Let’s Fix Construction


I was recently asked to participate in a new initiative called Let’s Fix Construction that is being established by some of my colleagues in the Construction Specifications Institute: Eric Lussier who is president of CSI Vermont Chapter and Cherise Lakeside, the #CSIKraken and past president of CSI Portland Chapter.  The purpose of the initiative is to separate the complaints from the solutions when we discuss why things go wrong in construction projects, and promote the solutions. Other participants so far are Randy Nishimura, Vivian Volz, Keith Robinson and Marvin Kemp, and the project is open to accepting additional contributors.

My hope, which is why I decided to participate myself, is that we can get past the usual CSI talking points, dig deeper, take a hard look at what is really ailing the industry and come up with solutions and then integrate those solutions into the various professions and trades within AEC.  By “usual CSI talking points” I mean the heavy advocacy for certifications, encouragement of improved communications, promotion of the ‘trusted advisor’ appellation, etcetera.  None of these are wrong, but to be frank, they haven’t fixed construction yet.

The project is named “Let’s Fix Construction.”  I accept the premise that construction is broken (or at least not operating optimally).  Undoubtedly this is due to various factors, but I’d argue a good place to look for them is at the real weaknesses in architectural education and in the way that architecture is practiced.

What follows is an edited excerpt from my first post on Let’s Fix Construction, where I outline my view of where the practice of architecture is complicit in the brokenness of construction and is missing the mark on living up to its promise and to its own vision of itself.

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The facility design and construction process (at least in the traditional design-bid-build or design-negotiate-build methods) is for the most part driven by the architect.  The architect is the one who is presented the project goals by the Owner and is tasked with generating the design and construction documents and then helping to facilitate its execution.  In this architect-centric view, the responsibility to faithfully and skillfully execute the work lies with the architect.  The architect comes up with the conceptual design and develops that design, adding more and more technical detail, coordinating the work of engineering and other consultants, incorporating information from myriad sources into one package and shepherding that package through procurement and entitlement, until the job can be built by a contractor. The architect maintains responsibility through construction, working to verify that the project is being built so that it conforms to the design.

As the center of all that activity, the architect is the source of (or at least contributing to) many problems that, if solved, would go a long way toward ‘fixing’ construction.  The words “many but not all” should of course be a given in front of each item below.

  • Architects don’t view their work as providing a professional service in which they have a duty to put their clients’ interests above all others and to making sure they communicate honestly with their clients and to obtaining informed consent for all important decisions.  Instead, architects see themselves as designing for themselves, or believe they’re working for the good of society, the environment, adopting “improving life” or other lofty goals that create real conflicts of interest that they don’t even recognize.  

(Before reading on, I strongly recommend reading Ujjval Vyas’s comment to my post on LetsFixConstuction, and also his lengthy comment to Randy Nishimura’s post, Revitalization + Reinvention. The conceptual underpinning of the duty I briefly mention above is his idea, and I will be writing more about that in the future).

  • A few architects even go so far as to think of themselves as more important than their own work.  As an example, during an interview I conducted with a prominent and outspoken Chicago architect, he mentioned that contractors respect him “because I know how to say ‘fuck'”.
  • Architects have inadequate practical knowledge of construction. They don’t understand how their designs and details get translated into physical components in a building and what it really takes for human beings to assemble what they’ve designed.
  • Architects, and humans in general, to be fair, have a overly optimistic view of their own knowledge and competence.  This is known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.  As a result, they forcefully promote making decisions based on faulty information that they have high levels of confidence in.  Most “green” advocacy falls into this category.
  • Architects are slow to recognize and adapt to changes in construction technology, and end up lazily copying solutions from project to project long after they’re obsolete.
  • Architects are hesitant to participate in the code-writing process, even though the content of the codes and the way they’re developed directly impact their work.
  • Architects have very poor knowledge of how much construction actually costs, and use loose rules of thumb to try to determine whether or not their designs are within clients’ budgets.  They rarely know how the details they create affect the project cost, and the resulting necessary VE costs them time, money and prestige.  

