Monday, August 15, 2005

Specifications: Some Preliminary Thoughts

No posts have been made for over a week. I have no explanation for that, except to say that I have been dealing with Project Specifications for upcoming work, and have been possessed with the effort. But that very effort leads me to the following thoughts on Specifications.

Why Agency-Owners do not comprehend, or choose to ignore, the impact that their Specs have on the prices they ultimately pay contractors or suppliers is beyond me. It is also beyond me as to how much this lack of comprehension surprises me over and over again.

When I worked for various Consulting Engineers, almost invariably there was concern by the CE that Specs would "scare the bid". We all wanted to avoid specs that were more restrictive than needed, that asked for more testing than was needed, or that asked for more documentation than was needed. Such a spec would probably result in more project cost than was desired! As CE's, we felt compelled to provide our customer with a spec that provided precisely what was wanted at the very lowest cost.

That doesn't seem to be a goal today. I don't know if Agency-Owners can tell if their CE's are providing them with these bid scaring specs, but these specs are being approved somewhere within their organization.

Why don't today's CE's worry about "scaring the bid"? Some do, but it seems to be more common to mazimize billable hours than minimize project costs. Maybe it's because Agency-Owners can be led to believe that a more restrictive and demanding spec is a better spec. Maybe, there are legal concerns. Whatever. The results are the same.

And, unfortunately, there is no really good way for the taxpayers who live in the districts of these Agency-Owners to correct the situation.

So how would you scare a bid? One way is to ignore some basic concepts, such as the difference between a "Material" spec versus a "Performance" spec. The Federal Railway Administration understands that difference. When the FRA published their Track Safety Standards, they were based on performance. If you could meet the performance requirements to allow train speeds of 80 mph with a built-up cardboard rail, then have at it! Of course, you never would be able to do such a thing, but that is exactly what the writers of the standards understood when the required level of performance was determined. Likewise, these same writers did not specify platinum rails when steel would do very nicely.

There are other examples to note, but these will have to wait for another day. For now, just know that I have recently looked at, among others, two Project Specifications. One requires extensive testing, reporting, and approval cycles for their specified material. The other requires a level of performance, but does not mandate unreasonable qualifications. Both Projects will get the EXACT same material. Guess which Project will get the better price?

And, unfortunately, only one set of taxpayers wins.


At 8:38 AM, August 17, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I could not agree more. Specs are also copy and paste by engineers. I see the same spec for a new project that was written 30 years ago. Example is "A" rails. We have not made an "A" rail in this country since 1988, yet specs still say to not use them. Up until recently WMATA still had a spec to x-ray field welds. Metro Valley Rail's specs are so tight that it is going to be immpossible to build it according to the spec. I know several contractors that threw out very high numbers because of the impossible tolerance on gage (-0. +1/16). This is on girder rail that in some cases is canted (not 40:1, but 30:1). On some curves only the high rail is canted and the low rail remains flat. These type of specs make it impossible to build. The girder rail is surrounded by rubber boot also, that allows the rail to deflect and also it will become "wavy" under the intense heat. The track will never remain within tolerance. If the QC guy inspects to the letter of the law, this project will never open to revenue service and the law suits will fly.


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