How to Suggest Specification Changes

A set of construction documents acts as the literal blueprint for a project, offering the details for how to construct a job. Those documents can be created through a team approach, with the owner, GC and subs trading ideas and knowledge to build the best building they can in the most efficient way possible. Or the plans can be handed down from an engineer’s office with little input from the construction world. Each project is different, and each owner’s motivation for building is different.

As a concrete contractor and expert in your industry, you might identify systems or products that could contribute to a better job, whether by speeding up the construction schedule, producing a better product, contributing to a safer jobsite, or saving someone money. Sometimes getting people to listen to your suggestions, especially after a set of plans has gone out for bid, is a challenge. Contractors agree that most engineers and specifiers are receptive to these suggestions and will at least consider changes even if they don’t accept them. But your success in getting changes made depends a lot on your approach and relationships with the parties involved. The contractors in this article share some of their experiences and advice on successful specification changes.

Identify the issues

As an expert in concrete construction, you are probably more knowledgeable about the current trends in the concrete industry than anyone else in the building process. Technology in construction is moving faster than standards. Because of that, you have the expertise to tell a client when you can do something differently, or better.

Aaron Long is president with Procon, Inc., Rocky Mount, Va., a company that specializes in commercial and industrial concrete construction. Part of his company’s pre-construction process is to review the job plans for any non-buildable specifications and get them corrected before construction begins. Some examples of non-buildable specifications he sees include FL (floor levelness) tolerances on slab on metal deck projects, a blanket “no cracking” clause that might read “all concrete on this project should be free of cracks,” and incompatibility with Division 3 and Division 9 specifications.

“Any time you see a non-buildable spec, you should bring it up. And the time to do that is before the job begins, as early as possible,” Long says.

Joe Neuber concurs. He is the president of Neuber Concrete, Kimberton, Pa., a concrete contractor specializing in high performance and superflat slabs on grade. “You need to be proactive. I’ve heard contractors say, ‘I can’t get the spec changed.’ But if that’s the way they bid it without any comments about an issue, it’s going to be more difficult to get it changed afterwards,” he says.

Neuber takes special care in looking for certain details of a project that can affect building efficiency and the owner’s intended use. Over-engineering issues, for example, might include a project where #6 rebar is specified when #4 rebar would be sufficient. Ensuring the end-use of a slab meets the design specification is another issue. “You need to make sure the function and floor design match,” Neuber says. “There are two parts to each design. One is loading requirements — whether the slab has a heavy industrial load or pedestrian traffic. But if it’s a gymnasium, an ice rink or a TV studio, even though it might have a light loading requirement, the floor needs flatness requirements. So I look for those details that have nothing to do with structural or loading requirements but are part of the design.”

Pete Reed is a senior estimator with Wm. Winkler Co., Spokane, Wash., an infrastructure, building and specialty flatwork contractor. He looks for generic specifications that might have been cut and pasted into plans, which often result in material and/or performance specifications that don’t fit a project. Furthermore, he tries to identify ways to improve a project. “It’s not just about saving money or schedule savings, it might also be related to life-cycle or maintenance issues for the owner,” Reed says. “When you can suggest a change that offers a performance advantage, clients are really interested in talking about it.”

Reed says life-cycle and maintenance issues are common reasons why he suggests specification changes on concrete paving jobs, an area where he sees a lot of outdated specifications. One example is joint design; his company can pave wider widths and decrease joint spacing, which benefits the owner because it decreases potential for joint degradation.

Another issue is government specifications on concrete paving jobs. “Most are written for slipform specifications with sideform options. However, the sideform specs often require weight and horsepower equipment that is not conducive to new placement technologies,” Reed explains.

At the recent three-phase Spokane International Airport project, Reed and his team pushed for specification changes on an active apron/flightline where the design was not conducive to slipform placement. They were able to change that specification to allow placement with a Multiquip SuperScreed. “By addressing the logistics and owner requirements while also considering the cost impacts, we were able to offer options that benefited both the owner and our cost impacts. We essentially provided superior scheduling and still met the ultimate performance requirements of the project. All of the performance criteria, including strengths, core density and profilograph, exceeded the specifications,” Reed says.

The right delivery

Broaching these specification suggestions with the owner, GC or engineer is where contractors need to spend time crafting an approach. The onus is on the concrete contractor to convince the appropriate party that a specification change would somehow benefit the project — don’t expect a specification change if you only promote how the change would help you. To add clarity to your argument and make a change easy for engineers to approve, include supporting documentation from the American Concrete Institute (ACI), American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM International), American Society of Concrete Contractors (ASCC) or other industry resources.

Neuber says the best thing a contractor can do is get educated on the technical aspects of concrete and get involved with the industry through associations and industry groups as a way to gain the necessary knowledge. He adds that until a contractor has the knowledge to go “toe to toe” with an engineer, he will need help.

Over the years Neuber has built a reputation as a consultant and expert in the concrete industry — he is the chair of ACI Committee 302 - Guide for Concrete Floor and Slab Construction, a voting member of ACI Committee 360 - Design of Slabs-on-Ground and a Fellow of ACI. But it wasn’t always that way. Neuber started out like any other contractor looking for better ways to build with concrete but challenged to find an engineer willing to take his ideas and suggestions seriously. “The best thing we ever did, especially on bigger jobs, was hire a consultant who had clout and name recognition in the industry. We paid them a fee to read the spec, we would share with them our concerns, and they would write a letter or make a phone call to the engineer. It carries a tremendous amount of weight, more so than the concrete contractor himself,” he says.

“The problem is in our industry there is this stigma that if a contractor suggests an alternate way to do something, someone thinks we are just trying to make it easier or cheaper for us,” Neuber continues.

