“In my mind, it is definitely the engineer of record who owns the specification. The first word that comes to mind is responsibility. Who puts the spec together and gathers the information? And, if you looked at a court of law, who would it come down to? It’s the engineer of record. The person signing his name to that specification. Our specs are our best recommendation and our way of doing the responsible thing.” — Christoph Lohr, PE, CPD, LEED AP BD+C, ASSE 6020
“In my perspective, I own the specification because I am signing my professional seal as plumbing engineer to that spec. My opinion goes into that. Every engineer is going to have a slightly different opinion on what they want in their spec. I’m liable for whatever is in there, so it’s mine.” — Eric Haines, PE
“Henderson owns the spec. It is our intellectual property. Henderson’s responsibility is to determine what is equal and ensure that that is communicated to the construction team to meet the owner’s needs and wants.” — Warren Rosenbrook, PE, CPD, GPD
Recently, a reader brought the subject of specifying to Plumbing Engineer magazine’s attention as a topic of interest. More specifically, readers wanted to hear what their engineering and designing colleagues had to say about the realities of conflicting or inaccurate information included in specifications.
For this January issue, we sat down with industry professionals from Erdman and Henderson Engineers to gain insights on this topic. Welcome to the conversation!
Developing The Spec
First, we wanted to establish basic parameters by understanding the general process for writing a specification. Generally speaking, Haines said specs are written from two aspects: ensuring the client gets the products that are intended; and making sure the contractor understands what should be provided.
Rosenbrook explained that the most common specifications he sees in the industry are: Sheet specs, short format specifications included on drawings and used for small projects and program projects; Book specs, the Construction Specification Institute’s (CSI) long format specification; Lock specs, a specification that includes only one product by one manufacturer; Open specs, a generically written specification that includes various manufacturers by name and allows for standard product development to reduce costs to the owner and create a competitive bid; and Performance specs, where no manufacturers are listed and a generic description of products is written to create a competitive bid.
Rosenbrook added that specifications commonly include applicable standards, required spare parts, required submittals, manufacturers by name, product description, installation requirements, testing requirements and quality assurance requirements.
Lohr added to Rosenbrook’s explanation by noting that every spec has three main parts. The first section is general requirements and includes the definition, quality assurance, certifications and any other miscellaneous information for the contractor to note for the project. The next section is products and materials, which is going to be which manufacturers are approved and what components will be used on the project.
The last part is the specification’s execution. This spells out the methods and requirements for the contractor, such as specific requirements for the tubing or hangar spacing, as well as quality control, turnover of the equipment testing and commissioning.
Lohr added that when it comes to developing specifications, copying a spec from another project is not a best practice. He recommended starting fresh with a master specification and assessing the guidelines or requirements of the project.
“If an entity has specific guidelines, we take those guidelines and make sure our specification covers them and see if edits need to be made,” Lohr said. “We want to make sure their needs are met. You do the best you can; we’re all human. But the goal is to ensure that any specification matches up with the owner’s specific requirements.”
For help with spec development, engineers can turn to CSI. Founded in 1948 by the specification writers of government agencies, CSI was developed to improve the quality of construction specifications. The institute grew quickly to include specification writers in the private sector, design professionals concerned about communicating their vision in construction documents, constructors interested in delivering high-quality facilities and material suppliers with unique solutions to construction challenges. Today, CSI and its members are key to communicating designers' visions, material producers' solutions and constructors' techniques to create facilities that meet facility owners' objectives.
Presenting The Spec
From the owner to the contractor, all three engineers had varying pecking orders that they keep in mind when writing and ultimately presenting a specification. In cases where the owner took priority in the spec development, the focus seemed to be ensuring that the spec offered competitive pricing and quality installation opportunities. Rosenbrook noted that in this case, his firm customizes its standard spec to meet owner requirements.
Haines said the firm typically runs into about 30 percent of clients who have requirements or criteria that they want incorporated in a specification.
“The other 70 percent don’t know what they want, so that’s where our master specification comes into play to give them the product that meets their needs,” Haines said. “As we only do healthcare projects, we have a good pulse on what needs to go into a facility.”
Lohr said the contractor is often the priority when he is writing specifications. He continued explaining that the specification is part of a set of construction documents that are naturally centered on guiding the contractor for an optimal installation. He noted that specifications are also reviewed for permitting.