The idea that we’re going to fix construction means that these and other problems should be identified, given serious thought individually and collectively.  I look forward to working to affect the changes that the industry needs, and I hope the Let’s Fix Construction project can be on the vanguard of inventing and implementing those solutions.  If you think you have an interesting perspective on this problem and would like to participate in this project, it is still seeking additional contributors.  Contact Eric at letsfixconstruction@gmail.com for more information.

Improve the Health Assessment Method for Building Products

Over the past dozen years or so, as LEED, Living Building Challenge, and other rating systems for healthy buildings have become mainstream and influenced the vocabulary we use to make product choices for our buildings.   Part of this vocabulary is the red list, referring to lists of chemicals to eliminate from usage.  “Red list” is an evocative image, right?  Stop!  Don’t come close!

I am willing to stipulate that chemicals on the “red lists” have known health impacts.  It is true that listed chemicals are known to be carcinogenic, mutagenic (cause mutations in DNA), or neurotoxic.  Others are implicated with birth defects.  Groups like Clean Production Action, creator of Greenscreen, have created systems to generate reports on chemicals based on their hazard profile, using government or other dependable research sources on those chemicals.  Greenscreen is an “open source and transparent chemical hazard assessment tool” and is available for consumers or professionals, and generates user-friendly graphical reports like this one:


where once you understand the abbreviations, you easily see how hazardous your chemical is.

The assumption here is that chemicals that are hazardous are necessarily bad.  Triclosan (as shown above) has very high acute toxicity to humans among other “High concern” items, but it has a variety of consumer applications that actually make use of that toxicity, like as an antibacterial agent in toothpaste that helps prevent gingivitis.  That might be a modest benefit, but it’s an example of how a chemical that may have a harmful profile can be beneficial (or at least harmless) at specific doses.

So hazard identification is only the first step.  Far more useful is to evaluate risk.  Risk assessments of a chemical take into account both the hazard, the dose-response and exposure characteristics.  The EPA published guidelines in their Human Health Risk Assessment guidelines and made them available on their website.


In addition to dose-response, other factors include reversibility of adverse effects (do they wear off with time), probability of incidence (not every person will feel the same effects from an exposure, and can vary with age, race, etc).

The “trick” – and it’s not really a trick, it requires the work of understanding the chemistry – is to recognize the hazards but limit the risk by knowing how much exposure to the chemical is required before some harm sets in.  The US National Science Foundation, working with the American Chemical Society Green Chemistry Institute has published a standard method to more thoroughly evaluate and score chemicals on a risk basis.


That standard, ANSI 355-2011 provides a more rational way to determine when chemicals should be eliminated or limited. The Greenscreen method stops at the right-hand column, while the NSF method follows the chemical through its life cycle and use.

Risk-based assessments are not yet standard in the industry, and architects and specifiers, who are not chemists, are being told to rely on Health Product Declarations prepared by product manufacturers under the guidelines of the HPD Collaborative (http://www.hpd-collaborative.org).  This organization, right on its homepage, says they are the organization that “created, supports and evolves the Health Product Declaration (HPD), an open standard format for the accurate reporting of material contents and potential health hazards.” (emphasis added).

Potential health hazards are not even close to the whole picture, since health hazards can be ameliorated by controlling exposure. Specifiers and architects should be careful about putting decision-making weight in the information contained in HPDs or even in red lists.  If they do, they may inadvertently reduce the quality of their buildings.  Instead, until more risk-based product assessments are available, we should prioritize known criteria like performance and longevity.

How Much do Specifiers Know about the VOC Flooring Adhesive Rule?

The removal of VOCs from flooring adhesives has become one of the most significant changes to construction materials that has taken effect in recent memory.  I think it’s worth a look at the reasoning behind the change, along with the downstream benefits and detriments that resulted.

