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.

21 December 2010

CSI: More than just one - or three - types of members

In CSI membership - one more time, we reviewed the history of CSI's membership classification, and argued in favor of a single category of voting members. Although response has been favorable, two objections have been voiced, one regarding governance, the other related to practical aspects of communication with other members. The first appears to be more important, but the second affects day-to-day activities.

Board representation

As noted last month, CSI began as a group of specifiers, or, in today's terms, professional members. There also were a very few who would today be called industry members, but it was clear that this was an organization of design professionals, concerned primarily with the art of writing specifications. Over the years, the balance changed, and we now have almost equal numbers of professional members and industry members (for convenience, I'm considering industry and associate members as a single group). Along with their growth in numbers, industry members attained more rights and privileges, and there are now only a few small differences between voting members. Clearly, CSI has changed. It is not the organization it was in the beginning, but is an organization of design professionals and product representatives, with a smaller number of contractors and subcontractors.

25 November 2010

CSI membership - one more time

Last year, our annual election ballot included a proposed bylaws amendment that would have combined the professional, industry, and associate membership classifications into a single group. Although the amendment received over sixty percent of the votes, it fell short of the required two-thirds majority required to pass. The Los Angeles chapter brought the issue before the members at the annual meeting in Philadelphia, where eighty percent of the members voted in favor of again putting membership reclassification before the members, as an amendment proposal on the 2011 ballot.

Readers of this column may recall that last year I questioned the need for changing to a single class of voting members. I still feel the same as I did then about some of the issues, but in the last couple of months I learned a few things that led me to the conclusion that the time for a single class of voting members is long overdue.

22 October 2010

The Price of Gold

One of my CSI hats is History of Fellows Chair for CSI's College of Fellows. As such, I search for background to create or update the biographies that are on the Fellows' website, at This often is a difficult task even with new Fellows, who either can't find the time or are too bashful to write their own biographies. Getting information grows more difficult as time goes on, and becomes a real challenge for those Fellows who are no longer with us.

While my search generally moves along at a pace dictated by work at office and at home, some events, such as each year's elevation of new Fellows, notable achievements of a current Fellow, or the passing of a Fellow, inspire greater effort. One such incident occurred in February of this year, when Joy Davis notified me that a collection of three CSI medals - for President, Past President, and Fellow - were being auctioned off on e-Bay.

08 October 2010

What's a vendor?

I’m not sure when it started, but in the last couple of years I’ve seen an increasing number of references to “vendor” with no definition of what a vendor is. In the context of the construction contract, there is no need to introduce another entity, as everything is the responsibility of either the owner or the contractor. That leaves exactly four options for any given item:

04 September 2010

Go-To Guys

I recently received an e-mail from my local IMI (International Masonry Institute) representative, saying that she would be retiring in a few weeks. Even though I had known her all the twenty-plus years I have been a CSI member, and knew we were about the same age, it was a bit of a shock. After trying to convince her not to retire (not very hard), I thought about other favorite product reps - my go-to guys, some of whom retired or lost their jobs in the past couple of years.

Specifiers have a simple job: to know everything about everything. Which is interesting, given that they not only must try to keep up with new products and changes in old ones, but must somehow divine what it is that the rest of the project team has in mind. Of course it's impossible to know everything, so what they do know is phone numbers for their go-to guys. These are the people who have the right answer or know where to get it, help extract information from manufacturers' labyrinthine websites, respond quickly, and appear to remain unfazed by calls made just days - or hours - before bidding documents are issued. They're the ones who know not only their own products but those of competitors, and are able to offer advice about installation, maintenance, potential problems, and corrective measures for defects or failures beyond their control.

09 June 2010

Success Story

We are approaching the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of two seminal documents for the construction industry: "A Tentative Proposal for a Manual of Practice for Specification Writing Methods", and "The CSI Format for Building Specifications". The first led to the publication of CSI's first Manual of Practice (eventually becoming the Project Resource Manual), the second to MasterFormat.

