Getting Better Buildings

Henry Petroski, engineer and author, has a piece in today’s New York Times about declining quality in construction materials and workmanship. He places a lot of the blame on “the industries whose practices favor the use of inferior products and labor that drive modern construction: the developers, lenders, builders and Realtors who, to make quick money, have created a stock of domestic and commercial infrastructure that is a waste of resources and will not last. “ I don’t disagree, but based on my professional experience, and on that of many of my friends and colleagues, I think there’s room for more blame that creates a circular firing line.

First in line are owners who want what they want but are unwilling to pay for it. (I have many colleagues who blame Wal-mart and their ilk for this attitude but I’m not an economist and this isn’t about that). I’ve been involved in too many projects where, as the design progresses and is refined, the cost estimates go up but the budget doesn’t. Nor is the developing design reigned in. Rather, the owner assumes, or is assured, that in competitive bidding the cost will somehow come back down to the original, early estimate. Rarely does the architect push back, which introduces the second problem.

Architects are supposed to be the leader of the design team and the advocate for the client. Entering into the bidding phase of a project knowing that the design has exceeded the budget doesn’t help anyone and creates a hostile environment for everyone once the low bid is accepted and construction begins. Which brings us to villain number three: contractors.

Often, especially in publicly funded projects, I have to produce a three name specification, meaning that for every light fixture I have to specify three that I deem to be equal. If I don’t I’m in breach of my contract. Astonishingly, contractors are not required to supply the products that the design team has specified! The result is that contractors are often in a race to the bottom, submitting bids that are unrealistically low because they’ve made assumptions about what kind of substitutions they can make. They do it because they know that their competition is doing it and the low bid wins. Swap out 100 lights that cost $300 for a $100 model and you’ve just underbid your competition. Now, multiply that by hundreds of items in a building and you’re looking at a huge set of conflicts. You can imagine the screaming that results when, later in the project, the designer rejects the substitution.

“I think this is a decent alternative, and it’s what I can afford.” says the contractor.

“This is nothing like the fixture in the specifications. It won’t do the job and I won’t approve it.” replies the designer.

“Well, it’s what I bid.”

“Well then you didn’t bid on this building. What building did you bid on?”

The solution, as I see it, is stricter contracts with builders. I’d love to see the American Institute for Architects (AIA), the International Association of Lighting Designers (IALD), the International Interior Design Association (IIDA), American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) and others work together to draft model bidding instructions and contracts for owners that set clear limits on substitutions. If the contractor can’t substitute inferior materials we’ve made a HUGE difference in the quality of the building.

I’ve worked with plenty of owners, architects, and builders who aren’t as I’ve just described. However, they aren’t the strong majority. Everyone involved can do better. Owners can accept that sometimes you get what you pay for, and that the lowest bid isn’t necessarily the best bid. Architects can take a stronger stand with their clients to prevent issuing drawings for a $10 million building with an $8 million budget. Contractors can construct the building shown in the drawings, not a cheaper alternative. Contractors and unions have no reason to change, and owners don’t have a real organization that can play a role. It’s entirely possible, but I think that the design organizations will have to lead the way.

Substitutions vs Specifications

Earlier this week I had a disagreement with a contractor about my specifications and fixture schedule.  The client, who had never been involved in a construction project of this type, didn’t know which one of us to believe.  It went like this:  We are coming up on the end of construction and the contractor is slightly over budget.  In order to save money he wants to start to substitute less expensive products for those that have not yet been purchased which, in this case, includes the lighting fixtures and control system.  His problem is that my specification and fixture schedule are so clear and precise (also referred to as “tight”) that he is having a hard time finding acceptable alternates.  He told that owner that my tight specification is unfair because of this, and that I’ve essentially “given” the project to certain manufacturers “regardless of price.”  I explained that a tight specification protects the integrity of the design, and thus protects the owner, by guaranteeing that the expected design is the one that is installed.   Who is a client to believe?  Let’s go through this.

As a lighting designer I have one source of income – my fee.  I don’t get a royalty or commission from manufacturers that I specify*, I don’t sell fixtures to the project, and I don’t set pricing for fixtures.  As a result, my only incentive to specify one manufacturer over another is appropriateness for the project.  I talk to the owner about their needs and desires, budget, and timeline. I evaluate fixtures based on performance, options, accessories, quality, and price.  I run calculations to make sure that the appropriate amount of light is being delivered and that the lighting system’s power consumption is within code limits.  In some cases I’m contractually required to identify three equal fixtures for each type.  That’s a lot of work and I want to make sure that it isn’t lost or undermined, so I write a tight specification.

After all of that work, though, most projects don’t require the contractor to provide only those items that the designers have specified.  The rationale is that this gives contractors more flexibility in getting the best price, especially for public projects being paid for with tax dollars.  In practice, however, this is often not the case.  The contractor wasn’t present during the design process and doesn’t understand the criteria that went into selecting each fixture.  He (or she) is primarily concerned with price, not performance.  It’s common for the first round of substitutions offered by the contractor contain a large number of fixtures that are inappropriate for one reason or another.  If a substitute fixture will do the job I usually accept it, but I won’t accept a fixture just because it’s offered.  A tight specification sets the requirements for the fixtures and provides the basis for rejecting inappropriate substitutions.  Yes, this can constrain the contractor’s choice of substitutions but for a good reason.  There are huge variations in fixture performance, even when fixtures look the same.  I’ve had contractors (and architects) say that a downlight is a downlight is a downlight.  Take a look at the photometrics and it quickly becomes obvious that this just isn’t so.

From a designer’s perspective we protect the client by protecting the design, accepting substitutions that work but rejecting those that don’t.  A tight specification can limit the amount of back and forth with substitutions by setting strict criteria that substitutions must meet.  That’s part of the professional expertise we bring to the project.

*I admit I do sometimes get a nice box of chocolates during the holidays.