Neuber’s company is currently working on an industrial slab at a food processing facility in New Jersey where one of the specifications was originally written for loose #4 rebar placed 18 inches on center and tied on the ground. His company got that specification changed to structural reinforcing mats that are pre-tied and pre-fabricated which they can set as they pour and screed over with a laser-guided screed. “When we bid the job, we supplied that change as a value engineering suggestion to the GC. We were awarded the job based on the base bid, then met with the owner, owner’s engineer, architect and other parties in a pre-construction meeting. We proposed our value engineering suggestion and they accepted it after we explained how it would result in a better end project because it would be easier to get the reinforcement where it needs to be and that it would speed up construction because it’s a less labor intensive reinforcing process,” he explains.

Whether you are trying to convince your GC, the owner or the engineer of a change, “you need to talk directly to your audience and understand who you are trying to sell an idea to,” explains Long. “We tailor our suggestions to what audience we are talking to.”

Long uses the example of suggesting a specification change for steel fiber reinforcement instead of welded wire or rebar. In certain situations this specification change carries a host of benefits — it’s faster and requires less labor costs because the contractor doesn’t have to install reinforcement; it’s safer because it eliminates trip-and-fall issues that can occur with welded wire and rebar; it doesn’t require jobsite storage of reinforcing materials; with steel fibers the reinforcement is evenly distributed throughout the slab; and depending on slab thickness, there could be material cost savings associated with using the steel fiber reinforcement.

If Long is talking to an owner about switching to steel fibers, he will emphasize the better end product, because that’s what an owner wants. If he needs to convince a GC of the change, he will emphasize the faster construction, less jobsite storage requirements and a safer jobsite.

For Long, working with an engineer might take a little more finesse. “There’s an old saying, ‘It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.’ That holds true for engineers. Instead of telling them they were wrong about something, we tell them this is a better way or a new way to do it so they think about it in a new light,” he says. “We try to build relationships with designers by calling them up and running an idea by them before we send an RFI to give him a chance to think about it. If you don’t have the engineer in your corner, it can be hard to get changes made because it makes him look like he didn’t do his job.”

Reed adds another angle to a convincing argument can come from past experience with a similar specification change. “If we can connect an engineer with one of our past clients where the proposed change was used successfully on a project, he or she will be more inclined to accept that change,” he explains.

Build relationships with owners and designers

Your willingness to share your expertise in construction and knowledge about the latest building trends and products can help differentiate your company from your competition. It will also build trust with your customers.

Long emphasizes the importance of positioning yourself as a concrete expert to your clients, and educating them on the new trends and practices in concrete construction before a project. His company and its suppliers run topic-specific “lunch and learns” for engineers and routinely set up appointments with engineers and designers to talk about new trends and topics without a specific project in mind.

At T.B. Penick & Sons, Inc., San Diego, Calif., Chris Klemaske is a project development specialist for the Innovative Concrete Systems division, which specializes in decorative concrete, architectural surface applications and pervious concrete. Klemaske is most often involved with a project one to two years before it goes out to bid, working with the architect and owner on design intent and consulting on construction. The nature of these relationships allows her to be proactive with specifications.

Over the years, the engineering and design team at T.B. Penick compiled a library of specifications for the various systems they offer. Klemaske shares these specifications with her clients. “That architect or engineer owns that spec. It’s something we give them that is a place for them to start, at least on design. Instead of cutting and pasting from somewhere else and possibly including information that is out of date or doesn’t work, they have something that has been tested and works,” she explains.

This specifications library helps T.B. Penick build relationships with its customers and positions the company as an industry expert. “People welcome our specs. They don’t have to worry about writing them. They don’t have to guess on psi or admixtures,” Klemaske adds.

Another aspect of T.B. Penick’s specifications is a qualification clause. “Owners and architects are tired of deciding on design intent, having a project go out for bid, and getting contractors who have never seeded aggregate or stained concrete,” she explains.

Klemaske describes how the qualification clause has been especially helpful on pervious concrete jobs: “We were seeing many pervious concrete failures because the specs would call for a ‘certified person,’ not someone who has ever installed pervious concrete, or installed it correctly, just someone who took a class. Our pervious concrete specification has a qualification attached — the contractor has to have installed at least 50,000 square feet of pervious concrete on at least six successful projects and must submit names and contact information of clients with the bid.”

Reed agrees that offering education and better solutions helps build trust with clients. “My belief is our willingness to suggest changes when they are beneficial to the overall project is what makes us successful. I see it as a business development tool and it helps us build relationships. It’s one of the best tools we have for marketing,” he says.

When you identify a better way of building and make those suggestions, you position yourself as a concrete expert. Don’t be afraid to make suggestions. Get educated, get involved in the industry, and whether you’re at a level where you can talk concrete with engineers directly or do so through a consultant, let your voice be heard.

Sidebar:

The 'Approved Equal' Clause

Engineers and sepcifiers include preferred products in specifications, like a recommended densifier or sealer, color system, or vapor barrier. Along with these recommended products you will often see “or approved equivalent.” That gives the contractor the option to use an alternative but equal product with the engineer’s approval.

There are a few reasons why a contractor might recommend an equivalent:

  • Familiarity. The contractor had a positive experience with a different but similar product.
  • Failure experience. The contractor had a known failure with the specified product.
  • Cost. The specified product cost is higher than other equals on the market.
  • Availability. A specified product may not be available locally, and freight costs to get it on site might make the specified product unnecessarily costly.

In order to get an approved equal approved, you need to ensure the product you are recommending is truly an equivalent. Use a product MSDS (material data and safety sheet) to match up ratings, classifications, ASTM standards, etc., or ask your construction materials supplier to create a list of the equivalents it carries. If you submit an alternative that doesn’t line up with the product in the specification, don’t expect to get it approved.

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