The Million Dollar Pen Stroke (feat. David Stutzman)


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SHOW NOTES


We wanted to start up 2021 with something we can all get a little better doing. Let’s treat it like a resolution. David Stutzman from Conspectus to show us how to use specifications like a tool for success rather than a baseball to beat each other over the head with. For our subcontractors and general contractors out there, David brings a view on how to use specifications without drowning in a sea of pen strikes. For specification writers, David talks about how to help out the people that have to follow the specifications. For architects and owners, he brings how to cut cost, add value, and simplify life for everyone involved in the project.


If you have anything we missed, feel free to text us! - 478-221-7009

RELATED LINKS


David’s LinkedIn

Conspectus

“Architects’ Specifications - How to Write Them” by Godwin Goldsmith


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TRANSCRIPTION


Tyler: (10:22)

Thanks for joining us today, man. Can you tell us who you are and what you do?


David:

Well, thanks for having me, both Tyler and Eddie, I'm glad to be here. So I'm Dave Stutzman, I'm a with Conspectus Inc. independent construction specifiers, working with architects, owners, builders all over the country and around the world. So, we're producing all of the written documents that go with the construction drawings. Usually what happens when folks think of construction... they're thinking of drawings only. They don't realize there's a whole 'nother aspect of it and probably equally as important as the drawings and that's where we're responsible. So, working on projects that are all kinds of types.


Eddie:

So you guys are responsible for like the 2000 page book that I'm going to be held to at the end of the project. Right?


David:

Absolutely. Trying to get away from that 2000 page book and yes, we have seen them. Absolutely. And it's actually a shame that it has to get to that kind of a level because who has time to read it? Who can enforce it? Who's going to remember. I don't know. It's just way too much information.


Eddie:

That's kind of, it's like a law, right? You got to pass it to know what's in it.


David:

Sometimes, you know, it's easy, I'll tell you. It's easy when you're writing specifications because you start with a master document, which is written, say to be able to write projects, say 90% of what you need for 90% of your projects. So if you have that kind of a massive document that you start with, the easy thing to do is if you don't know, leave it in! I might need it. It might be helpful. Right? The real thing you should be looking at is if I don't know, I should be taking it out. Absolutely. Let's get this thing paired down to what actually represents the project.


Tyler:

Yeah. I think so often we see specs and they have nothing to do with the project that we're working on. You could tell that it's just left in there just a residual from a previous time.


Eddie:

Or they disagree with what's on the drawings. Yeah, that too.


David:

It happens. We, we ended up being asked by one of our clients to review a set of documents that they produced. It was obvious that what they did is they copied from another project. The other project didn't represent what was on the drawings. You're right. The drawings were showing for instance composite windows, but the specifications were for aluminum. So, as a contractor, what do you do? What do you bid? Pick one, pick the least expensive. And then when they changed their mind, say, you know, that'll be an extra.


Eddie:

That is what happens, right? I mean, a lot of times we, we have to wade through how we're going to bid a project. We have to wade through how we're going to build a project. We don't expect all of the questions to be answered, but when there's conflicting information, there's some gamesmanship that can get in there.


David:

Absolutely. Because you have what, two weeks to bid a job three weeks maybe, and the architect has had a year to design this thing and produce the documents and supposedly to get them right. You know, they'll say, "Hey, Mr. Contractor, it was up to you to ask the question." But if you asked the question and you're in a competitive area, are you going to ask the question and give your competition the same advantage that you might be able to take yourself at? I don't know. Maybe you will. Maybe you won't.


Eddie:

Yeah. It doesn't exactly lead to fair bidding.


David:

Right? Because then how do you ever compare? Right? You included one thing, you look at your number and you look at the other contractors number. You don't know if they're lined up. So


Eddie:

What can we learn from somebody who has been in spec writing about the progression of spec writing? Is this a progressive industry as a whole, or is this an industry that's remained stagnant for a time?


David:

I love the question and it reminds me because I have this one architect that wrote a book it's Architect Specifications: How to Write Them. The book was written in the 1940s. And he opens the book, quoting a line from a 1908 symposium. And it's talking about specifications and how the goal really is to be able to write specifications and make them right. But some people are just careless, abandoned, being able to, you know, whatever they think that they might know trying to produce these things. And I'm looking at this quote and I'm saying it hasn't changed. You know, we're a hundred years later, it hasn't changed, which is actually pretty sad. You know? So where we are trying to take it on ourselves, you mentioned the 2,000 page book. And if I could, I would get it down to 50. It might be something that everybody would actually read.


Eddie:

Yeah. Well, how would you go about that?


David:

Look at the words that they're using their spec systems on the market today that I look at it and say, you're using 25 30 words to write a requirement. I can say it in three. I'll tell you the classic example. You have children "clean your room", three words. How do you get more clear? The intent is absolutely understandable and you're laughing. So, you know, the execution is what questionable. Maybe, especially if it's a teenager, but you know...


