Fads, fashions, and trends on planet commercial construction

 Some planets are static for long periods of time. Some not. One nice thing about Planet Commercial Construction is that it demands attention, so little is routine. Change is rampant.  When the a new or oddball situation repeats, I quickly wonder: is this randomness or a trend?

Three times this year I have been told to ignore the contract drawings.  On a small plaza renovation, my instructions came from the field.  On a decent sized downtown commercial addition, the GC was unable to ever give us a coordinated set of architectural and structural drawings; we were promoted so our shop drawings became the coordination focus. Today on a tiny job (but jam packed with confusion and complexity) where we flagged an A-S elevation conflict for the top of a beam we sat on, the GC said “ignore the contract set, just follow the steel shop drawings.”  Those drawings had followed the unconstructible contract details for supporting our piece and so they showed all sorts of extra plates and angles we did not need. Good bet that it’s a trend. 

What’s going on here? I will speculate.  All were private, CRE-driven work. Overall we (contractors and designers) remain in a depressed industry with low margins. Developers are much better at squeezing and wringing cost out of a project than are public owners and so the architects are working cheap. In turn the fees of they pay engineers are rock bottom. So what were once 80% plans are now “for construction”.  Subs who have to submit shop drawings encounter all sorts of issues but the EOR and maybe even the AOR is not eager to put more effort in.  Sort of implicit design build but under a design-bid-build contract. We keep hoping and expecting that the GC will play a serious coordinating role, but in my experience at best they dabble at it.

This process increases the chance or errors and problems. And despite direction to subs about ignoring the contract drawings, in the event of a serious dispute the GC has a huge ammo chest, since the sub is not likely to be in compliance with the contract drawings.  I find it nerve-wracking.  Am I the only one on the planet witnessing this? 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Benches, Sidewalks, and Construction Tolerances

I have a project in which one of the elements we are furnishing and installing is a bunch of large precast concrete benches. They appear on a landscape sheet that also calls for aligning bench ends with sidewalk scores.  Simple in theory; prone to problems in real life.

Bench layout and detail

Bench layout and detail  (click to enlarge)

To avoid those problems I pushed on the GC and we met: me, the GC, his flatwork sub, the architect, and the landscape architect. Together we worked out an approach that had a good chance of avoiding problems with alignment. On my native planet (Earth) all measurements, dimensions, and manufactured items have tolerances. Tolerances (or accuracy if you prefer)  for car engine parts are a few thousands of an inch, in precast it’s a few 16ths, when tossing  hand grenade  it can exceed several yards.  Here on planetcommercialconstruction there is not uniform awareness of such tolerances.    As part of managing expectations and avoiding problems with our installed material, I asked the two architects about their assumed tolerances. Without hesitating, both said “none” – it should all fit perfectly. If you build, rather than design, you will of course be flabbergasted by this blatant disregard for the nature of material reality (or, disregard for the reality of materials). If you have years of experience, this reality will not be surprising  For those with interest in tolerances you can buy the book, or just go there and read the excellent introduction: http://www.amazon.com/Handbook-Construction-Tolerances-David-Ballast/dp/0471931519 )

Here I will note but not address the disconnect between that attitude (“no tolerances, everything fits perfectly”)  and the specifications that are full of stated tolerances and are an integral part of the contract.  I’d like to use this witnessed scenario as a springboard to speak to the intimately interconnected issues of:

  •  inefficiencies in how we build structures on planetcommercialconstruction
  • why progress with BIM and other software solutions to the challenges and cost of design is much slower and tougher than many people hope will be the case

Efficient movement of a design concept through all the steps that will result in a physical reality requires a lot of knowledge about many materials, products, and processes. Most folks who have not actually tried building complex modern structures cannot imagine how much knowledge is involved among all the specialists. In terms of the first issue above (inefficiency), because we involve people with knowledge post-design, post-bid, there is a lot of backtracking and meetings just like the one today. A lot of revision and re-design occurs.  The injection of relevant knowledge into the process earlier would be much more efficient in terms of all participants’ resources.

BIM relies on intelligent objects (doors, walls, benches, etc.). But if these objects do not have embedded within them full knowledge of their own tolerances they cannot be part of an automated design engine that delivers hoped-for results. Ultimately what they really need is the deeper,  more complex, and difficult to acquire and to  incorporate  knowledge of how tolerances of separate materials/products/assemblies interact. This is tough stuff to round up and harness.

You don’t have to trust the pronouncements here of a quirky precaster.  Check out http://dspace.mit.edu/bitstream/handle/1721.1/43747/263921735.pdf Joshua Lobel’s  master’s thesis. His title is wonderfully playful if you know the vocabulary:
Building Information: Means and methods of communication in design and construction.  He distinguishes between design information and construction information and notes that BIM may lead to loss of knowledge and further disconnect between the two.

Posted in knowledge | Tagged | Leave a comment

A devilish grin amongst the details?

Some of the facts of life on this planet (commercial construction in the USA) :
• You are governed by lots of documents (contracts, plan, specs, ASI’s …)
• Plans often have conflicts, improbabilities, or impossibilities within them.
• Specs are almost always flawed, in serious or minor ways.
• The plans and specs are often in conflict.

