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.

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?

29 August 2016

How did we get here? The transition to maintenance activities

So far in this series, we first looked at the good old days, when CSI membership rose continually, sometimes at an amazing rate. During the growth period, we saw that membership in CSI offered tangible benefits. CSI was an organization that helped those involved in construction to understand how construction documents are related, how to prepare them, and how to interpret them. Much of that information was developed by CSI members, so there were countless opportunities for members to take an active part in the future of specifications. Face meetings were important because the only other options for communication were written letters, which made real-time discussion impossible, and telephone calls, which were quite expensive.

We then looked at the effect of the economy on membership. Frequently the bogeyman for many things that ailed CSI, I think it is obvious that only rarely was there a correlation between the economy and CSI membership. In some cases, membership grew dramatically during and after recessions. More significantly, upturns in the economy did not result in a return of lost members.

25 July 2016

Time for some fun!


Each summer, boards of directors make plans for the next year, education and certification committees begin preparing study courses, newsletter editors start bugging chapter presidents for articles, and planning committees search for good technical programs and tours. All of these are serious, necessary things that must be done to provide the services members expect.

But as they say, all work and no play can make things dull and boring. Chapters, usually through region conferences, show other chapters what their committees are doing and discuss best practices. I wonder, how often do we show each other what we do to have fun? In the next couple of articles, I'm going to recount stories from North Central Region conferences; I invite you to respond with your own tales of mirth and merriment.

20 June 2016

How did we get here? Effects of the economy on membership, MythBusters edition

Among the things that have been blamed for declining membership is the economy. By the time I was elected to the Institute board, membership had already fallen about fifteen percent from its peak in the late '90s, and it continued to decline. As we'll see in a moment, my term of service on the board happened to coincide roughly with the Great Recession of 2007-2009. Membership did decline during that recession, though not as much as you might think. It's more significant that in the years leading up to that recession, the economy was good, yet membership was declining.

When I was on the board, and many times since, I have heard members attribute the loss of members to the economy. While I accept that as a possibility, it seems to me that if the economy does have an impact on membership, we should regain lost members when the economy improves. I didn't think that was happening, so I decided to do look at the numbers. Please note that I am not an economic or financial analyst of any sort, but what I found does seem reasonable. And what did I find? That the economy has had little impact on CSI membership.