The change came about originally as a result of the United States signing on to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer on September 16, 1987, and also accepting its subsequent amendments.   For background, refer to EPA’s Basic Information page on ground level ozone, which states, in part:

Tropospheric, or ground level ozone, is not emitted directly into the air, but is created by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC).

Ground level ozone- what we breathe- can harm our health. Even relatively low levels of ozone can cause health effects.  People with lung disease, children, older adults, and people who are active outdoors may be particularly sensitive to ozone.

The EPA later made the limits more stringent than were allowed by the original Montreal Protocol limits; in 2010 they revised the primary ozone standard down from 0.075 parts per million (set in 2008) to 0.06 parts per million, based on epidemiological studies showing adverse effects in otherwise healthy adults.  A review of studies is available from the EPA, released in 2009, here.  In very brief summary, a collection of studies found correlation between an increase in respiratory symptoms and exposure to ozone concentrations of .06 ppm.  The test measured the volume of exhaled air in test subjects, making it a quantitative measure, not just surveying subjects about symptoms.

Based on the findings, the EPA appears to have firm scientific data allowing it to promote the reduction in ozone concentration, and since ground-level ozone is a by-product of VOCs, to limit those VOCs as well.

Before undertaking to research this topic, I was not aware of the connection between VOCs and ozone, I also doubt most design professionals or specifiers understand this was the rationale behind the change.  I personally assumed it was an indoor environmental quality concern – reducing noxious fumes for occupants, etc.  It’s likely a happy side effect of eliminating the VOCs –  concentrations of ozone in buildings has most likely been reduced.

That brings us to the part that every architect, specifier and building owner knows only too well.  When the VOCs were eliminated from the adhesives, the replacement products were very good at adhering to the new regulations.  They were not, unfortunately, useful at all at adhering flooring to substrates. Replacement adhesives were water-based, meaning that emitted moisture from substrates would dissolve the adhesive, and floors failed in massive number.  Additionally, the dissolved glue in the water-based adhesive was beloved by mold spores everywhere, and any health benefit gained by reducing ozone was overtaken by the hazards of high mold concentrations in the indoor environment.

Flooring manufacturers recognized the problem early on, and started placing stricter limits on the volume of moisture allowed to emit from subfloors.  A limit of 3 pounds per 1000 square feet per 24 hours (tested by the rightly-much-maligned ASTM F1869 calcium chloride method) or 75% RH (tested by ASTM F2170 probe method)  was not unusual to be called for and extremely unusual – almost unheard of – to be obtained.  Various methods were attempted to control the moisture flow, including vapor barriers under the slabs, sheet membranes under the flooring, sprayed-on films, epoxy coatings, and additives to the concrete.  There are benefits and pitfalls for each of these, but that’s a topic for technical articles (and myriad lunch ‘n’ learns) and not a skeptical treatment, but it is useful background.  In the end, we seem to have settled on solutions (either additives in the concrete or epoxy-based toppings) and the not insignificant costs of these solutions are now built into every job.  The water-based adhesives are also improving, and some are able to adhere to substrates with over 90% RH, alleviating some of the need for expensive treatments.

Decisions like the one the EPA made are addressing big picture human health issues.  Whether or not they gave thought to downstream impacts is immaterial; manufacturers were bound to follow the new VOC limitation rules.  It took a significant amount of time for the industry to change the way it specified and implemented flooring preparation and installation.  One worthwhile takeaway would be for various segments of the construction industry to communicate more effectively about the impact of externally-mandated changes to known products and systems.  If specifiers are made familiar with what decisions are being made and the reasons for those decisions, they can offer sound technical advice to clients and designers, and be in a position to impact the industry.

