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We’ve all heard the expression “Don’t sweat the small stuff” which is good advice for daily life, but is it appropriate for us as design professionals to apply this to our professional lives? I would argue that this advice can’t apply to our work.  All too often, documents are released for construction with dimensions missing, slopes that don’t work for one reason or another, unsupported loads, or poor coordination in general.

Within the last hour, I’ve been asked to review center line dimensions on a foundation plan and elevations on a site plan related to accessible slopes. Both are easily overlooked, particularly within a profession that has a reputation for being more concerned with aesthetics than functionality.  Overlooking these issues can result in unnecessary expense during construction or liability on the part of the design professional.

Over the years, I’ve seen multiple coordination errors between disciplines such as site plans indicating backfilling against a framed wall, slopes that do not comply with accessibility guidelines, pavement that is too flat to adequately drain. I have also seen multiple cases where structural drawings didn’t reflect what was indicated on the architectural and similar issues with HVAC, plumbing, and electrical.  In other cases, headroom over stairs and similar issues have been ignored by designers not thinking the design through in three dimensions.  And I haven’t even mentioned the project manuals produced by repurposing the previous project’s specifications that may or may not be appropriate for the project at hand.

Granted, it is not at all easy to manage the competing priorities of the various design criteria. For example, it is essential to maintain accessible slopes on a site.  This is difficult to do in rolling terrain, but designing for runoff is relatively easy in these locations.  On a flatter site, designing for accessibility is easy, but in grading parking lots, avoidance of birdbaths because design slopes are too flat becomes a problem, especially in freezing weather.  Ensuring the integration of ductwork and plumbing with the structural system becomes an issue when the budget requires a low floor to floor height.

Use of BIM as a panacea for document coordination is not the answer. The model/documents still have to be checked and carefully coordinated by an experienced professional.  All of this is further complicated by the fact that Owners often do not want to pay sufficient fees to support this level of detail, but better to spend the money on document coordination than on demolition and replacement of components in the field.

Bottom line is this, every one of us on a project team needs to be diligent in coordinating the documents. I would encourage design professionals to do their due diligence in coordinating the documents to minimize RFIs.  Constructors, if you have questions, I would encourage you to issue the RFI or ask the necessary question(s).  Attention to detail on the part of all parties will result in better communication of the design intent.

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Recently, a product rep friend of mine posted a tweet with the hashtag #justasalesperson. Because this individual is a CSI member and a CDT, the hashtag should have read #TrustedAdvisor.  She exemplifies what a product representative should be, and therefore, qualifies as a Trusted Advisor.

What qualifies a product rep as a trusted advisor? To begin with, a product rep that holds a CDT or CCPR knows what the design and specifier communities are looking for: expertise.  They know their product, construction documents, and they understand the construction process.  A good product representative makes the effort to know her/his competitor’s product as well.  They meet regularly with their clientele and thus forge an ongoing relationship.  Occasionally, they may need to advise that their product is not the appropriate one for the job and need to send me to their competitor.

It is out of this long-term relationship that trust emerges. As a design professional and a specifier, if I don’t know the product I’m specifying, I will contact someone I know that has experience with the product.  Preferably, this would be the company’s local representative, but I don’t always know who this might be (shame on you absentee reps that never show up).  Chances are that I know someone with a connection to the product I am looking at through my connections made over twenty-eight years of CSI membership.  Often, that contact may be in another part of the country.  I know I will get a correct answer through this network.  Additionally, they will usually put me in touch with the local rep and I am able to forge yet another relationship.

In general, if someone comes to see me with CDT or CCPR on their business card, I make an effort to make time for them. They will usually be knowledgeable and know where to find answers that may not necessarily be on the tip of their tongue.

So, for those readers that are product representatives that are not CSI members, you need to join. Being active in the organization puts you in contact with a large and professionally diverse pool of potential customers.  You can further step up your game by sitting for the Construction Documents Technologist (CDT) exam during the examination windows each spring and fall.  Obtaining this credential indicates that you possess knowledge of construction delivery methods and processes, construction documents, and building life cycle activities and needs.  The CDT is also a prerequisite to all CSI certifications including the CCPR (Certified Construction Product Representative).

All of these things qualify you as a trusted advisor, and assuming you are active in the organization, you would likely be the first one I would call for product information and advice. With that said, when registration for the Spring Certification Exams opens in January, I would strongly encourage you to sign up.  After all, you don’t want to be just a salesperson.