When first going through the documents you cannot always know if the architect is serious or pulled an “oops”. Sometimes this is true on second pass. Sometimes resolution of a tiny detail can be prolonged. We have a job to supply pieces of precast concrete that hold plates that somehow help diffuse air through sewage during treatment. Or something like that: truth is I do not fully understand the system of which these pieces are but one part.

Section through precast diffuser plate holder

Section through precast diffuser plate holder

Full section  (Link is for those who want to see the section so big that they can read it)

One end has a special metal casting for the air inlet. This we embed in the precast concrete;  the metal piece is supplied to us by the GC (for my comments on that casting see https://planetcommercialconstruction.wordpress.com/2013/01/23/minor-mentoring-is-a-pleasure/ ). The other end has a lifting insert that we buy. Normally no big deal, but this one is unlike any ever seen by me or by the 3 other gray-haired buddies I consulted with.

Also unusual is the mention of bolting to forms – makes no obvious sense in the context. And the capacity of a 1” bolt is an order of magnitude more than the piece weighs. Why use a 1” lifter? Maybe there is a reason. Maybe not.

This being a very large (=bureaucratic) owner, I over-communicated to avoid rejected submittals. So both on the shop drawing and in a separate substitution request, I stated my assumptions, questioned the insert, and proposed something more appropriate. All in a manner both crisp and thorough. That was Feb 18 (this year). Since then I received a formal approval on everything but the substitution of the insert – it was stated it had to be for a 1” bolt. Normal, readily available inserts don’t look like this one and vaguely similar ones are deeper (because bigger bolts mean more capacity means more embedment in the concrete) and there is not room for a deeper insert where the insert goes in the piece. So I made a formal request for a vendor and part # for this now-elusive insert. I also again asked what this 1” bolt does. Yesterday (March 14) the GC called; he was still trying to get answers and said he would call an engineer at the agency.

Today, I still don’t know if there is a function for the 1″ bolt (GC may not even use the insert for lifting) , or if this is an insert that exists in another realm or on a different planet (we looked at plumbing catalogs but nothing matched) or if the reviewer who rejected it just is a stickler for enforcing whatever someone else once wrote down . Or maybe someone is “just kidding” about the 1”. Time may tell. I’ll let you know. Those of you who live on other planets may find this story bizarre, but anyone  living on planetcommercialconstruction will find it quite normal.  While this uncertainty about simple things can be annoying, it keeps this business from being predictable, routine, and boring.

Posted in knowledge | 1 Comment

Minor mentoring is a pleasure

Commercial construction is full of hidden complexities; you often step in dog poo.  With  experience in your specialty you learn the difference between poo, a pile of leaves, and a  pile of leaves that is covering dog poo.   Over time you learn a lot,  often painfully and at great expense (I call it “tuition”). You still step in poo occasionally –  it’s impossible to know everything and  it’s the job of architects, owners, and GC’s to try to stick subcontractors with these inevitable problems.

Graybeards like myself increasingly find ourselves dealing with young project managers who have limited real-life experience and knowledge. Some are arrogant and exceedingly annoying. More often they are simply a little clueless and frustrating. Recently I had a pleasant young man as a GC project manager on a small job in which we were installing new precast treads in an existing train station. The stairs went from grade up to an elevated platform. Only  the lower third was ours and the only field dimension of concern to us was the wall-to-wall opening into which we had to fit. Very simple to measure.  We were committed to that. It took some time to convince this person that he, as GC, had to measure a whole bunch of things. They did not affect me but it was plain as day that the plan dimensions had to be field-verified. He lacked experience that told him that the plans of existing structures are just old plan documents and may not match the reality of the structure. So I explained it to him. I found it mildly annoying; it was SO basic and not my job to train him. The other day I had an enjoyable experience with minor mentoring.  We have a contract to provide some odd pieces of a wastewater treatment system (diffuser plate holders, not that you are likely to have a clue as to what this is; I didn’t until I bid them) and the project manager called to let me know that he had a sample of a special metal casting we were to cast into the precast. 

The iron casting and what fits into it.

The iron casting and what fits into it.

I remembered long ago stepping into the problems and complexities of galvanizing threaded pieces and mentioned that to him.  This PM was interested and we discussed it at some length. He ended up deciding to investigate the cost difference to get the casting in stainless rather than galvanizing plain cast iron.   I  suggested raising potential corrosion issues with the owner – they might then even pay the cost difference.  He was very appreciate of the assistance and I enjoyed it.   In this business, and probably in the rest of life as well,  you have to treasure pleasures like that; they are rare.

Posted in GC-sub relations, knowledge | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Precast concrete for Urban Search and Rescue training

We spent Thanksgiving with two sons and their families. I also visited a nearby young cousin who I am fond of and who is a firefighter.  We were talking about training and somehow precast concrete came up. Some years back I had a consulting gig in which my assignment was to procure a variety of precast pieces to construct a rubble simulation. This was for a large multi-municipality first-responder training facility.  I offered to write up and send my cousin a primer on obtaining free or ultra-low-cost precast concrete for training exercises. I started it and of course it turned out to be more than the simple 10-minute task I had initially Urban search and rescue precast envisioned, mainly because there are so many different types of precast.  I worked on it a bit and made it presentable and then figured that it can be useful to many departments. So here it is, for the use of any fire department involved in training exercises that need or can use precast concrete.

