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.

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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

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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….)

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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.



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Technological exuberance, or is it optimism or just sales talk?

I should be working on a bid, but because I was still reverberating from yesterday’s post I let myself be distracted by a link someone sent me to this article: ‘ BIM’s future up in the cloud The AEC industry is on the cusp of a still more significant evolution with cloud computing’ .  http://www.bdcnetwork.com/bim%E2%80%99s-future-cloud

The cloud, which is really the old central data center on mega-steroids along with a huge pipe to it, is seen as solving all sorts of other problems.

A future in which you could tap unlimited computing resources with the click of a mouse and crack even the most complex building analysis task with virtually no delay. Imagine a future in which collaboration would be painless, integration seamless, and access to architecture, engineering, and construction expertise limitless.” [emphasis added]

No doubt the cloud can help design and construction. But until and unless that more of that  expertise is stored and organized so it can be accessed and also affect design, the cloud does not help.  The problems of expertise in a/e/c are legion and a complete and coherent list is well beyond my time budget for this post.  Loosely, much expertise is thinly distributed,  often stored in individual’s brains, or in a trade association’s obscure and expensive publication, possibly controversial, and application may involve assembling of disparate knowledge and experience to be useful.  The knowledge needed to establish design intent is not the same as the knowledge to build well-functioning, durable structures. “Means and methods” knowledge includes much more than how and where to put in a screw.  And today, that knowledge is chaotically organized and not accessible to any known process that occurs in the cloud.

To read an architect’s short and  interesting take on knowledge and building failure see http://www.ochshorndesign.com/cornell/writings/failures.html#_edn42 . For your take on the issue, comment below.  For mine, stay tuned and be patient.

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Technology, Construction, Purchasing, Modeling

The Northwestern University Symposium on Technology for Design and Construction  (http://www.techforconstruction.com/) was 3 days well spent with a variety of speakers, and interesting people to meet with.  Most attendees are from the software side, the design side, or the construction side, not too surprising given the very descriptive name of the gathering (what, no artists, no accountants or jail wardens?). One speaker stated his hopes for the future of technology thusly (and while I show it as a a quote, his exact words may have been slightly different as I used no reliable technology to record his words, only wet ware): “… purchasing construction products will become as easy as buying shoes..” He may have have qualified it by referencing, buying shoes online. No matter. What interests me is that if I heard the words, but knew nothing else about the speaker, I could tell you, at a confidence level well over 90%, that the speaker’s background was in technology or design. It’s almost impossible to imagine someone on the construction side talking like that.  Why this gulf?

Because commercial construction is enormously complex and much of that complexity is not simply in the individual components but in how they fit together with other products. Viewed from a distance, it seems reasonably amenable to automation and not unduly complex.  People on the construction side view it up close and are constantly (and often forcefully) reminded of the complexity.

It is no accident that the most fruitful work in this area comes more from e/p/c than from a/e/c and is focused on valves, which is a collection of products with well defined variations, constraints and interfaces.  More complex than shoes but simple compared to curtain wall.  For background see http://www.fiatech.org/procurement-supply-networkds/active-projects/751-expediting-equipment-a-material-selection-and-acquisition-emsa

I came into commercial construction from IT and it took me years to accept that the reason it seemed so messy and complex was simply because it was.  Here I am speaking solely of the technical product issues, although the process is also messy and complex.  Technological optimism coupled with oversimplification of the issues raises false hopes.   Anyone familiar with the long history and struggles toward interoperability in a/e/c knows that the path is full of abandoned (false) hopes for quick progress.  A core reason for this is lack of understanding of the actual complexity surrounding products.

If I were not so busy with bidding and today’s problem interfacing materials (oops, something else attaches to the column where you have a column cover), I’d do a parallel post on modeling.  Short summary is that BIM today is full of design models that contractors find to be far short of the construction model they need.  How come? One is way more complex than the other and requires way way more and different knowledge.  (Please do not read this as trashing architects – they are underpaid, under-respected, and often asked to do more than they reasonably can.)

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Technology, Construction, Interoperability

Today, tomorrow, and the next day I am attending the Northwestern University Symposium on Technology for Design and Construction. (http://www.techforconstruction.com). This i s a combination of exciting gee-whiz stuff, cheerleading, and slightly veiled sales pitches. What stood out for me in Day One was a tiny detail, a nit in terms of all the issues of interoperability. Every speaker walked up to the podium with a laptop in hand. And every time there was a tiny glitch. Sometimes the speaker could figure it out in a few minutes, sometimes , they did so with the help of a friendly conference person, other times a tech support person who sits in the room on standby jumps out and fixes the glitch. These tiny burps are reminders of some distinct issues. First is that complex technologies are genuinuelycomplex (duh! but sometimes forgotten) and that full seamless interoperability is hard to achieve. This implies overhead costs (never discussed by vendors) in terms of support and friction. In the old paper world of construction information, everyone knew how to operate blueprints and an overhead projector. New tools introduce new problems. Secondly, maturation of new technologies, grinding down the burrs, ironing out the wrinkles, takes time. Ten years ago, the interface and interoperability problems among humans, laptops, and projector were more common and more serious – at presentations delays were longer and full-scale failures to perform more common. When you want to introduce new technology into your process, you should expect the implementation to be tougher than you initially estimate and way harder and more costly than the vendors will tell you. Thirdly is that technogical prgress is intertwined with the progression of generations. The eyounger the person, the fewer the problems. These tiny delays at the podium may helps us to understand why interoperability of design information (IFC’s, etc.) has taken much longer to mature than initially expected. If the choice in expectations is between realism and optimism, I’ll take realism every day.

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