Retirement reflections #2

I am now mostly retired and doing a lot of traveling to visit my far-flung grandchildren. Most of my days since the last posting in September 2017 (Retirement Reflections have been spent out of the country, but I still am managing a few projects. It is not unusual for folks to get crankier as they get older.  This business gives me plenty of reason to be annoyed as I am regularly interfacing with designers who have a clear concept of what they want in general, in the big picture, but have only limited understanding of either the materials they have specified or how to get them installed and functioning as they envisioned.  To this we have to add the fact that designers have no incentive to get the construction documents exactly right, as they are paid the same either way and contractors will eventually more or less get it all straightened out (if this is not clear to you as a reader, and you want to understand, contact me for elaboration). Another factor helping me to have no regrets about retiring, are bureaucratic resident engineers (RE’s — they do the construction administration on most public works).  Two of my few remaining active projects are public works, and neither involves  architectural precast, though the pieces do have architectural function (this translates to plain gray concrete, smooth form finish).  Each project has had minor bumps on the path from bid to booked job to getting approvals and starting fabrication. Those bumps are a reflection of  the issues discussed above.

The first project is a bunch of large blocks (2’x2’x4 and larger) stacked on the water’s edge, essentially a revetment, similar to large stone blocks that often line a river or coastline. There is a modestly intricate layout, and the contract documents left some (literal) holes, had some mis-counts of quantities (it was a unit price contract), and ignored tolerances (not unusual for designers to think that materials fit together perfectly with 0″ joints and no variation from piece to piece). Also, the documents reflected no understanding of reasonably efficient ways to pin pieces together. Not a big deal, not that unusual. But the documents also had bin blocks as their starting point (but without the keys and keyways that these have) and  called for these to be made of “return”concrete, of what is returned unused to the ready mix plant still in the truck .  Many ready mix companies do make bin blocks out of their returns but making them in different sizes and in a DOT-certified mix is not their cup of tea and so we got the project. Here are the notes from the contract drawing.

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We dealt with all the drawing issues and standard submittals. A 4,000 psi mix was specified and we submitted cylinder breaks of 1-day (3500 psi) and 7-day (6500 psi) tests. The response was: “where are the required 28-day breaks” and could only have been uttered by someone who was either very ignorant of concrete (it gets stronger with age and by 7 days had greatly exceeded the specified 28-day strength) or was extremely bureaucratic (I see a box, it must be checked off no matter what) or maybe brain dead (for an engineer). [Side note: clearly  a portion of this person’s job is  ripe for  being handed over to a computer.] Oh well, write a letter and/or break another cylinder, keep them happy, no big deal, but somewhat annoying if you are a  mostly-retired, getting cranky 70-year who still thinks (with no empirical basis) that an industry should improve over time. Luckily, the note and picture below were sufficient to convince a professional engineer that we had met the contractual requirement that at 28 days the concrete had compressive strength of at least 4000 psi.

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Another issue resolved. Then the RE (or another party, my communications come via the GC and so I don’t always know who initiates a particular nonsense) asked for a color chart and I had to write them a letter explaining that the contract clearly was based on “return” concrete and no way did that come in a range of color choices.    OK, next they asked for pictures of the concrete so they understood color range. Not 100% unreasonable, but very rookie-ish.  Then they asked for photos of the sand and stone, which makes no sense (if you know a little about concrete) since it is form finish and thus all you see is the cement paste, so the color of the sand and stone are not relevant.   A lot of futzing around for a bunch of blocks.  Maybe we will soon be cut loose to make the stuff.

The other job started with a cut sheet for a standard product – a simple tapered shape for a short bollard  from a precaster far enough away that it was uneconomical to ship, so we got the job.

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Looked like the most straight forward item you could get in a plans and specs world .

We submitted a drawing and in return got a revised section showing a large void, with a note stating the new maximum weight of 620 pounds.

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The original cut sheet listed the weight and nothing in the contract documents indicated that weight was an issue; you wonder if the designer ignored the weight or if the owner suddenly came up with a new requirement. Either way, what gets the old-cranky-guy juices flowing is when we do the 7th grade math and determine that the revised section they drew will weigh 795 lbs., well over their stated 620 lb. requirement. Why do they bother drawing the revised section if they cannot do the math? They could more easily simply have  given us the weight requirement and both our lives would have been easier.

Then it turns out that they want a stainless steel plate on the very top 8″ x 8″ surface and we are told they want Type 314 Stainless Steel.  My first response: Huh?! What is 314? Second response is to look it up and learn that it has high-temperature oxidation resistance and is “commonly used for furnace equipment, super heater suspensions, enameling grates etc.” My third thoughts: typo (they meant 304, the most common stainless in construction applications) or wacko? No way to tell, write another email and may as well also tell them that their note about gluing it is goofy – would likely result in reduced durability and that 3/8″ thick plate is overkill for a shiny ornament.  Other than being cranky I do not mind; having relevant knowledge is the job of a supplier or subcontractor in this business where the designers are neither required nor able to get to the level of detail needed to actually correctly construct anything. What amazes me is that there are people (they know software but not construction) who think they can easily automate procurement in this industry.

About Leo Schlosberg

Graybeard with experience in commercial construction and IT, and an interest in information flow and process. Aware and respectful of the enormous complexity, technical, legal, and other, embedded in every structure that is part of the built environment.
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