The focus of this blog is construction-related topics. The purpose is discussion, so please feel free to comment! See Specific thoughts for thoughts from the daily life of a specifier.

26 September 2017

The making of a convention

A lot goes into a convention: location, scheduling, publicity, solicitation of exhibitors, invitations to potential attendees, and more. Although the exhibit floor is extremely important to exhibitor and attendee alike, the educational seminars and activities are equally important.

Those activities take many forms. The traditional lecture format continues to be popular, but interactive presentations have been increasing. Panel discussions, which seem to be either dreadful or very interesting, allow audience participation. In the last few years, we have had presentations and live demonstrations on the exhibit floor. On occasion, these involve one of my favorite activities - getting your hands dirty. Another recent addition has been YP Day (young professionals day), a collection of special events aimed at young professionals and others new to the construction industry.

I've always known that choosing presentations and speakers must be difficult, and this year I learned how true that is. In December of last year, I was asked to serve on the CONSTRUCT 2017 Education Advisory Council, the group that helped selected this year's speakers and presentations. The Council was led by Jennifer Hughes, Informa Education Manager. In the past, I had made suggestions about presentations, so I felt obligated to accept the challenge.

22 August 2017

Where do bad specifications come from?

It's approaching ten years since I wrote "The Making of a Curmudgeon." In it, I reminisced about my decision to run for Institute Director and thinking, "Holy cow, when my term is done I'll be almost sixty!" Well, sixty came and went, and I recently celebrated my twentieth anniversary at my office.

Milestones like that tend to make one look back, to think about what has happened, to think about what might have been. During my thirty years as a specifier, I thought things would improve, that specifications would get better, that relations within the construction team would become more collaborative and trusting, that drawing details would gradually lose the pesky problems that lead to problems in construction, and that, eventually, the construction process would be a thing of wonder, with few difficulties. I thought that when it came time to retire, I could look back on continual progress and leave knowing that the world was a better place, due at least in some part to what I had done.

01 May 2017

Small brush with fame

Lawrence Small, son of Ben John Small, and me
One of the most treasured awards I received from CSI is the Ben John Small Memorial Award. First presented in 1996, and limited to one per year, only eleven people have received this award.

The award, originally intended "to honor those who have achieved outstanding stature and proficiency as specifiers," is named after Ben John Small, charter member and president of the Metropolitan New York Chapter. Ben was well known as an educator; he was a frequent lecturer at Columbia University, Princeton University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Virginia Polytechnic Institute. He wrote columns for Pencil Points Magazine, which later became Progressive Architecture. He also wrote a number of books, including Architectural Practice, Building check list, and Streamlined specifications standards. (I have two of these books in my library.)

A couple of years after receiving the award, I was at the CSI office in Alexandria for an Institute board meeting. I recalled seeing an article about Ben John Small in the Construction Specifier, but all I could remember was that his son worked at the Smithsonian. I had a little extra time before my flight, so I went to the Smithsonian in hopes of meeting him.

14 March 2017

Spock as a specifier

In our never-ending search for truth in specifications, we often lose sight of reality. We're inundated with advertising, product data, test reports, and white papers; where once specifiers complained about a lack of information, we now struggle to keep up with what we receive. We can't know what we don't know, and we have no time to evaluate what we have seen. As if that weren't bad enough, we often find that what we thought we knew isn't true.

As an example, consider building insulation. The way it works and its value have been understood since antiquity, and until recently we have felt comfortable with evaluating, specifying, and detailing various types of insulation. And then everything began to unravel.

14 February 2017

Tower of Babel


"Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech."

I recently enjoyed watching a video clip of a senate confirmation hearing, in which Scott Pruit, EPA Administrator nominee, was being grilled by Joni Ernst, Senator from Iowa. At issue was the term WOTUS, or "Waters of the United States." Not knowing at the time I watched it what the term meant, it was amusing to see that 97 percent of Iowa would be governed by expansion of the existing definition. Further discussion focused on puddles and on a definition of a parking lot puddle as a "degraded wetland."

The labyrinthine regulations of the federal government reminded me of regulations we in construction deal with every day. They are similarly complex and obscure, differing only in extent. I was not surprised that I didn't understand the subjects of the senate hearing, but on further thought, I realized I really don't know much about the countless codes and regulations that govern construction. Nor, I'm sure, does anyone else.

29 November 2016

A Dickens of a Tale

This is an update of a piece I first published in 2007. I tweaked it just a bit to update some of the references. I hope you enjoy it!


Scrooge was an old man, set in his ways. And why not? He had been doing things the same way for many years, and the resulting success was sufficient evidence of the wisdom of continuing in that path. Whenever it was suggested that change might be a good thing, “Bah, humbug!” was his response. “I like things the way they are! I started this business, I’ve been doing things the same way for fifty years, and I don’t see any reason to change! All this new-fangled stuff is just a fad.”

One evening, a strange series of events befell our dear Mister Scrooge. Having had a particularly trying day, he tried to enjoy a rich repast and a few glasses of wine in an effort to forget his problems. As he fell asleep, he was thinking of how much fun he had had in his youth.

15 November 2016

Take a tour! Steel fabrication

I recently wrote about the importance of hands-on experience with building materials (Get your hands dirty!). While that works well for masonry and a few other materials, many products and processes are so dangerous or complex that it is extremely difficult for the average person to have meaningful personal experience. Still, even though hands-on familiarity may not be readily available, witnessing the fabrication or installation of construction materials is quite valuable.

I love plant tours and have been on several. Fortunately, the office often arranges site visits and tours of fabrication facilities and encourages staff to participate. In June, five of us took a midday trip to LeJeune Steel Company, a local structural steel fabricator.

Vice President Mike Histon met us at the door, then led us to a conference room where he talked about the history of LeJeune, explained how they operate, and showed us drawings from a variety of projects. They had a hand in Target Field (Twins ballpark), TCF Stadium (Gophers football), and the recently-completed US Bank Stadium (Vikings). Of particular interest was the Hennepin County Ambulatory and Outpatient Specialty Care Center, one of our projects that's under construction.

Mike also talked about the current state of the steel industry, which is a fraction of what it was fifty years ago. After donning helmets and safety vests, we went out into the shop.





















To be blunt about it, many production facilities, at first glance, aren't much to look at. Some have really cool machines, while others have more basic tools, but most are huge volumes of not much, used primarily for storing and moving materials.






For basic materials, like structural steel, the equipment is quite simple - hoists, rollers, a saw, a punch, a brake, a shear, and a welder - but it's a bit larger than what you're probably accustomed to.

















Fabrication consists of cutting to length, welding shapes and connections, and punching holes for bolted connections, some of which are completed in the shop while others are done in the field. LeJeune also preps steel for finishing, and applies primer and other coatings as specified.















Do yourself a favor - visit fabrication shops and learn more about how things are fabricated before being shipped to the site!


26 September 2016

Get your hands dirty!


Among the things specifiers grumble most about are the typical architect's lack of knowledge about how things work and how they go together, and the belief that "If I can draw it someone can build it!"

Some architecture schools do include courses about the practical aspects of architecture, but those courses are often optional, so most architects graduate with a lot of knowledge about visual design, planning, and presentation, but little understanding of materials or construction.

It's fine to have a presentation about masonry, but so much more could be learned from participants getting their hands dirty. It's easy to draw a 4 x 4 x 8 brick, but what does it feel like?