Advocacy in Specifications

A few months ago, during the recent election cycle, I was feeling particularly aggrieved over what I perceived as extremely irresponsible and cynical advertisements aiming to cast doubt on the validity of anthropogenic global warming.  While I admit no personal expertise in global climate science, I can accept that the overwhelmingly vast majority of genuine climate experts have concluded that AGW is real, and that it is a serious problem.

A lot of the money supporting AGW deniers’ messages is coming from the Koch brothers’ political organizations, which are funding the libertarian and ultra-right-wing think tanks and political action committees that are able to then pour millions of Koch dollars into “issue ads” targeting candidates who may be inclined to support public policy accepting and addressing AGW.

To be so ideologically skewed that even accepting that AGW is fact is an anathema to a skeptic.  To wit: it makes me angry.  So when I remembered that Georgia Pacific, a company whose products I regularly specify for sheathing and gypsum wallboard, is a Koch subsidiary, I had a knee-jerk response and even thought about deleting G-P from my gypsum section, thereby using my specifications to punish them in a small way.

My more rational head prevailed.  As a specifier, my responsibility is to provide my technical knowledge as a professional service and not as a bully-pulpit.  I write specifications to support my firm’s practice of architecture: to deliver the best projects we can, using whatever products and systems are most suitable.  Suitability in this case primarily includes conforming to our clients’ project requirements, reducing their risk for future failures, being economically responsible, complying with building codes, and being appropriate to the design architects’ intent.

Using specifications to advocate, whether for political, environmental or religious purposes seems to me to be unethical, not least because minor changes to specifications like those (especially when you’re talking about an omission rather than an inclusion) are basically invisible, hidden where nobody can react to them.  It’s also contrary to our duty as specifiers, which is, in its essence, to provide specifications that align the clients’ and designers’ needs to appropriate products, assemblies, quality, etc.

Product manufacturers have a different list of duties.  They can and should still be held accountable – yes, by specifiers.  Misleading practices such as obscuring facts about the properties of their products or selling shoddy products or not supporting facility owners post-installation are, in my opinion, possible grounds for exclusion.  For lesser ‘crimes’: not hiring representatives who act as trusted advisors, having convoluted websites, or poor/insufficient standard details, we should advocate for improvement through communication with the company, but certainly not delete them from specifications if the products are appropriate.

I admit that I don’t like what the Kochs stand for.  I won’t buy G-P household products if I can help it.  But I leave my advocacy at the door of my office.

Industry Knowledge? or Industry Belief?

I have been thinking for the past couple of weeks about which bits of alleged industry knowledge I should give detailed skeptical treatment in the coming months as I write this blog.  Some of the most tantalizing low-hanging-fruit type claims I can think of examining tend to congregate around the topics of sustainability and occupant health, so I’ll probably start with examining one of those.

I fear that some of these topics may take quite a bit of work to dig out the best available data, but I want to at least set out some parameters for what I’m going to be looking at in this blog over upcoming posts.


Volatile Organic Compounds:

Federal and state governments have been regulating VOCs to lower and lower allowable levels in paints and construction adhesives for some years now.  This has had a huge impact on the industry.  With regards to flooring adhesives alone, product manufacturers have been struggling to come up with products that adhere to substrates as well as they “adhere” to the FDA requirements, while specifiers grasp at any system that might stem the tide of flooring failures.  In light of the resulting impact, I have to ask: why was this change required, and what was the result of the change?  Was there a specific risk identified to building occupants or construction workers?  Or was it just a general ‘this class of substance is hazardous, so better to ban it outright’ no matter the dose-response?   The outcomes to changing assemblies this drastically is something that can be (and should already have been) studied.

I’m not approaching this question with my bottom line written.  I honestly don’t know the answer.  It’s not a simple subject because construction methods and materials are constantly changing; we’re making buildings more air-tight, trapping construction chemicals in occupied spaces for longer periods of time.  Perhaps VOCs weren’t previously an issue because buildings leaked like Swiss cheese, but since the industry was required to achieve a 0.4 CFM/sf whole building air leakage rate, it’s at least plausible that we have created a true risk of negative health effects.  If that’s true, I think that we should start seeing the effects abate now that VOCs have been minimized.  But do we actually see that result?  It’ll be an important data point if we do.


