Evaluation Services need Evaluation

I have spent most of today trying to interpret a research report from one of the major agencies that evaluates products for compliance with building code requirements. Organizations that prepare these reports, such as ICC-ES, IAPMO UES, and others, have to maintain a very high standard of care since their findings are part of the system of building codes and building code enforcement that protects public health, safety, and welfare. While their engineering is generally sound, I wish they had a better command of effective technical writing.

Consider these perplexing items from the evaluation report for a ceiling system used in conjunction with a fire sprinkler system.
  • The document identifies three conditions of use. For two of the conditions, it states dimensional limits. But it says nothing about the dimensional limits for the third condition. Given the nature of the product, this appears to be an oversight.
  • One of the dimensions is expressed as height from "top of ceiling grid", the other is expressed as height "from ceiling tile". This is a problem on two counts. First, the heights for both conditions should be expressed in the same manner to simplify comparison and enforcement. The other problem is that the ceiling tiles have depth, and we are not told if the measurement is to be from top or bottom of the tile.
  • It hyphenates "quick-response sprinklers" but not "standard response sprinklers".  Is this deliberate?
  • In some locations, it describes the product as a "panel", in others as a "tile". The document does not explain the difference, and seems unaware that the terms are defined differently in an ASTM standard.
  • The document contains redundancies. It states, in two locations, the requirement that the ceiling panel (or tile) should be Class A. Similarly, it repeats that the panel (or tile) is not to be used in non-fire resistance rated construction. A good rule of technical writing is to state a requirement in only a single location.
  • It references an obsolete FM Listing number even though it states the current listing number in parenthesis. The obsolete listing is so old, it does not even appear on the FM website.
None of us are perfect; that's why we employ editors.  If you are investing the big bucks that it takes to get an research report for a product you manufacture, do yourself a favor. Hire an editor that is familiar with your industry (a specification writer, for example) and pay them to critique the document before it is published.

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Construction News and Big Data

Remember your local "plan room", where bidders and suppliers would go to look at plans and specs for projects that were out-to-bid?  Not likely. This is year 33 APC (After Personal Computer), and news about projects in design, bidding, and construction moves at the speed of electrons.

File:DARPA Big Data.jpg
"'Big Data; refers to a technology phenomenon that has arisen since the mid-1980s. As computers have improved, growing storage and processing capacities have provided new and powerful ways to gain insight into the world by sifting through the infinite quantities of data available. But this insight, discoverable in previously unseen patterns and trends within these phenomenally large data sets, can be hard to detect without new analytic tools that can comb through the information and highlight points of interest." (Caption and image from DARPA)
Retrieving data from Reed Connect, Dodge Scan, and other construction news publishers may now move faster (if you have enough band width), the way we extract and process the data remains much the same as it was BPC (Before Personal Computers). And while The leading vendors of construction leads also publish databases of construction cost, product information, and detail drawings or models. Yet to a surprising extent, each type of information remains in its own, separate silo.

Other areas of our economy are increasingly shaped by Big Data - the interconnecting of databases so vast amounts of information can be tracked.  Construction, for many reasons, lags behind other industrial sectors.

I was asked to speculate on the future of Big Data in our industry. Here are some of the big link-ups that may effect building product manufacturers in the next five to ten years:
  • Virtual models of complete buildings and building components that can extract, analyze, and process building product data.
  • Integration of product "sustainability" information into the data base.
  • Further wrap-up of local and regional construction news to serve global markets.
  • Linking construction news to building operation and facility management data.
  • Connecting construction news into order-entry and construction project management systems.
  • Seamless integration from the cloud to mobile data platforms.
  • Integration of construction, fabrication, and logistical data.
These developments are already happening in bits and pieces, and there are plenty of incentives -- and risks -- for Big Data to bring the pieces together.

My list is not comprehensive. But like eating the proverbial elephant, the only way I can digest Big Data is one mouthful at a time.

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Of course I can help you.


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Good News about Guide Specifications

The quality of guide specifications published by building product manufacturers has improved significantly. I made a survey of 200 guide specifications in the mid-1980s and found that more than half of them were not in compliance with formats and principles of the Construction Specifications Institute. Now, in contrast, the overwhelming majority of guide specs are in substantial compliance with CSI guidelines.

Several factors have contributed to the improvement, including:

  • More architects and engineers have been trained and even certified in CSI formats and principle, and they have demanded better specs for the products they want to use.
  • Better trained specifiers also means that manufacturers have more consultants they can turn to for assistance in writing specs.
  • There are now more specification publishers, including Arcat, Arcom, BSD, E-Spec and others, that encourage manufacturers to follow CSI formats and principles.
I am gratified to see the improvement, as I have been proselytizing manufacturers for over 30 years -- conducting specification training programs, writing articles, and writing specs for more manufacturers than I can remember.

There is still room for improvement, of course. I recently saw a guide spec that was so poorly written that the manufacturer's misspelled its own name!  This bad example, however, cause me to reflect on how much the industry has improved.  And that is good news for all of us.

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Bad Ad: You're looking at wasted ad buy

What is VRF? The ad sure doesn't say. The first five responses to a Google search on VRF says it is "virtual routing and filing, whatever that means. It also returns "violation risk factor", "visual resources facility", "vertical reporting framework", "very rapid fire", "vertical removal fixture", and many other terms that seem plausible as construction terms.  I conclude that the glazed look on the model's face means another case of VRF -- Verified Readership Failure.

Except for one line mentioning "heating and cooling", the ad could be for almost anything. But the ad doesn't draw the reader to read it so carefully that they see the words "heating and cooling".

VRF turns out to be "variable refrigerant flow", a heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) technology. Perhaps I was not the target of the ad, that the ad was directed to engineers that know the abbreviation. Then why did they place the ad in Building Design and Construction, a magazine also read by architects, building owners, and general contractors -- readers that can influence the selection of heating and cooling equipment.

My guess is that the ad agency did not know what VRF was either, and that the folks who signed off on the ad think everybody knows the product. In that case, all they had to do was link the brand, LG, with the technology, VRF; the ad could have been as simple as:

LG 4 VRF

Such a simplified ad has a clearer message, could be more visually arresting, and would probably outperform what they used.

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Michael Chusid has been a consultant to over 100 successful organizations in the building products industry. He serves an international clientele from offices in Los Angeles, California.
- Marketing Strategy, Start-Up, Repositioning
- Product Development, Testing, Approvals
- Advertising, Public Relations, Online Media
- Promotion, Continuing Education, Trade Shows
- Sales & Technical Literature, Guide Specifications

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