Tyler:

Or my two year old who just throws things around even more after we put them back in the box. So clean your room? Clean the house is more like it!


Eddie:

It's amazing how much similarity there probably is between the combative nature of "clean your room" and the construction industry; the aftermath, the under-performance and everything. Yeah. I love these examples.


David:

So here's maybe one of the best examples in a good friend best friend, uses this all the time to explain a specification. Toll house cookie recipe, what's it fit on a three by five index card. Yeah. They print it on the back of the chocolate chip bag, right? Yeah. That's a specification, right? It lists all the ingredients. It tells you how to bake the cookie. And it's done on a three by five card.


Eddie:

So we're driving towards simplicity with our specifications and we're trying to simplify our words. And we're also being specific to our project. This doesn't seem like it should be far off from us, but specifications being specific. I don't know if there's any similarity in wording for any good reason, but, uh, we're supposed to be specifying the project at hand. So we get all of that done. But as we're doing that, how does, how do these play in, like, what's your relationship normally with a design team? What kind of headwinds do you run into trying to get that sort of thing done?


David:

We're normally engaged on a project by the design team, by the architect. And depending upon who the architect and what the project, we may not come into the project until very late in the game when they're trying to produce construction documents. And at that point, there's really no opportunity to discuss what the project is. What materials are selected. "Did you choose the right one?" Is there a better choice? You know, it's more like here's the choices, just document what's here that can work to some degree, but it doesn't give the owner necessarily the best result because they're not aware of the potential choices. They're not aware of things that might help them actually improve. Building performance might actually reduce overall costs or might actually reduce operating costs, which is far more important. Long-term so what we would really much rather do is let's get involved early, let's help guide or help inform some of those decisions.



So they're made in, in a good context and hopefully bring the owner along too, so that he can actually contribute to the conversation because specifications often happen in a black box, you know? So, so think about a construction site. So as the owner coming out to this construction site, as the construction's moving along, but he can't see anything. Why? Contractor put a cloak over the construction site two weeks go by months, goes by finally the contractors pulls the thing back off and said, there you have a week to look, puts a cloak back over it and says, "Come back again next month." I mean, this is sort of how specs happen, which rather than trying to share the information as it goes long, it's, it's hidden from the owner. It's hidden from the contractors and you as contractors, I would love to have you there with me, let's tap the, all the experience you have. I, you know how these things go together, you know, what works, what doesn't, and that's not always evident from the design team because they're not actually out in the field as much as you are.


Tyler:

You know, it's really interesting. You keep saying, uh, get back with the owner. If I could just get back to the beginning of the process, then I can help out even more. And I, that is something that we say constantly is, you know, if we could only get closer to the owner, we can affect a lot of these changes and, and help them out just exponentially. Here's speaking our language here because, you know, we were constantly saying that around the office,


David

That's what it really comes down to is not we're all in this business to benefit the owner. If they didn't have a business need, we would be out of business. Right? Cause who would need a contractor if they are never going to build anything


Eddie:

When we're trying to do that. I mean, and that's probably something a lot people would echo is that I know a thing or two about whatever I do. And I would love to tell somebody about that. So I didn't have to deal with kind of the ills and ails that come out of this, not going well. But it would be very difficult for every single person to get to the front of the class. Right? One thing though, I mean, with spec writing, you guys are there at the very beginning of the process in many ways, because you are a part of the design with the architect. And so this isn't a far step to push spec writing up maybe one tier in the process and make that a little more transparent. It feels like a very natural fit to have an owner, not have that cloak over it and be able to actually know what's being specified so they know what they're going to get.


David:

Well, you would like to think that it works that way. We're much in the same boat that you are when it comes with, comes to access to the owner because we're engaged by the design team. We're rarely invited to an owner meeting or to a contractor meeting. So it, we really don't have much of an opportunity to contribute except back through the designer that presents problems in itself because you really don't get a good exchange of information, exchange of ideas, and how to actually produce something that's better in the long term,


Eddie:

In a state or design, bid build type of delivery. Um, it would feel like that would be kind of the natural order of things. Does that change at all? When you get into say a different manner of delivery, like design build?


David:

Design build... I would love to be almost all of our projects in design build, mainly because the contractor has a direct link to the owner. I think it would put everybody on his team. One step closer to the owner. I think there's a difference also in the specifications that we would produce. You're not there as much to protect your own team because you're all one. So really what you're doing is producing enough for that builder to go out and buy a subcontract because they already have established relationships. They're not going to go out and buy from, uh, someone that isn't a trusted partner at that point. So they would already know what to expect. So let's just give them enough information to buy the subcontract, buy the labor and away we go.