“Evidence-Based Design” for Healthcare Facilities

With this topic, I can almost guarantee I’ll dig up a mountain of junk science and dubious study results.  As an architect/specifier in a firm that does a lot of healthcare work, I’ve been subjected to numerous AIA-accredited lunch and learn presentations that make touchy-feely claims like, “health outcomes are improved when views of nature are incorporated in patient-care settings.”  Really. Then tell me: has anyone found the biological mechanism for that?  The best studies of so-called mind-body medicine clearly indicate that there’s no such thing (I offer pretty much every blog entry at www.sciencebasedmedicine.org as support for that statement).

While I would be willing to wager that there are improved patient outcomes when facilities are designed to help healthcare workers avoid medical errors (that at least is plausible), I’m skeptical that a patient healing garden or similar nature-ey features has anything more than placebo effects.


This is so broad a category, I don’t have any specific examples to offer yet, but it’s a ripe, ripe topic for healthy skepticism. I’m not at all aiming to minimize the need for us to create buildings that use less energy and water, create less CO2, and generate less waste, but the industry is awash in supposedly environmentally-friendly buildings, “green” products, sustainability rating systems, codes, and industry labels.  We already know that those don’t have anywhere near equal validity.  It’ll be interesting to find the ones that do the best job.

Other Topics

I have interest in examining other topics as well, to see if they are delivering on their promises: Architecture 2030, fire and smoke modeling, egress modeling, biomimicry, Passive House.  Again, the goal is to focus on showing (and hopefully explaining) what’s true, and eliminating from discourse things that we believe are true, but actually are not.

Perceptions: Skeptics and Specifiers

Before I joined CSI, I honestly thought of it as the graybeard society.  Wasn’t CSI just the club where they get together and complain about pie-in-the-sky designers? Weren’t all specifiers cranky old men with walls of reference books surrounding them?  The specifier at my workplace matched that description, except instead of walls of reference books, he had unruly half-toppled piles.  I’m clearly not alone in holding this perception: Just the other day one of the principals at my firm, after finding out I’d rather go to CONSTRUCT (the annual CSI convention) than attend our company golf outing, made a sarcastic remark about how much fun I’d surely be having.  I think he was imagining a giant empty convention hall with little groups of of curmudgeons standing in the corners, arguing about the utility of certain 6-digit numbers.

According to this (self-selected) survey from the discussion board at 4specs.com, 40 is the average date that most people who become specifiers get started.  That means many get started even younger.

I started my role as in-house construction specifier about six years ago – I was exactly 40 at the time.  I tried growing the beard, but surprise, it wasn’t gray enough.  Despite my brown beard handicap I joined CSI, and was surprised at who I found there.  Thinking just about the specifiers, and not the rest of the construction-industry professionals that make up the organization, many of the members were not much older than I.  Many were incapable of growing beards at all, since they were women.  Age and gender aside, the membership of our chapter is enthusiastic about participating in events, they enjoy the camaraderie, and they’re excited about learning and sharing their knowledge.  The older members (for the most part) are friendly, outgoing, eager to engage with the younger generation of specifiers, and I think they actually have the most fun participating in CSI.

So where does this misperception about CSI and specifiers live, and how does it perpetuate itself?  It’s an example of the representativeness heuristic – too many middle-aged and older architects only have experience of specifiers like the one I first described, so that’s the image that comes to mind.  Maybe they’re the ones hiring in-house or independent specifiers, and choosing ones who resemble their image, creating more examples to reinforce the perception.  This will slowly change as more younger specifiers take up the role, and maybe as product reps visit architectural firms and describe to the younger staff what CSI really looks like.

