Specifications

Sid Mikelbank 6/20/99

I have been involved with construction specifications, especially in the engineering disciplines.

To summarize: You get out what you put in.

In the worst case, there isnít enough time to do all the design work and you can just barely meet your deadline. You take the specifications from the last similar job you did, and submit them for this job. Thank goodness youíre done.

Probably the specs are missing something, maybe thereís extra that doesnít apply to this job, maybe itís no big deal, the buyers and the contractors know what to do. Maybe the spec mentions the name of your previous job, how embarrassing. How many times have we seen a spec and said, "This was obviously written for another job."

Frequently the spec is too tight. The valves shall be chrome plated. The valves are bought with chrome plating, installed, and no problem. Of course, they didnít need to be chrome plated for this job. So all in all, the Owner paid a few hundred extra dollars for a feature not needed, itís not out of your pocket. What disrespect for your customer! And what a complete waste of money! And how many times do we see all kinds of features and restrictions in the specs that drive up the cost of construction, in all the disciplines and trades. And it was because the designer just took the specs from another job, with no critical review of them at all.

But, you say, who writes specs from scratch? True, itís a lot easier to take an existing spec and edit for this job. So all Iím saying is, do the work and edit it. Think about this job. Delete everything that has nothing to do with this job. Look over every word and if itís not right, make it right.

And sometimes you inherit previous specs that are so full of garbage that, yes, you may as well start from scratch, and write a new spec for this job.

In the best case, you have a spec that explains the parameters of what you want.

Specs for materials and equipment can be for (1) a specific brand and model that will likely be from a sole source, (2) a specific brand and model that several suppliers will competitively bid, or (3) a generic description of everything you want but youíre letting the suppliers find the most competitive brand and model. I should also include (4) a generic description of everything you want but no one makes it, how embarrassing. Iíve been there.

Case (1) a specific brand and model that will likely be from a sole source. Good and bad. Good is that you already know everything about it, price, delivery time, dimensions, weight, reliability, maybe the owner already has others and wonít have to stock new spare parts. Bad is the Owner pays the most; there is no incentive for the supplier to discount the price.

Case (2) a specific brand and model that several suppliers will competitively bid. Now this is a good situation if it exists, you have all the advantages of knowing what youíre going to get, and thereís some incentive for the suppliers to discount the price. But the price is still based on one manufacturer who has no incentive to discount their minimum wholesaling price.

Cases (1) and (2) may not be an option if you are working on a government job that prohibits specifying a single manufacturer and excluding competitive manufacturers. And for private jobs, you may decide it is better to let the open market get a much better price for the Owner, and trust your good spec to ensure that the low bid product is good enough.

I think most engineers agree that "good enough" is good.

Finally, case (3), a generic description of everything you want but youíre letting the suppliers find the most competitive brand and model. Now this is really being a service to your customer. I suggest you start by finding a product that you know will do the job, maybe more than one product. Maybe review the manufacturerís literature and their suggested specs. Now start writing, what is it about this product that really does the job. Leave out the part about the special secret proprietary patented process of super-duper-bondo-dip galvanizing and just write "galvanized." Do you need that special keyed lock? No? Then donít mention it. For dimensions, weight and all those details that you must have some control over, use the numbers from the favorite product and allow +-10%, or whatever you can allow. I usually end my specs with "such and such brand and model, or approved equal." Approved means let the suppliers show us what they think is equal, and itís the Ownerís or engineerís option to approve it.

Now when the competitive suppliers see this open specification, they are going to do a service for you and the Owner. Because they know more about their specialty than you do. They know manufacturers that you donít. They want to win the bid and theyíll find a product that has everything you want, they can negotiate a lower wholesale price from the maufacturer, and the supplier also makes their best discount to win the bid. Your open spec saved the Owner $8,000. Hey, feel proud about that, youíre a good engineer. But it is also a benefit to you, the engineer, because now you know who really is the best manufacturer of what you actually needed. Maybe it was your favorite manufacturer after all, maybe it was company number 2, maybe it was a perfectly legitimate small company you never knew about. Now you know where to go first when you need a similar product on your next job.

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