Improving Owner's Design & Construction Standards

You've seen them. You've been required to comply with them. You've been required to implement them. You may have written them.

As a designer, you've probably complained about them because:

  • They require a different approach than your norm;
  • They may be technically lacking;
  • They may be dated; or
  • They may severely limit creative design solutions.

Is there an advantage?
Owner's design and construction standards are developed with good intentions. Standards document real project experiences - both successes and failures. They become an integral part of the owner's corporate or institutional memory and represent the owner's best practices at the time they are written.

Ultimately, the standards provide a quality assurance tool for the owner to ensure design teams are meeting minimum expectations.

What's the problem, then?
One difficulty for design teams is the time required to review the owner's standards and to recognize if and how they may apply to the current project. Certainly not all standards will be applicable to each project - building types and design solutions will vary to respond to the owner's project requirements and the project site. Plus each set of standards is organized differently!

Another difficulty for design teams is recognizing when standards may be dated. Unless standards are maintained, they will become dated, quickly, and may become wrong as technology, science, and industry practices evolve. Dated standards require every design team to repeat the same research for every new project. Design teams must repeat the research to identify the dated portions of the standard. Furthermore, the owner must respond to the designer's questions about how to apply dated standards to the current project. The result? Wasted effort for both the designer and the owner.

Some examples from real projects...
I recently received a request for proposal from a Philadelphia area university that required compliance with the owner's design standards. The standards were last revised in 2010, so I expected them to be relatively current, although the standards were arranged by the Construction Specifications Institute's (CSI) MasterFormat 1995 - replaced in 2004 with a new numbering scheme. Documents following the older system are immediately considered suspect.

I scanned the document looking for clues for dated information. It didn't take long. In Division 5, I found a reference to ASTM A446 used to specify galvanized sheet steel. This standard was withdrawn in 1994 and replaced by ASTM A653. I also found H.H. Robertson as one of the preferred manufacturers for metal wall panels. Robertson became part of Centria in 1996, so Robertson products are no longer available.

There is no way to comply with the owner's standards. So I must be sure to include time in my proposal to convince the owner that the dated information cannot be enforced.

I am working on a New Jersey university project that is governed by owner's design standards. The architect was hired on the basis of a similar, completed project. The owner directed the architect to provide a contemporary design. However the design standards dictated a more traditional approach. We provided a detailed list of contradictions between the planned design and the owner's standards. Initially, we were instructed by the architect to ignore the owner's design standards for this new project because of the owner's desire for contemporary design. Now the owner is insisting on compliance with the standards.

Did the design team discuss the discrepancies with the owner? I have no way of knowing. Lack of understanding of the owner's project requirements from the beginning is requiring rework for the entire design team. Be careful making assumptions.

Effective use of design standards
Owners can communicate design and construction standards effectively in a form that remains current with the industry for a relatively long time.

If owners wish to encourage some freedom for the design team to respond with a thoughtful design solution, then owner's requirements should be stated without reference to specific design solutions. Owners can set specific aesthetic or branding requirements by identifying required design solutions to satisfy those particular concerns.

How are both of these possible?

Take a different approach for organizing the design and construction standards. Instead of organizing the standards using MasterFormat relying on a construction specifications approach, use CSI's UniFormat organized by systems and assemblies, instead. Consider relying on CSI's PPDFormat (preliminary project description) as a guide for helping to present the owner's project requirements. (See below for more information on PPDs.)

UniFormat will allow owners to document system requirements rather than product performance. For exterior walls for example, owners can set:

  • Overall structural, thermal, moisture, air, vapor, acoustic, and other performance requirements;
  • Maximum percentage of glazed openings;
  • Durability and ease of maintenance; and even
  • Life cycle requirements.

All of these requirements can be established without regard to the actual design solution. This will provide the optimum flexibility for the design team to meet the owner's requirements. If the owner does have a preference for specific systems or specific materials, these can be included as well. However, these specific preferences will require periodic updates to ensure the information remains current.

The advantage of using UniFormat and PPDFormat is that the data organization allows the owner to use the document as a quality assurance tool to verify the design teams' compliance at every stage of the project design by applying this test:

  • I required this.
  • You did that.
  • Does the result match or exceed what was expected?

Carefully written design and construction standards, or owner's project requirements, can be used to evaluate the resulting project design and design team's performance in producing the design. Both evaluations are important for corporate and institutional owners that are repeatedly hiring design teams as each new construction project is identified and approved for development. Owners want to work with teams that are able to meet expectations, consistently. Having a qualitative means by which to evaluate design team current performance will help ensure equal or better future performance.

Preliminary Project Descriptions (PPD)
So what is PPDFormat and how exactly might it help? PPDFormat describes how to organize and present preliminary project information so it is understandable by the entire project team: the owner, lender, designer, estimator, and contractor. PPDs can be used to solicit proposals from design and construction teams (especially for design-build project delivery methods) and to document project designs, especially during the schematic and design development phases.

The following is available to you and your firm with 1.0 LU/HSW AIA CES credit. To schedule your presentation call 609.628.2390 or write to me at dstutzman@conspectusinc.com. The presentation can be given electronically via WebEx to remote locations.

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