myself. If I feel like hours are running short, I look back on what I could have done faster, better, and more accurate. I recently heard a podcast where the speaker was talking about wasted time on a job site and boiled it down to walking. He realized if you are walking, you are not “working”, you are not making money. One day, if unions ever allowed, everyone will wear ankle bracelets like Amazon to track movement. The same could be said for those who sit at a desk, like me, but instead of tracking movement, it would track mouse movement and keyboard strokes. Productivity is everything, and it comes down to how well a person manages their time.

Back to specs…

Specs are so important. In my mind, and I tell everyone this, “It’s not your job to worry about specs, you still have to think about them, but it’s my job to worry about them.” I try to make their lives better. Making specification writers more integrated with project teams is something I am striving for. Not to just help me, but to also help everyone else. So that these people can say to me one day, “Yes, I did look at and review the specs.”

I don’t know when specs became so, I hate to say it, but pushed aside or neglected. I know this is not a local topic, but a topic many larger firms have. I think, partly it boils down to education and what people know or don’t know about specs (future post). If everyone had more knowledge and understood fully the ramifications of not having a coordinated project manual, I wouldn’t be typing this post…

I am hearing this phrase less at my firm. The specs… well… It is getting better! Change takes time as I am learning, and so will getting everyone to stop using this phrase. If I can accomplish one goal this year, it would be to help those that feel they don’t have enough time to teach them time management or help them in tasks so they are not overworked or feel so overworked.

We are all on the same team, working towards the same goal.

It Takes Two…

In college I wrote a basic research paper on Community Policing. For those that don’t know what Community Policing is, it is a theory, in short, that states police officers should be proactive and engage the communities they police because it will lessen crime. It’s what every large (50+) police department practices, or so they say they practice. This practice is taught from departments like the NYPD, LAPD to the Fargo, ND police department. When police officers are proactive and engage their communities, crime is theoretically lessened, and this can be proven all across the country. However, in my paper, I found that the community has to accept the police officers role in the practice of community policing, and the police officer has to accept and respect the community or the whole thing doesn’t work. One side can be as proactive as possible, but if the other side doesn’t care or isn’t willing to understand and accept the other, community policing fails. If you are asking how this relates to specs, keep reading.

Last year, my firm invited a spec guru, many of you might know her, Cherise Lakeside, to help revamp our specification process. It was an amazing experience that brought a new spec process, from start to finish, that allowed the spec writers to be more proactive with the teams and allowed the project teams to be more engaged in the project specifications. It has been about 1 year since the implementation of this new process, and can say this process is much better, but still has its obstacles.

One of these obstacles is getting the project teams engaged with the specifications writer. By this I mean, no matter how proactive the specifications writer is in the process, if the project team doesn’t want it, it’s not going to happen. Engaging project teams early on my side, communicating with them often, teaching them, not just telling them, about items I am discussing, and making my work transparent are all tactics I have done to try and kickstart their engagement. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t and when it doesn’t, the specs suffer and the project suffers. I see the issues start to come in during constructability reviews or construction when we both fail to get things done.

Having a proactive specifications writer was something our old process lacked. We were very reactive, and it didn’t help the process or the project. We integrated BIM, we got rid of our old project spec checklist, and made it so the specs department was transparent and communicated in a way that was helpful to everyone. It was a totally shift, a 180 degree shift, from the old 20+ year process.

I believe our new process is a two way street between the specifications writer and the project team. Without one, the other one cannot do its’ jobs properly. When teams do not engage, I don’t put the blame on them, I “blame” myself for not trying harder or thinking of something else to get them engaged. After a while, I tend to just let the project ride out, but not without disappointment because I know it could have been better. For the next project with those project teams, I try harder or implement new items to get them engaged. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I won’t not do my job because of the communication breakdown or lack of engagement.

I’m not asking for the world, all I want are the project teams to take ownership of their project specifications and read them, review them, and mark them up. I am open to meetings, discussions, teaching, etc. whatever it takes to get a well coordinated project manual, I am willing to do. This isn’t with all teams either, I would say about 80% of the projects, I get good engagement from the team, it’s only about 20% where I don’t. The new process works, it has been proven to work. A more proactive spec writer leads to a better end result for the project specifications.

Bringing this back to community policing, if the project teams won’t accept the specifications writers role, just like if a community doesn’t accept the police officers role, things won’t change and vice versa. Both sides have to be accepting and understanding of their respective roles and be willing to work together for the better end result. It is a daily struggle with some teams and ultimately, I am not sure if I will ever get through. I understand the challenges of working with 200+ people across two states and understand that it takes time for change to happen. Hopefully, this time next year I can report better results. For now, I won’t give up on those 20% and I will continue to make those 80% even better, #goals.