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Several years ago, I received a binder from a window manufacturer in response to a contact I made at Construct. The size tables in the catalog indicate which window units are in compliance with emergency egress and rescue requirements.

Fast forward to last week. Because of the age of the binder, we went to the manufacturer’s website to ensure that the sizes we are looking to use are still available.  What we found is that there are a wider choice of sizes available than there were eight years ago, but several of the windows that were labeled as egress compliant in the old catalog did not bear that designation on the website.  This is complicated by the fact that with the 2012 edition of the IBC, Exceptions 1 and 2 to Section 1029.1 have been eliminated.  Put succinctly, fully sprinklered buildings and buildings with two means of egress are now required to have emergency escape windows that were unnecessary under the 2009 IBC.

We contacted the manufacturer who steered us to an obscure feature on the website that allows the user to check the clear opening of each window size. The user is then left to make his/her own determination of whether the window complies with Section 1029.  Yes, this information is available via the website, but it is not readily apparent to the first time user.

So Mr./Ms. Manufacturer, please consider this your wake-up call. If the information is available, please put it where we can find it on your website.  Otherwise we will likely go to your competitor who has the information in a readily accessible location.

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I’ve spent this week on the Outer Banks of North Carolina for a week of R&R. While walking the beach, I’ve observed how the forces of nature have left their mark.  There are water marks left at high tide and ripples in the sand deposited by the wind.  The fiddler crabs left myriad tiny footprints in the sand as have the marine waterfowl.  Multiple animals deposit their shells on the sand following their passing.  We are admonished to leave only footprints and take only memories as we leave.

Like the natural forces on the barrier islands, those of us that are design professionals are obsessed with leaving a mark. Hopefully that mark constitutes a beneficial impact on the community that is the world.

We need to leave functional infrastructure, architecture that provides shelter, and somehow with both of these, we need to leave a beauty that users and observers will appreciate. Easy to think of this from the standpoint of monumental architecture, or a Golden Gate Bridge, but something as utilitarian as the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge that connects Hatteras Island with the rest of the US has a certain beauty in the rhythm of the pilings and the stantions that support the guardrails.  The built legacy should survive us and benefit society for generations to come.

In the process of creating the built world, we have a far more important obligation to leave an intellectual mark with the younger folks that work with us through the intentional transfer of knowledge. This takes place through mentoring, networking, associations, and certification programs.  Experienced professionals such as myself need to make certain that when we leave our professions that we don’t create an unfillable void.  Our professional legatees need to be ready step in and fill the space.  It is our obligation to make certain they are.

Likewise, we have much to learn from the younger professionals in our lives. They are full of energy and new ideas.  New ideas are worth our time, attention, nurturing, and even of our championing.  Pay attention seasoned professionals, as your young colleague may provide the idea that makes something work in a new and wonderful way.

So a quick memo to my younger colleagues: I want to spend time with you.  You have the capacity to make me better, and we can make each other better.  The best place to find me on a first Tuesday is at a CSI meeting.  In that venue, we can both learn something new.

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My membership in CSI paid for itself again last week.

“I can find the information on the internet.” I hear this statement often, and to a large extent, it is true.  But not all of the information is necessarily in one place, and it can be very difficult to connect the dots.  To my point, yes the information is there.  But knowing where to find it and what the limitations of said information are is not necessarily discernable from a single website or multiple websites.

With that said, I ran across an issue last week where a client was looking to do something that was apparently a code violation. Given that the issue involved electronic access/egress control and related fire safety issues, I reached out to a fellow CSI member and CCPR that I knew would have the answer.  Of course, he was eager to take my call and discuss how to meet my client’s intent.

As I suspected, the client’s original suggestion turned out to be explicitly prohibited by the International Building Code. As the conversation progressed, I was asked the appropriate questions about the client’s specific needs, which we discussed at length.  The response was immediate, as this particular issue is often a problem within my client’s industry, and my colleague often has to address this issue.  The solution to my client’s problem involves integrating my colleague’s product with a product of a different manufacturer, as neither company’s product would solve the problem in isolation.  By combining the two systems, the issues of security and life safety are both addressed and the client’s needs are met.

You would not find this information on a manufacturer’s website. Had I not been an active CSI member, I would not have been aware of who to call to get the needed information.  With apologies to Mastercard, the information available from a CCPR is priceless.