Tyler:

I'm curious when you're, when you're writing your specs, how much of that writing is influenced by conversations you've had with specific trades? Is this, is this stuff that's passed down from generation to generation of spec writers? How, how, how much is this changing? Like for us, we're in the steel market, you know, how much do you communicate with your fabricator or with your steel about the specs that you're writing?


David:

Probably zero. Because I say we are pretty well isolated from the contractors and the owners other than through our own personal relationships that we try to build through industry associations. We're probably closer to manufacturers than most of the design team is. The manufacturers literally have all of the information that we need about their products. So we're talking to them pretty regularly. We stay pretty well up to date with the products that we're using regularly. And we've got, I'll say we've got them trained to help keep us informed of what's happening in the industry and where the changes are. So that brings us to a better spot than most of the design team when it comes to the actual products themselves. But I would love to learn from you!


David:

Everything I write affects what you do exactly. And everything that you have in your head could influence what I write, potentially making things easier, easier for you, better for the owner and yet producing the same quality result.


Tyler:

You know, it's, it's really funny that it's a stroke of the pen for you could potentially cost and owner hundreds of thousands of dollars. And I've seen this. And when we were talking before, um, I was talking about just a steel cleaning spec that we had on one of our jobs. It was a while ago and they were calling for an SSPC SP 10, which is heavily cleaned, heavily clean steel. They didn't need it though. They just needed an SP 2, which is like a wire brush. Right? And so this SP 10 spec got passed down. It was an accidental copy and paste. And instead of sending an RFI or calling the, you know, calling the design team, our fabricator just kind of went, "eh, well, you know, it is what it is." Like, it is what it is. How much is this going to cost?


Oh my gosh, that would have been a, that would've been a quarter of a million dollar cleaning bill to do all of that sandblasting and our shot blasting in this case. And so, like I said, it's, it's a stroke of the pen for you. And then, you know, you're costing the owner a ton of money. So, I mean, this is, it seems like it's a very exact science for you not to be able to, not to be brought into the room, to communicate with the, with the producers of the building, you know, and I'm speaking from a in, because that's mainly


David:

What we do, but I'm sure this goes for multiple facets of the industry. Right. But that, that thing can happen. Like you're saying it's, SSPC 2 or 10. It's one number, right? Yeah. That makes a huge difference. But in a case like that, I would hope to be there to say, "Why in the world do you need 10?" You know, it's not a corrosive atmosphere. You're just going to put a standard shop primer on it. It's completely unnecessary. Now, if it was on the Petrochem plant where it was highly corrosive and we needed that SSPC 10 to be able to stop the corrosion. Cause we're using a high performance paint system fine because they need that for the ultimate performance. Right. But these kinds of questions, don't always get a chance to be asked, you know, if you're not in the same room or if you're not given the access,


Eddie:

How do you think that spec writing could progress given that, you know, we're looking back at, I mean, not even 2008, but 1908. Um, we're, we're not looking 12 years back on 112 years back, um, 13 now, right? Yeah. And so how, how does this progress from here? How do we start moving forward? I mean, is it, is there a manner in which we could write specs that would allow for us to kind of, we're constantly saying unsilo things, something we're just incessantly coming back to, you know, get everybody kind of to where they can contribute - feedback loop - Yeah. Everywhere they can contribute so that everybody can, um, hopefully make the specifications intelligent yet dynamic as they need to be for our projects and for construction needs.


David:

So the easy answer is because we've tried to do something about it. So if I gave you an opportunity to be able to participate in the specifications, just by saying, Hey, Tyler and Eddie, you know, we've got this project, let me invite you to this project. And you can review the spec as I'm writing it. Would you take the opportunity?


Tyler & Eddie:

Yeah. Yeah. Certainly for sure.


David:

So that, that's what we've been able to accomplish. You know, we've, we've taken the specs, we've taken them to the cloud, we've integrated a system so that we can invite the entire team, the owners, the designers, contractors, suppliers, doesn't matter. It's available to everybody so that you can see exactly what's happening. So you could see SSPC 2 or 10 and comment say, "Why are you doing this?" Or "Why are you designing with this particular kind of a connection for this deal?" This is ridiculous. I can save you a ton of money and it's going to be just as effective. Right.


Eddie:

Do you get people that kind of diminish the spec? In other words, they don't, they don't put, put much stock in it. It's a document that lives back there. It's a bunch of words. Yeah. We got it. We might have to fall back to it, but I'm not going to invest that time. Like, do you get that other attitude of not, "Yeah. I'll raise my hand for that task."


David:

Absolutely. Because there was a study done some time ago. And actually I, I, uh, was helping the author of the study trying to develop, uh, some of the questions that went out as a survey about the value of specifications. And that was actually one of the things that it was determined that the amount of time and money that was spent on specifications was minuscule compared to the rest of compared to drawings. So if you think about, uh, the industry was reporting less than 2% of the design fee is spent on specifications, this design team, the architects have two deliverables; drawings and specifications. So specifications are getting 2% of their design fee. What kind of quality are you getting out of that? I mean, there's just not enough time being spent.


