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Owner Selections: The ‘Other’ Kind of Construction Specifications


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Just when you think specifications couldn't get any more difficult, a new breed comes in at full force to amplify your pain points: owner specifications. While many construction project specifications come attached to drawings and other project documents, there are a great many that come directly from owners. These “owner selections” carry just as much weight, and because they often come into the picture once the design is done, they contribute a special pain point to contractors who don’t stay on top of them. 

Design and engineering professionals provide specifications for most construction projects. The vast majority of those specifications relate directly to safety, health, durability, and liability. The more complex the project, the greater the number of specifications, until they cover everything, right down to the final finishes. And, specifications don’t only come from designers and engineers.

Specifications Affect More Than Project Deliverables

Many times specifications come from clients like municipalities, states, and federal government agencies. These specifications are often quite exacting and affect all aspects of the project. Because they are so extensive, they will affect contractor decisions having to do with items that won’t even become part of the final deliverable. One example comes from the highway and street sector, where specifications can end up affecting the capital investments a contractor makes. 

For example, many states now have limits on how much the temperature can vary across a fresh mat of roadway asphalt as it’s laid down. They are also requiring greater assurances that the different materials in the pavement won’t separate as they’re being placed on the roadbed. These new specifications limit the projects where contractors can use road pavers that have slat conveyors. Instead, they will need to use pavers that re-blend all the material before placing it on the roadway.

Specifications as Owner Selections

All of the previous types of specifications have something in common: they are all drafted by people who know something about construction. On many projects, however, there is a whole range of specifications that come from the owner, or client. And, if not managed well, they arrive as vague, “like-to-haves,” ungrounded in construction know-how. That’s because most clients aren’t builders, and so they don’t understand the sequence of construction, or how various materials interact with each other.  

The client will say they want a certain type of material for a countertop without fully understanding the limitations of that material. Or, the client simply knows they want a particular type of faucet because they like the way it looks, even though that faucet won’t work with the type of fixture that’s planned. These owner selections require careful management to make sure they don’t affect the budget or timeline.

Start with a List

A very first step is to identify all of the components in the project that require an owner to make a selection. Since most of the building’s structure follows building code specifications, the client will generally choose the items making up the finish components of the building. Once identified, those items become the owner selection list. You can make it easy for the client to use the list by creating or uploading it into a project management platform. This will make it accessible to the client and all key stakeholders regardless of the hardware or software they use.

Keep the Dialog Going

Getting selections made in a timely fashion is often a big challenge. Clients don’t understand the sequencing of construction or how critical it is to know many of the finishes early in the construction timeline. That’s why it is crucial to include clients in an ongoing selection process dialogue. This dialog should begin at the very early stages of the project where you provide the list of selection items along with due dates.

Have a conversation with the clients about how items on the list affect work that must be done long before those items are installed. This helps clients understand how important it is to make their selections by the deadline. This is also a good time to talk about the differences in products and answer any questions they have about the value of one product versus another.

Follow-up and Follow-up

Once the project is underway, send reminders to clients as deadlines for approach for selections. In some cases, it’s a good idea to also have a second follow-up meeting if selections are in danger of going delinquent. This follow-up will most likely be a telephone call so you can discuss any issues the client may have with making the selection.

Owner selections are a very large part of the total specifications for the project. It is unusual for a client to intentionally miss a deadline for making a selection. When they don’t make selections in a timely fashion, either they misunderstood when the selections are due or are having difficulty making the selection. That’s often because they don’t understand the choices, and the differences in value between the choices. By having a selection process that is clear and specific, you eliminate misunderstandings about when selections are due and with frequent follow-ups, you remove the final barrier to timely selections.

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