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Last Friday, I ran into a couple of old friends at a pre-bid meeting. As the conversation progressed, the topic of Thomas R. Wyant, JR, AIA, CSI came up.  Tom was my first employer after I graduated from Virginia Tech in 1979.  He was a client to my friends who are a surveyor and geotechnical engineer respectively.  We reminisced for several minutes about him.

While Tom was not the easiest individual to work for, I probably learned more about the profession of architecture from him than any other single person. In this vein, Tom was an expert in the technical aspects of putting a building together.  He was very particular about how we detailed things, but would let us draw things up as we saw fit.  On a daily basis, he would make the rounds in the drafting room and would look over our shoulders to review our work.  If we could justify what we did, he would say simply, yeah, that’ll work, and go on to visit with the next drafter.  If there was a problem with what we did, he would help us to solve it.

Probably the most important thing Tom did for us was to introduce us to specification writing, arguably an unusual thing to do with a couple of first and second year interns. He taught us to use MasterSpec and SpecText and in doing so, indirectly taught us CSI SectionFormat.  Also, in using both master systems, he demonstrated that at that time, some sections of each were better than the other.  In so doing, he gave us the opportunity to exercise some critical thinking about which component or system was more appropriate for the project(s) at hand and how best to communicate the information to the construction team.  I cannot think of a better way to mentor.

Tom is also responsible for my joining CSI, although he was never aware of it, as I joined five years after I left Tom’s firm. In this regard, he led by example.  Through him, I learned that CSI is the place to go for building information.  His mentoring led me to connections with literally thousands of experts nationwide.  For that I will always be grateful.

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Yesterday, I became aware of a significant structural movement in a condominium building in Alexandria, Virginia. As best I can tell from the news stories on the subject, the movement and resulting damage are by-products of water intrusion and poor maintenance.

At issue (in the mind of this writer) is the relationship between the condo association and the owners themselves. Associations have a fiduciary obligation to be good stewards of their members’ funds.  This isn’t as simple as it sounds.  Oftentimes, an association will simply be cheap and pinch pennies in the interest of short-term cash flow.  This sort of thinking will often backfire when maintenance takes a back seat to expedience resulting in higher life-cycle cost when a major repair has to be made to compensate for deferred maintenance.

Without throwing rocks at anyone in the incident that inspired this post (this sort of thing often happens), maintenance is often overlooked when the manager is unaware that he/she needs to be watching for a hidden problem. Granted, such problems are often difficult to detect and diagnose.  This is where membership in an organization such as BOMA or CSI can be helpful.  I will focus on CSI, as it is the group I am most familiar with.

The membership of CSI is a professionally diverse group of experts on the built environment. We are members of the architectural, engineering, construction, supplying, and owning communities – emphasis in this case on the last one.  Active CSI members develop long term inter-professional relationships with one another.  As a result, we learn from one another.  More importantly, we know who to call when an issue arises or for advice on how to prevent an issue from arising.  In the case of one of my clients, it was a recent CSI encounter I had that prompted me to check into a looming facility problem.  Turns out, the problem was far worse than we anticipated, but preventative action was taken before the issue reached catastrophic proportions.

The takeaway for me is this: building owners, including managers of condominium associations, need to be active members of CSI. The relationships developed are a first line of defense against construction related problems that inevitably develop as a facility ages.  Information relating to membership in CSI can be found at http://www.csiresources.org/communities/membership/individual-membership .  Membership in a local chapter is invaluable.  For those in my locality, I look forward to meeting you at our next chapter meeting.

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WHEN WORDS ARE TOO MUCH

This series of posts began as a commentary on day to day communications when I explored the notion of how the same words could have completely different meanings given context, tone of voice, body language and other emotional cues. It quickly evolved into a second post on graphic construction communication.

This third post deals with overly verbose specifications I often see from consulting engineers who are often not versed in specification writing principles:

“2.2 Materials & Equipment: standard components, of regular manufacture for this application.  All systems and components shall have been thoroughly tested and proven in actual use.  The commissioning requirements of this specification shall be strictly adhered to.  Trane Tracer Summit ICS products are used as basis of the design.  Siemens Apogee or Johnson Controls Metasys are acceptable subject to compliance with the specification

“2.5.2 Communications: The Building Controller shall reside on the network, which is the same high-speed network as any connected workstations.  The Enterprise wide network shall support the Internet Protocol (IP).  Local connections of the building Controller shall be on ISO 8802-3 (Ethernet).  Communications shall use Annex J of ASHRAE Standard 135-95.  The Building Controller shall also perform routing to a network of Custom Application and Application Specific Controllers.”