Eddie:

Yeah. How do you, how do you capitalize investment at that point? Yeah. In process.


David:

So you'll look at it from that aspect and say, then you'll look at the specifications that you're handed and say, yeah. Does that explain it?


Eddie:

Well, if you haven't spent the money to get into the weeds of that process, how, you know, how you seen this bite people over the years? I mean, I know you got to have some some battle scars and some was stories out there. So, what's, what's a good one that comes to mind.


David:

One of the best, I guess, is that, and it's not just specifications. I tell you, it was for a major university, the, the drawings, the specs had all gone through a checking process. And I know that they had actually paid for this checking process. The owner paid for it. We never saw any comments on the specifications. Now, I write great specs. Don't get me wrong, but they're not perfect. Right. But I didn't see one comment.


So they send the drawings, the drawings, and specs out. They're under construction. They're not out of the ground. It's a, it's a new, um, research building for a university. I received an RFI from the architect. It was number 800. The contractor is not out of the ground. Yeah. Yikes is right. So let's, let's do some math. I was talking Hue McCumber, you might know him from touch plan. And he was telling me that, uh, DPR had been involved in a study looking at the cost of RFI. And he's telling me the administrative burden, just administrative 3,500 bucks a piece now 800 $3,500. Okay. So $3 million and administrative burden on this project. Holy moly. And they're not out of the ground. Unreal, good grief. And so who pays the owner's paying for, right, right. Yeah. This is not free. That was, um,


Tyler:

[inaudible], I've been knew who we had on, uh, early on in the show, you know, he did some research for the university of Melbourne and his calculations were saying about 1% of a jobs. Total cost is RFI. You know? I mean, so if you're 200 million, there you go. You do some quick math, Holy smokes. We spent a lot of money on RFI. Yeah. There's a ton of RFI that gets thrown out there too. And that's a great point as well, is that, you know, if you get your specs wrong, if you don't take the time to iron things out, then you're losing money, hand over fist, anytime somebody flinches and sends a piece of paper your way, or, you know, an email your way. Yeah.


David:

And the other, the other thing that, uh, we see happen is we go through the project and there's a problem in the field, whatever. It might be. One of the first people that gets the call is me. What do we have in the spec? That's going to help me here. It's like, wait a minute. Yeah. I didn't even know this was a problem. Nobody had talked to me. It, you know, and, um, you know, so they're looking for the spec to bail them out in many cases. And that's when they're really starting to look to see, is there something there at that point it's really too late. You know, if you're trying to use a document that you haven't even looked at or barely looked at and expect it to bail you out of a problem, it's not going to help very much.


Tyler:

That was kind of the joke I was going to make. While you were talking about who actually reads these things, Mike, they read them when the lawyers come out, that's it?


David:

Yeah. And who wants to be there?


Tyler:

Right. This is a stick we use to beat each other with basically. And, um, that's, that's my interpretation of specs and a lot of cases. And I know, I know there for a reason, but man, um, so often we use them to beat each other with, but if we could use them to, to talk to each other, I mean, that fixes a lot of problems. Right. That feedback loop on siloing information, all the stuff we always come back to every time. And it's kind of becoming an eye roll at at this point where you're like, yeah, okay, well, we need to just start talking to each other, you know?


David:

And that's the whole point. That's why I'm saying, I would love to invite you to review the spec as I'm writing. Let's get it right the first time. Yeah.


Tyler:

So what do you suggest for the GCs? For the architects and the engineers that are out there listening? Like what would you suggest they do to get their spec writing. Right? Nailed what can they do to really line the pins up so they can knock the project down in a good way?



David:

When they're sitting in the owner, architect, contractor meeting, have them ask the architect, who is the person responsible for your specifications? Oh, and why aren't they here? Because again, everything I write is affecting the contractor. It's affecting the owner and we should be, we should be part of the discussion if nothing else, just to document the decisions that are being made.


Eddie:

So that sounds dangerously close to megaphone question, but I want to go ahead and enter that in there. Like if we gave you the megaphone that the whole construction industry could hear in 60 seconds to speak in to it, what would you tell them?


David:

Transparency transforms. That's what we're trying to accomplish. Bring the specs out of the black box. So think about it. Transparency, transformed behaviors, because it'll improve cooperation, collaboration, it'll improve the data because it's going to have improved reliability and it's going to transform the outcomes because now you have decisions being made with information, reliable information, and a way for the owner to give his informed consent. We're trying to eliminate all the value engineering. I think we have a way to do it. You mentioned it, Tyler. All we have to do is talk to each other instead of using a contract to beat each other up. I like the sounds of that.