Although MasterFormat is more widely known and used, the original Manual of Practice (MOP) embodied the essence of CSI's raison d'être - clear communication in construction documents. Along with MasterFormat, the MOP provided impetus for CSI's growth through the end of the twentieth century, as design professionals across the country sought to improve their specifications. Despite its relative obscurity, I believe the MOP's significance was second only to MasterFormat and AIA's contract documents in the world of building construction.

30 May 2010

Wood Door Finishes

Last year, while updating our wood door specifications, I became a little confused while trying to figure out the finish systems specified in AWI/AWS and WDMA standards. In the past I had specified wood doors using AWI standards, but after investigating the relevant standards, I changed our wood door specifications to use the WDMA standards because they are more specific to wood doors. However, because some literature refers to AWI and some to AWS standards, and some refers to current standards while others refer to old ones, I created a conversion table so I don’t have to go back to the standards whenever we get shop drawings.

Standards of the Architectural Woodwork Institute (AWI) and the Wood Door Manufacturer’s Association (WDMA) have been similar for a long time, and in most cases, a door that meets Premium Grade standards for one will meet them for the other. Perhaps the most important exception is face veneer grades, but I'm going to limit this discussion to finish standards.

02 May 2010

Missing Standards

Although there may be a few products that require little thought in specifying, most require some minimum amount of research, comparison of similar products, and determination of the right combination of characteristics best suited to a project.

Even then, the process can be straightforward and fairly simple, provided the type of product is common, governed by widely accepted standards for materials and performance, well-described in product data, and supported by reputable manufacturers and representatives. Hollow metal doors and frames are a good example. Most manufacturers produce them according to one or both of two sets of common industry standards, published by the Steel Door Institute (SDI) and the National Association of Architectural Metal Manufacturers (NAAMM). Unfortunately, not all types of building products can be specified by use of similar standards.

Before you start that e-mail telling me how difficult it is to specify hollow metal doors,

14 April 2010

Moving on

We just went through another round of bylaws amendments, and unless we decide to throw everything out and start over, we should be about done. The reason behind many of the amendments goes back to the governance initiative recommended by the Board and approved by the members just a couple of years ago. As you may recall, one of the biggest changes was to reduce the board of directors from twenty-nine members to eighteen. We’re well on the way now; we soon will be down to twenty board members.

The intent of the governance amendment was to create a smaller board, one that would be more nimble, more efficient, and more forward thinking. With that in mind, let us consider two Board activities: creation of a new committee to oversee the way members use their dues, and expanding CSI’s visibility and influence through increased participation of corporations.

01 April 2010

Scar on EnergyStar

EnergyStar-approved gasoline-powered alarm clock? Heater with feather duster and flypaper?

When the interest in green design took hold, I observed that an organization with a lot of money would be required to establish green standards. The typical design firm doesn't have the capacity to investigate and evaluate the source, processing, transportation, installation, performance, content, recyclability, and so on for even a single product. It is even more difficult than that, as the same analysis is required for each thing that affects or is affected by the product being studied. Throw in the effects of government subsidies, market preferences, conflicting claims from competing sources, and more, and trying to determine how green even a simple assembly is becomes virtually impossible.

And even if each firm were capable of doing all that, why should all that work be duplicated? Each firm doesn't determine the required characteristics of structural steel or foam insulation, then test the material to make sure it's what it should be; instead, we let someone else - ASTM, for example - set standards and then require compliance with those standards. Why not do the same for green products? Use of industry-wide standards helps achieve consistency and reliability, and makes it easier to specify, manufacture, and install most construction products.

The organization with the most money is, of course, the Federal government. I said it then, and I’ll stay with what I said - this is a job the government is in the best position to take on. Unfortunately, these are the same people who wrote our tax code, see football blackouts and deregulation of cable TV as more important than infrastructure, and try to justify building a $400 million bridge to serve an island with fifty residents.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when a government-backed green standards organization exhibits the typical civil serpent’s approach to reviewing submittals. The March 25 online New York Times carried an article titled “Audit Finds Vulnerability of EnergyStar Program” in which it is reported that EnergyStar-approved products included a space heater with a feather duster and flypaper strips, and a gasoline powered alarm clock.

read the article; read the GAO report

03 March 2010

A Request to Industry Professionals

Among CSI's 13,000 members are the top experts on construction products - the people who make and install them. Despite this wealth of knowledge, one of the most common complaints of newsletter editors and website managers is, "I don't have any articles!" To solve this problem, all we need do is turn to our industry professionals. Who better than the manufacturer of a product knows its characteristics or how it performs? And who knows more than a qualified installer about conditions required for a successful installation?

When manufacturers and installers see specifications or drawings that are unclear, incomplete, or simply wrong, they are presented with a great opportunity to help design professionals do better. Does the indicated assembly require another component? Is that manufacturer out of business? Are the specified accessories incompatible? Is the detail impossible to construct? Have the referenced standards been updated?

Many of these problems and conflicts can be discussed in short articles, then submitted for publication in chapter newsletters or websites where they can be seen by design professionals. To ignore a recurring problem - or just complain about it - doesn't do anyone any good. So the next time you see a problem, especially if you've seen it more than once, take a few minutes to explain what is wrong and how it should be done, and send it to your chapter editor. Specifiers will love you!

21 February 2010

Finish Mock-Ups

I recently received an e-mail from one of my favorite architects, asking for help with an unsatisfactory drywall installation. Using the Gypsum Association's GA-216 - Application and Finishing of Gypsum Panel Products as a reference standard, he had specified a Level 5 finish, yet he still was having a difference of opinion with the installer.

I was a bit surprised this was an issue. We specify Level 4 for almost everything and have had few problems; it’s hard to imagine not getting a good Level 5 finish when specified. The exceptions, as you might expect, have been walls at an angle to large windows, or walls with down lighting, and the higher the sheen of the paint, the worse the problem.

02 February 2010

History Lesson

In February 2007, John C. Anderson, FCSI, Distinguished Member of the Institute, charter member and first president of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Chapter, and fourteenth president of the Institute, passed away. A visionary, John foresaw the value of computers for bringing automation and consistency to specifications, and was a founder of the Construction Sciences Research Foundation (CSRF). John continued to serve CSI and the construction industry in many ways long after his term as president; in addition to serving as a CSRF director, he also was active in AIA, a member of AIA's Professional Development and Intern Development Program Committees, and a member of the National Panel of the American Arbitration Association.

In 1986, the Minneapolis-St. Paul Chapter named its highest award in his honor - the John C. Anderson Award of Excellence. Because he was a member of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Chapter and an important influence in my life, I prepared a tribute to honor his memory at our chapter awards banquet. While working on that project, I confirmed something I had previously suspected - for an organization that is heavily involved in documentation, we have done a poor job of keeping our own records.

12 January 2010

On the other hand...

After CSI’s October 2009 Board Flash, I wrote “A rose is a rose…”, in which I questioned the need for a change of member classification based on the vague explanation that was offered - “The Board believes the condensing of member classifications better reflects CSI's core value of building teamwork among construction professionals.” I also asked for more justification.

In response, I was accused of “old thinking.” Interesting, given that all I had done was review a little history, show that - with the exception of choosing leaders - there is no difference between members, and point out the need to again change chapter bylaws if the amendment is approved. I hoped we might have a little open discussion, and that advocates of change would provide sound reasons for the proposed change.

Remembering how much fun I had I college, taking any side of an argument just for fun, I decided to give the proponents of change a little help, and look at reasons for making the change from three member types to one. There is a good reason for making the change, and we’ll get to it. But first, I’ll comment on the claims that were posted. Sorry, but you’ll have to put up with more of my old thinking.

02 January 2010

A Dickens of a Tale

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 sixty years, and I don’t see any reason to change!”

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.