So how about skeptics?  Here’s a perception: Faceless hordes at their computers, furiously pounding out articles debunking glaring nonsense like UFOs, Bigfoot, and astrology, exposing obvious frauds like psychics and perpetual motion machine inventors.  Aside from conspiracy kooks, does anyone really believe in all that stuff?  I’m hard-pressed to think of anyone I know who genuinely and openly believes in any of it.  So is all this debunking really necessary?

I’ve changed my mind about this perception as well, starting with regular listening to The Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast.  The SGU crew speaks about the different qualities of evidence I should use when evaluating claims, starting with the need to reinforce my understanding of basic science.  The first pillar in engaging a claim: is it scientifically plausible?  They describe the logical flaws, cognitive biases, and mental shortcuts all humans engage in as part of our psychological makeup. They talk about good and bad science, explain the difference, and provide tools to recognize both.  Finally, they offer criticism of popular science reporting, and explain why most of what is published or televised is wrong, misleading, and riddled with false balance.  As I’ve expanded my diet of skeptical books, organizations, websites and blogs (and more blogs), I find general agreement and encouragement to engage with all these ideas.

Skeptics and specifiers are doing a lot more than is generally acknowledged to expand the expertise, skills and knowledge they possess, and they are doing more outreach by building their organizations and explaining their functions.  Fighting misperceptions is a challenge, but people are doing the work to face them down and eventually correct them.


A Specifying Skeptic

I have been thinking about starting this blog for quite some time, but haven’t been able to settle on the point of view I want it to take.  I’ve considered the approach of taking a specification section and dissecting the science behind it.  Seems like a good idea, someone should do just that!  Instead, I’m just going to try to be more generally skeptical and talk about where skepticism intersects with specifying.  I’ll relate my experience of where the two intersect.

I owe the impetus to actually getting my butt into this chair and starting to write this to Cherise Schacter, original CSI Kraken and author of the Voices in My Head blog.  If I want to be a CSI Kraken too, I need to make this thing happen.  Kraken Rule 14: “Go big or go home!  Check your fear at the door and see what happens.  What do you have to lose?”

So what’s this about?  Something like this:

Those of us who write construction specifications for a living frequently encounter a familiar problem: a project architect asks us to specify a design that relies on the inclusion of an unfamiliar or cutting-edge system.  We are tasked with quickly learning as much as possible about that system, relaying the information back to the architect in language she can use to further her design, and writing a relevant (and of course clear, concise, complete and correct) specification that includes the system.

As we dig into the available information, that fear comes bubbling up: how many times, when doing exactly this, has the literature been biased, outdated, insufficient, or just plain wrong?  We must be vigilant and skeptical when evaluating information, making sure to keep our eyes clearly on the relevant facts and not getting blinded by flowery claims.

I hear the collective groaning of product representatives that make up a critical part of CSI.  Those in the representative community have written extensively how the specifiers are already overly skeptical and how it’s nearly impossible to get us to specify the newest products.  I don’t think that’s due to skepticism.  Most specifiers (most humans, actually) are reluctant to change their minds or the way they do things.  Whether we admit it or not, we don’t like taking risks.

It doesn’t need to be that way.  Both specifiers and product representatives will benefit from approaching their work with an attitude of healthy, true skepticism.

But what does it really mean to be a skeptic?  A skeptic isn’t just someone who doubts or rejects things out of hand (that’s the definition of a cynic).  Instead, a skeptic is someone who holds reasonable reservations when confronted with claims, examines those claims critically using the best data and logic available, and reaches conclusions based on thorough inquiry.  I consider myself a skeptic, which means it’s a good day when I change my mind about something when confronted with compelling evidence that I’ve believed something untrue.

Another “CSI”, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry is a good place to learn more about general skepticism, as is the James Randi Educational Foundation.

So we’ll see where this takes us.  I’m sure there are lots of things we can all be more skeptical about, biases to banish, facts to unearth.  Let’s have some fun.