It is mandatory that external walls are waterproof: What do client design guidelines, specifications and requests for tender have in common?

Red boat - Venice by MorBCN, on FlickrSeriously I am not joking – this sentence came out of a client design guideline document. I am a little worried about the standard of their existing building given that they feel the need to write this out for their future architects to read. Surely for any building waterproof external walls is a pretty basic design expectation? The client shouldn’t have to ask for it. If the walls aren’t waterproof I’d say its a pretty big mistake, I’m pretty sure it’s negligent either on the part of the architect or the builder – so why write it down? It’s also pretty unlikely that it was deliberately designed that way, so putting it into a design guideline isn’t going to fix it. All it does is create work for someone to write it (the client organisation probably paid an architect to write this down) and more work for their next architect to read it. And whilst we all want more work,I think as architects and designers we would rather our clients were paying for something of value – for example our design skills – than this kind of bureaucratic process that wastes everyones time and in the end achieves nothing.

Originally when I started thinking about this post I was only thinking about client design guidelines, but then I realised that a similar problem exists with the specifications we write for builders, the briefs we or our clients write and request for tender or proposal documents written by our clients. We all spend a lot of time writing down things that are obvious, standard practice or a stautory requirement. How often have you read any one of the above documents that says the building has to comply with the BCA (Building Cde of Australia)? Doh – of course it does (assuming its in Australia!). What is much more important or relevant is specific details of how this building needs to comply – such as the levels of fire rating required. But that’s not defined. It’s left up to the project team to resolve – no problem, but they would have done that anyway without being told the building had to comply with the BCA.

All of these documents are often necessary and valuable documents for communication between parties in a construction project – but frequently seem to provide no value – just waste everybodies time.

In looking at client design guidelines what I like to see is actual requirements and details. For me, dealing mostly with interior design guidelines, I find that usually finishes, furniture and signage requirements are reasonably well defined, not surprising, as this is the look and feel as well as interchangeability of components – one of the main reasons for a large client organisation to have design guidelines in the first place. However, even with these items, often you start to get into the finer detail and things like materials or construction are not so well defined – is that Parchment white laminate table on 25 or 33mm thick board. And the thing is, if a client has gone to the trouble of having a design guideline more than likely they care about this level of detail, so then I have to ask what seems like a million questions.

It tends to get even more poorly defined when it comes to construction of fitout – partitions, doors, door hardware. Again, it seems misty definitions are typical. If you have a standard expectation for how partitions are constructed to achieve a certain level for acoustics – how about instead of referencing the Australian standard you just give me the details? That way you will save yourself getting a different acoustic engineer to give you advice on the same partition construction over and over again.

For some reason building services often seem to be a little better defined, but maybe this is because I’m not getting into the detail of it, and its a similar situation to the furniture. Perhaps some of my readers out there want to comment on this?

The problem seems to be that clients want to have design guidelines but they don’t want to take on any of the risk or liability for the design. They want to tell the consultant architect or designer what to do, but not to tell them too exactly, because then it somehow seems like the architect or designer has some kind of choice or responsibility. This is a ridiculous situation, wasting everyone’s time and money (and one I wonder which would stand up in court if tested anyway). If you as client have certain requirements or ways of doing things that have worked in the past – just tell your architects or designers – and if you do it the same way all the time, have someone write it down.

Moving to the other side though, we architects can be just as bad when it comes to specifications. I usually use Natspec (an Australian standard specification package) to put together my specifications. I want to point out that none of my comments are specific against Natspec but apply to the industry and the way we have come to write specifications generally. To me, specifications basically come into 4 parts – schedules/items of stuff that go into the building, installation methods, standards and submission requirements. So – the stuff that makes up the building, that’s pretty critical, if we don’t specify that we will have a problem. Now how to install it – is that our job or the builders job? And what’s the point of writing ‘install to manufacturers specifications’, that’s pretty obvious? Or even more stupidly why copy out the manufacturers specifications and standard details? As for standards – why do we need to reference them? Shouldn’t it be expected that glazing will comply with AS1288 as that’s the standard that is applicable? As for witness points and submissions, we frequently request loads of items that no one might ever look at. That is, until something goes wrong. And that is the point of most of the specification, it seems to be there for when something goes wrong and isn’t done properly – on many jobs I bet its not ever even read by anyone on the contractor team. It’s a shame we put so much time into something that’s almost just in case.

So what can we do to change all of this? Part of the problem is that our industry, so frequently all of the parties are separated by contracts which seem to actually prevent people from working together to sort things out and do things better, and everyone is trying to pass risk onwards down the chain. Outside of individual projects, when do clients, architects, engineers and contractors actually talk to each other about how to improve the way we work and construction industry productivity? Not so much in terms of making money – but in terms of all of us working smarter. Not very often.

