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The Future of Specifiers: One Member Shares A Brief History

By George Wadding, CSI, Member Emeritus posted 02-09-2021 15:19

  

Editor’s Note: CSI is pleased to publish this blog from George R. Wadding, Construction Specifications Institute Member Emeritus, Arizona Roofing Contractors Assn. Life Member Award, and author of 59 Bidding Pitfalls and Issues from 59 Years of Experience. If you have an idea or opinion you would like to share with your colleagues in the AECO industry, please contact CSI Content Strategist Peter Kray at pkray@csinet.org. He would love to help publish your thoughts.

Though the “The Future of Specifiers” panel at Construct Virtual on the CSI Connect Community Forum, I was particularly interested in hearing comments from Building Product Manufacturer’s Reps about what a Specifier means to us. https://www.csiresources.org/communities/community-home/digestviewer/viewthread?GroupId=85&MessageKey=5a491086-cdea-4882-bf1c-d2c49d210ce0&CommunityKey=80c3b4dd-0d3f-4d4e-90f2-3bc6e4135dc2&tab=digestviewer&ReturnUrl=%2fbrowse%2fallrecentposts

I want to address that from the standpoint of a subcontractor’s estimator. In January 1960, when I laid down my tools, specs were beginning to be recognized as an important part of the construction documents. Most specs were still a narrative with some scattered inclusions of ASTM and Building Code requirements loosely ‘organized’ under a numerical or alphabetical heading with no particular hierarchy or format. The advent of the CSI Format and Spec Data along with the then prevalent D/B/B certainly advanced the industry and the quality of building documents.

In 1963, one of the two partners in the firm that employed me paid for me to attend four semesters of weekly (then non-credit) seminars at Arizona State University College of Business Administration. That fall a representative for a major materials manufacturer with whom I had become both a customer and a personal friend called to tell me about an opportunity to become a member of an organization called CSI. In November of 1964, the Phoenix Chapter had a membership requirement that there could only be an equal number of Architects and of Industry members. I joined at once since it offered the opportunity to learn more about the industry of which I was already a part. Within a few years I had the satisfaction of making friends with several principals and corporate officers who wrote the specifications and Project Manuals for their firms.

For the next several decades, estimating projects became as pleasurable as any job can be (after all we do call it work and leisure pursuits are more fun than work). Perhaps it was too pleasurable to last.

Over 30 years ago I became increasingly concerned, first as a substantial number of GCs became “brokers” rather than “builders.” Then when a higher percentage of building owners elected to go the Design\Build route where the GC can have undue influence on materials selection, it became clear that original cost rather than suitability, ongoing maintenance or durability would outweigh the professional judgment of the architect or specifier. A piece of paper (aka warranty) is NOT a satisfactory alternative for an appropriate and correctly written spec.    

In my opinion, the advent of multi-locations of architectural firms has not been a positive thing when the drawings and specs are assigned to different office locations. Specs must be built around products appropriate to the project location; think New Hampshire versus New Mexico.

It is also true that, not infrequently, local jurisdictions will require products or assemblies which may comply with national codes, but which are ill-suited to the project location or building usage.      

On the CSI-Connect thread in point, Anne Whitacre, FCSI, CCS, LEED AP, points out one of the realities of contemporary construction in that “the owner is paying for the project.” Nonetheless, I encourage professionals to push as hard as they dare and to be sure to record your concerns about owner’s selections. It is my opinion that many owners will come to rue the day they took on design responsibilities that they should have left to their architect’s better knowledge and broader experience.

As for the selection of materials, the cold hard facts of a Spec Data sheet seem to have been largely supplanted by pretty pictures and sell-sheets. Although some manufacturers have begun to offer step-by-step videos as training aids, most sales reps are judged by the degree initials on their resume. However, none of those can replace actual field experience. One factual case in point, a rep with the best sales record in his district and a degree was hired as a rep by a major building materials manufacturer to call on architects and contractors in AZ. He lasted somewhat less than a year. His previous employer was a power tool manufacturer with a territory in the upper Midwest.

Manufacturers’ Reps who have been assigned to and served an area for a long time should be accorded respect as a trusted resource. Too often, a sales manager who visits a territory infrequently and has an office across the country will replace a TR with someone who has not even been to the new territory before being transferred there.

More and more often, some of the projects have no specification section, incomplete or conflicting notes, or inadequate drawing details. Specifiers and architects should encourage reputable, long-experienced subcontractors to submit RFIs directly to their firms with a CC to the prime contractors; most GCs prohibit the subs or reps from contacting the designer. Two advantages accrue: the process is more efficient since the designer can discuss the question with a person familiar with the issue. I have, on several occasions, submitted the identical question to multiple GCs on a bid and never got one response.

You might correctly conclude that my decades of field experience are far more useful than that of any of the GC’s employees. The subs or reps have no idea whether the RFI ever even got forwarded to the Architect. I had an instance in which the person in the GC’s office left off the word “NOT” which inverted the meaning of the RFI; no response was received; the owner was denied the advantage offered. The second advantage is that the architect can make one legally binding decision with which all GC bidders must comply; everyone is enabled to be playing on the same field.

True story in closing: One of my supervisors flat out instructed me to “forget about the specs, just bid what we want to put on the building.”  I finally got so frustrated with the quality of the documents given to me to bid and with trying to “do the right thing”, I voluntarily retired.

I have had two different contractor principals in the last couple of years remark that they have lost qualified, experienced Project Supers to other industries because of this issue of conflicting documents and the attendant loss of productive time to resolve the issue.

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George, your many decades in the industry are invaluable, thank you so much for sharing your experiences and advice.  I know from personal experience (20 years as a general contractor) that there are many, many professionals GCs who are working as hard as you are to overcome the challenges in our industry.  Design-Build for instance, while not my favorite project delivery method, is most likely to result in aesthetics changes than cheaper materials.  The GC has no interest in years of responsibility for ongoing warranty issues over poor quality, failing systems.  The challenge, particularly on unique large-scale projects, is the need for extensive first-hand knowledge with specific materials.  Frequently, neither the design team nor the GC have worked extensively with a specific product or manufacturer.  How do they make the "right" decision when faced with compelling product data and no other experience?  You rightly indicate that the subcontractors are the trade experts, and often have the best knowledge available regarding durability.  We all need to do more to use their expertise to make the best decisions. 

I do also have to mention that I've never failed to submit a timely subcontractor RFI during bidding, though you've obviously seen that happening.  However, the bidding RFI process is clearly dying from expectations of failure.  Whether it is the design team or GC who is not providing answers, or the lack of sufficient time given for the bidding, or the knowledge that no time will be allowed after the addenda are issued to actually respond to the changed requirements - our subcontractors have lost faith in that process. 

The Owner is the loser, and also bears partial responsibility.  Projects planned with insufficient design time, forced out to bid on incomplete documents, and without allowing additional time for addenda - these decisions end up costing the Owner money, both short and long term.