The language I just quoted was written by a mechanical engineer as part of a building automation specification section. There is a problem with the fact that both paragraphs violate two of the four Cs of specification language promoted by CSI: clear, correct, complete, and concise.  These two paragraphs are neither clear nor concise.  Because they are unclear, I have no idea if they are correct or complete.  They also appear to be combining prescriptive with performance specifications.

Assuming the technical content is indeed correct, the problem can be fixed by applying some basic principles espoused by the CSI in the CSI Specifications Practice Guide. The information presented should be separated into multiple (correct) locations to comply with CSI SectionFormattm.  Portions of both paragraphs should appear in PART 1 GENERAL, and part of the second should be in PART 3 EXECUTION.  The remainder is correctly located in PART 2 PRODUCTS, but needs to be broken up into shorter statements using streamlined language in smaller subparagraphs to allow the reader to more easily access and understand the information.

The first paragraph could appear as follows:

2.2 Materials & Equipment

2.2.1 Manufacturers

  1. Trane
  2. Siemens
  3. Johnson Controls

2.2.2 Basis of Design: Trane Tracer Summit ICS

The remainder of the non-superfluous information from this paragraph should appear in PART 1 GENERAL.

I could rewrite the second paragraph as well, but you get the idea. Adherence to CSI principles would facilitate communication of the information to the bidders and eventually to the contractor.  Remember, communication occurs when the reader/listener understands the intent of the writer/speaker.  When the information is correctly stated and presented, it is understandable by all the parties to the construction process.  The CSI Education and Certification Programs are an important first step to better communication within the AEC industry.

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In my last post, I discussed the problems inherent when communicating simply with words. The same can be said of graphic communication.

One of my mentors once told a story of a world renown architect who was meeting a client to present the design for a project. He did so using a series of axonometrics on a white background.  Architects and architecture students often used this technique because of the ease of producing this type of view (remember this was in the 1960’s and all was done by hand).  The building committee (client) hated it, and considered firing their architect.

A few weeks later, the architect asked the client to reconvene the committee because he had something new to show them. The format of the presentation was a series of water colored pen and ink perspectives.  The committee loved them and the design was eventually built.

It was also the exact same design they had earlier rejected.

Fast forward to today. It is currently possible to create a three dimensional model using any number of software packages.  The output can be exported in various file types with varying degrees of realism.  When presenting a project to a client, consideration needs to be given to levels of contrast, softness of color, hardness of edges, contextual rendering, etc.  Additionally, you will need to consider who the client is and what the purpose of the presentation is.  The same information presented two different ways to the same client using today’s media can easily elicit different reactions in the same way it did in the 1960’s.

Bottom line, use care in choosing how to communicate in today’s world. That choice can make or break your intended result.

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I have been fascinated with State Farm Insurance’s ongoing ad campaign where in one of the ads a young lady, upon seeing a new Fiat in the driveway, asks her father “Is that my car?” This is immediately followed by a distraught motorist whose car has been stripped asking “Is that my car?”  As the ad continues, both individuals utter identical dialogue, but it has two entirely different meanings.  There are at least three different ads in this campaign, and in all cases it involves a happy statement followed by an expression of distress using exactly the same words.

As an architect and specifier, a significant part of my stock in trade is written communication. All too often I hear complaints about the tone of this or that e-mail (usually described as angry) when the intent of the communication is to be a factual transmission of information.

With that said, I like e-mail for professional communications, because it creates a searchable written record the moment that the send button is pressed. The downside to it, though, is that the sender should think long and hard about exactly what is said.  As the State Farm campaign clearly demonstrates, the same words mean very different things depending on the circumstances (the reader may be in a very different frame of mind than the sender).

Communications that are not face-to-face conversations lose a certain amount of meaning, because body language and tone of voice disappear. In the case of a telephone conversation, the tone of voice is still there, so that words that on paper may appear angry won’t be heard that way if delivered in a calm even handed manner.  As we move from e-mail to text messaging, to whatever other medium is used, much of what we intend to convey is lost.

Coming to my point, in this day and age of social disengagement through social media, it is important to foster those interpersonal relationships through actual conversation, preferably in person. If a face to face conversation is not possible, use the most personable means of communication available at the time and follow it up when you can with the more personable.

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