(You may have to click on the link below and then again on a similar link. You should end up with a pdf that you can view or print.  It’s set up for printing on 11×14 paper.)

Urban search and rescue precast

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Horrible contract provision on intent

Six months ago I wrote about a pending claim we have. https://planetcommercialconstruction.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/cliffhanger/  Our core contention there was that if nothing in the plans indicated a specific joint alignment then we were not obligated to provide such alignment. It’s still unresolved (rarely is there a rush to pay a subcontractor). Last week I had a nice sit-down with the GC. They needed convincing that the claim is worth pursuing, that we had a decent case, since the owner had already rejected the claim.  The GC seemed convinced we had a good case and eventually we’ll learn the outcome.  It primed me for thinking about architectural intent.

Today while reviewing a contract before signing it, I was struck by the severity of a clause related to intent and interpretation of plans and specifications.   I am now coining what may be a new phrase in this context, “discernible intent”.  If the architect does not provide a reasonably obvious clue (as opposed to explicitly indicating something), how can a subcontractor be reasonably expected to discern intent and be held accountable for meeting that intent?

Here is the contract provision. imho, it is outrageous.  (I will sign the contract since this clause offers virtually no risk in this instance – we are installing stair treads in a train station and all subtleties are easily addressed in the shop drawing). I have added emphasis below.

The work to be performed in this agreement is a portion of the work to be provided by Contractor to Owner under the General Contract and is to be performed and furnished to the satisfaction of the Contractor, Architect, and Owner. The decision of the owner or of the Owner’s designated representative as to the true construction, meaning, and intent of the Plans and Specifications shall be final and binding upon the parties hereto.  Contractor shall furnish to Subcontractor such additional information and Plans as may be prepared by Architect to further describe the work to be performed and furnished by Subcontractor, and Subcontractor shall conform to and abide by same.

To me the simplest and most obvious interpretation is that there is no need for discernible intent, subs are to be mind readers, and you agree to be bound by whatever an owner decides.   Even the most onerous change order clauses (the ones that require you to proceed and then later accept the owner-determined reasonable pricing) require reasonability, which can be disputed.  Here you seem to waive the ability to dispute the owner’s interpretation.  Is this provision horrible? Absolutely!  Is it actually enforceable? I’ll let the lawyers tell us. Personally, I will try to get it struck from any contract with even moderate architectural complexity. “Discernible intent” is a more reasonable standard than “imaginable intent”.  (You know, just use your imagination a little and you can see how the intent included all sorts of things….)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Observations on attention to contents of email

When something pops up a few times in a short span of time, it might be a trend, it might just  be random fluctuations.  When today,  for the 3rd time this month,  it became obvious that a customer or fabricator was not reading or absorbing simple statements in an email, I started thinking it’s a trend. And there is much anecdotal evidence about a lowered quality of attention to reading and writing in  general plus of course, in commercial construction most everybody is stretched very thin.  My guess is that this is a trend.

The implication for a project manager is that you have to do more verification and follow up; based on observable reality you are less able to assume that the recipient of a simple piece of writing will grasp and act upon what you have written.  Of course, you can follow traditional methods and just let the chips fall where they may and deal with it later. The concern of course, is that most problems end up being owned by the subcontractor no matter what you think is fair or just. Taking this common lack of attention into account might be  good defense, albeit annoying and maybe disheartening.  Maybe the rule should be first phone, and then follow up with an email and do not rely on email alone?

Below is the latest example of this, consisting of an email I wrote and the reply that makes it obvious that my customer did not read the entire (and fairly short) email.    I have removed anything that might identify the customer and added emphasis to the key sentences. =========================================================

On Tue, Nov 20, 2012 at 4:16 PM, <mxxxxxxr@XYZinc.com> wrote:

Here you go Leo – consider the proposal fully executed.

Have you begun production?



From: Leo Schlosberg [mailto:leo at caryconcrete.com]
Sent: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 3:25 PM
To: <mxxxxxxr@XYZinc.com>
Subject: Re: abcde curbs -packaging and proposals


1. Proposal
Revised proposal is attached, but as it’s all unit priced, it should not require any further modifications. Right now I assume no change to target date and that you’ll want 1/2 (95) at a time.

2. Packaging
Good comment about floor loads. If the skids are being broken down immediately on the ground then getting them off the truck governs. But that in turn will depend on someone deciding if you or we unload. I remain of the opinion that the best person for me to be discussing this with is the person who will be there supervising unloading and distribution of the pieces. The one exception to this is if you yourself need to be involved in the dollar decision about unloading (price per truck varies by $300 depending on whether we unload or you unload).

We have started making these and I’d like to get the skid weight issue resolved ASAP so the plant knows how to package the pieces.



Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment