Building a structure can be divided into two basic components: material and labor. Some designers believe that writing the perfect specification and selecting an upgrade in material are the secrets to eliminating problems. Joe Lstibrueck, a well-known building envelope expert, has a quote on his website: “Rarely, if ever, have I seen the failure of a building envelope related to a material failure.” Similar to my friend Joe, I think problems most often result from an installer in the field failing to interpret what the designer wanted, not understanding the system or lacking experience in their tradecraft.

Joe and I are not alone in our belief that material selection is rarely the problem. However, the push for upgrades in product selection generally wins out over seeking qualified workers. Making sure the pieces fit with a field-proven assembly is often overlooked. The value of an experienced, well-trained installer can ensure pieces are properly integrated and work. The critical component to a qualified worker is their ability to identify potential problems before they occur and then suggest workable alternatives. 

Emulating other industries is pointless. We do not build in pristine factories or laboratories. Construction by its nature is dirty, hard, and above all, unpredictable. The dance between material delivery, scheduling crews, change orders and substitutions makes construction nothing like building a plane, a computer or an automobile. We do not have assembly lines where an inspector can stand to inspect every part or assemblage as it passes by them. Our stuff is covered up and we rely on spot inspections. Many things can be covered up. The perfect specification or an upgrade in product selection is not going to fix errors committed in field installations by untrained installers.

Are You Questioning the Specification?

The unspoken issue is that the experienced journeyman, foreman or supervisor is often punished for pointing out potential pitfalls. Managers have a schedule to keep. Designers often select products that promise ease of installation and, when combined with a perfect specification, it has to work. Now this “field” person has the audacity to question a detail, procedure or material? Who do they think they are? While some of these experienced field crew leaders may be overzealous and not able to articulate the problem well, they should be heard. They may be protecting you from a disaster down the road.

Specification writers should focus a little more on contractor qualifications rather than searching for magic products or systems. After all, the lowest bid is not a good qualifier. Conversely, contractors should be very careful about material selection and, in particular, material compatibility. The industry has become overrun with new products and all products contain various complex compounds. Sometimes a chemical component can touch another material and bad things happen. Most specification writers do a good job of verifying material compatibility. An example would be a sealant selection that works and can be in contact with asphaltic membranes or PVC without harm. Problems can occur when we use a product not vetted out for compatibility, particularly with new products or systems.

The Benefits of Qualified Installers

A good, qualified subcontractor is a specialist in a trade with a broad field of expertise and experience in their craft. Most senior specification writers have learned this, sometimes the hard way. Designers have to make a choice: move to pre-fabrication with limited designs to reduce the need for qualified, experienced installers or select subcontractors that are more experienced and use them to ensure your design will be a functional reality for your clients.

While some general contractors find these subcontractors annoying and think of them as schedule killers, they may be saving you callbacks or, even more importantly, keeping the construction and design team out of litigation issues.

The perfect specification provides the subcontractor clear, understandable language for their specialty trade. The specification should also be realistic and not be considered a hammer to use against subcontractors with unrealistic tolerance demands. A well-written specification with good details makes bids more equitable, easy to compare pricing and attracts the better class of contractors. Some subcontractors know how to play and win the RFI game. Bad specifications can actually attract them. The lessons for seasoned specification writers should be to verify established industry practices and to be wary of products or systems that overpromise or sound too good to be true. Seasoned specification writers know the building code is a good code and will produce a good building. Specification writers often rely on not-for-profit trade associations, like the Stucco Manufacturers Association and Gypsum Association to get unbiased consultation. They know verifying good products and proven systems and using a qualified contractor is the best way to complete a project on schedule, stay on budget and limit liability.