“I have in my mind certain things from a codes standpoint I need to make note of, especially for permit review and whatever AHJ is reviewing the drawings,” Lohr explained. “Even though, from my experience, it doesn’t seem that the plan reviewers get the specification. They only seem to get the drawings, and that leads to some conversation back and forth.”
Haines brought the conversation full circle by explaining that at the end of the day, he creates specifications as if they were for his building or facility. He includes products that he trusts and stands behind.
“When it comes to specific products, some of this is opinion-based,” Haines said. “As professionals, we have the power to say we like a product because it’s the best. When I specify a product — keeping in mind that if I was the owner of the building and it was 2:00 am and something was going wrong — I want the product to be robust or have product support from my manufacturer. I want it to be a reputable manufacturer with people who can and are willing to help.”
Challenging The Spec
The topic of out-of-date specs was one focalized as this article developed. And it seems there are multiple opinions among industry professionals. One stance is that instances of out-of-date specs are growing, despite increased capabilities to update them in new software libraries and systems.
“Out-of-date specs are always a problem. Our firm strives to keep spec and standard schedules up to date,” Rosenbrook noted. “However, updates are performed on a case-by-case basis and are prioritized based on the amount of daily usage. So, a less-used spec may wait longer to be updated.”
On the other side of this issue, Haines explained that because the plumbing industry as a whole does not change quickly in comparison to others, timeliness of specs should not be a major concern.
“Though we have a lot of innovation in our fields, the plumbing industry doesn’t change that fast,” Haines said. “So, I don’t worry too much about our specs being out of date. Product numbers might change for manufacturers, but for the most part, I don’t worry about my spec beyond once a year or once every two years. I don’t change my spec to respond to any niche thing that comes out or the newest, greatest product. It is mostly consistent when it comes to a good, robust system.”
Haines added that at his firm when there is an issue with a spec, it is not because the spec is outdated but because it does not meet an owner or area’s standard. Because the company works on projects across the country, engineers have to be aware of regional standards and adjustments.
Lohr, on the other hand, noted that the firm is working to make sure specs meet changes as it relates to specific new technologies, such as systems that address pathogens in water supplies.
“Obviously, Legionella is the big one out there, but there are many types of bacteria and healthcare-acquired infections that are a big deal in the latest mandates,” Lohr said. “If you go through many of the standard specs right now, there’s not a section for some of these products. They’re just lumping them in with something else. So, we try to keep our specs as up to date as possible and, in some cases, create a specifications section for that equipment and do the legwork — just to make sure that we have it.”
Editing the Spec
Once a spec has been challenged, regardless of the reason, there does have to be a chain of command in place for reviewing and, if necessary, editing the spec. Rosenbrook noted that in his firm, the discipline’s technical director has the final say once a spec has been challenged.
Lohr said that being comfortable with having a spec challenged that you have written is not easy, especially if you do not have final say on the revision. Lohr added that having a collaborative environment makes the process less combative and more seamless.
“A lot of it comes down to having open communication within the company,” Lohr explained. “It makes sense that if a designer finds an error or something out of date, he has the initiative and is empowered to approach the folks who devised the specification. Many times people are empowered to the point that they make the change on the master spec and let us know about it so we can do a quick quality control and update our central library. Trying to have just one person maintain master specifications or specifications, in general, is a very daunting task.”
A poignant point Lohr made about specifying is that seniority is not always the best metric for success.
“This is one of the things where I see both sides of the argument.” Lohr noted. “I think you can have young folks who don’t have much experience but have some fantastic ideas. It’s the process of then having someone with experience review it. With a lot of young engineers going into plumbing, they see that some of the more senior folks are perhaps not degreed engineers. But I repeat multiple times that we stand on the shoulders of giants. A lot of the folks who have been designing plumbing systems but are not degreed engineers have the experience, which is a critical component in our industry.”
Lohr said that the industry should make it a best practice to consider the act of challenging a spec as offering help and ensuring specifications are relevant and accurate.
“If you’re fostering a learning environment with radical honesty and radical transparency, then you have what an organization should strive for,” Lohr noted.
Increasingly, spec archival software is becoming popular among firms and makes the development and challenging process seamless. These libraries include all updates and “unofficial” specs that may be used later. With robust capabilities, there also can be research subdirectories for each spec section where a spec can be archived for future use.
As industry tools, software and technologies continue to develop, it will be interesting to see how professional services are affected.