One of the few times I see consultants, clients and contractors together is in the BIM space – although there is still not enough participation across all levels and sectors of the industry – and the lack of collaboration across the industry is has been one of the hinderances to BIM uptake to date. By coincidence, at the same time as I was thinking and writing on this topic, I received an invitation to be part of one of the Collaborate ANZ working groups on Level of Detail – now while Level of Detail might be a BIM issue (read a good explanation at Practical BIM) – in the end, it comes down to the same things I’ve been talking about in this post – making sure that the right information is shared across the industry and across projects with the people who need it at the time they need it. Whilst Collaborate ANZ is BIM focussed, most of the people involved are passionate about improving collaboration and communication across the industry as a whole. If we can get people talking about collaboration on BIM, and if BIM becomes a standard tool across the industry and starts to cover things like client guidelines and specifications – hopefully this will start to solve some of the problems across the industry. If my client could give me a full BIM package – template and families – maybe I wouldn’t have to read through all the irrelevant wordy guidelines and maybe my BIM model could go to the contractor with all the information they needed, but nothing extraneous included – and that could be our documentation. No specifications, no design guidelines. (It still doesn’t solve the problem of requests for tender though does it?)

However maybe I am being too optimistic here? What do you think – how can we streamline the way we work and reduce unnecessary documentation? What are the strangest design guidelines or specification requirements you have seen? Or should things stay as they are – are these kinds of documents generating work for architects and designers?

Image Credits:
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by MorBCN

8 Responses to It is mandatory that external walls are waterproof: What do client design guidelines, specifications and requests for tender have in common?

  1. David Savage - UK

    Generally speaking external walls are not waterproof, but they may be weatherproof. Brickwork has an absorbancy and mortar joints even more so. Rainscreen is not waterproof but allows water to drain down the back. If somebody asks for waterproof walls that would suggest to me some form of tanking as the area maybe subject to flooding or the walls are located below the water table (i.e. basements).
    At one time architects were by definition master builders (i.e. they knew how to put things together). There are many architects now who are simply ‘concept’ architects with no knowledge of how to build the thing they have drawn or ‘conceptualised’. Sidney Opera House is a prime example where the structural engineers were left with the unenviable task of ‘making it work’.
    ‘The person who writes the specification controls the project’ – too often this is sub-contracted out such that neither the builder or the project architect knows exactly what it is they have specified. It is a fact of life that designers will inevitably get sued over bad specification and in many instances quite rightly so. The specification sets the standard and the aspirations of how the designer wants to have his design realised.
    BIM may be a good collaborative tool (once the PI insurers get their act together) but the emphasis should be on ‘tool’. A BIM model is only as good as the information that goes into it and if we don’t get the first principles right (i.e. buildability, specification, detailing) then it offers little benefit.

    • CeilidhHiggins

      David – good point about the difference between ‘waterproof’ and ‘weatherproof’. It is a similar issue to ‘soundproofing’ – I am frequently having to advise clients that the request to make all the rooms ‘soundproof’ would be highly unusual and very expensive – when what they really want is a reduction of the current sound transmission problems they have.

      In my experience the person writing the specification doesn’t really seem to have much control over the project at all – often the practice of using an outside specification writer (outside the project or the organisation) reduces the specification down to really non-specific standards and legal issues. As opposed to anything related to the design which more and more seems to appear on the drawings.

      You are absolutely right about BIM as a tool. If junk goes into the model, you will have junk at the end. I know I am being optimistic that BIM will fix things in our industry – but the way I see it is that BIM is such a big game changer its a good time to be thinking about what else needs to change.

  2. David Mitchell

    Strangest design guidelines or specification requirements – hmmm Id have to say the requirement in the Western pipeline bid documents that stated a completion time of “before the water runs out”. the region was in a dire drought now its in flood!

  3. Great point well made. I believe you’re right, BIM although a hot issue at the moment is inevitable therefore shall be standard practice (eventually). The implementation and resolution of BIM in the current market highlights the silo approach we all apply to resolving challenges, even in our BIM efforts. ‘collaborate’, bridging the divide between silo’s, will afford us the opportunities to break down other barriers in industry too.

    • ceilidhhiggins

      Exactly – right now is a chance to actually change things. With BIM and other technologies changing the way we work quite significantly, why should anything in our industry be done just because “that’s the way we always do things”? Whilst other comments have noted that BIM is a tool, it is also a process and a key one within the design and construction industry moving into the future.

  4. How is one supposed to be specific enough to meet all the BIM expectations, yet allow for a D & C process to follow, and shift the risk onto the manufacturer/installer ?

    • ceilidhhiggins

      The BIM deliverables and expectations need to match up to the project procurement options. I’m not entirely sure exactly which expectations/point of view you are coming from – but in my view the party that actually is responsible for information should be the one responsible for it in the BIM. Or example in a traditional design – tender – build methodology the architect should not necessarily be producing shop details from the BIM, unless they have identified, agreed to and are being paid for this additional service.

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