Between Concrete and a Hard Place

By Eric Wathen, P.E.

Between Concrete and a Hard PlaceOne of the most important questions a precaster can ask is, “Can I actually make this product to meet project specifications?” Many times, contractors request pricing at the last moment before a project is let, and they don’t provide all of the necessary project information to the producer. They may provide a couple of plan sheets or maybe just some quantities, and then ask for a price.

As a precaster, you may think of it as simply providing a few structures, a couple hundred feet of pipe or a short retaining wall. So you get the job and start the submittal process, and everything is fine until the submittal comes back stamped “REJECTED!” Then you find out that the structures require a special additive that will more than double your costs, the pipe requires a special design with a joint you can’t produce, or the wall you quoted doesn’t meet the structural requirements of the project. Now what? Now you are stuck between concrete and a hard place.

Fully understanding the project plans, specifications and expectations of the owner are key to your success. When assessing the project, you will need to look at four things: standards, specifications, special provisions and plan documents.

  • Standards. A technical standard is an established norm or requirement with regard to technical systems. It is usually a formal document that establishes uniform engineering or technical criteria, methods, processes and practices. Examples of technical standards are ASTM, ASCE, ACI or AASHTO. They are national or international requirements that set minimum benchmarks to ensure a product or process is uniform no matter where it is built or who is building it. Just because a product meets a standard does not mean it is a superior product or process. It simply means a group of people got together and agreed to certain minimums that it must meet. An example of this is Orangeburg Pipe. Never heard of it? Do a Google search.
  • Specifications. A specification is an explicit set of requirements to be satisfied by a material, design, product or service. Specifications are generally developed and implemented by agencies or manufacturers to ensure that products or processes meet local requirements. For example, all state DOTs must follow AASHTO standards at a minimum, but each state DOT has its own book of specifications that all construction projects must meet. These specifications vary from state to state to meet the desires and needs of the individual areas they serve, and they are uniform across the state they serve. Many specifications are performance based and specific to local conditions and environments. Specifications most often reference standards as minimum requirements, and then build upon them to ensure local expectations are met.
  • Special provisions. Special provisions are project-specific. They are part of the bid package and are usually developed and included by the design engineer or architect. Special provisions build upon or change specifications. A city’s specifications may allow for many different types of materials for sewer pipe. They may determine that on a specific project, reinforced concrete pipe is the only allowable material to be used. In this instance, the contractor and pipe manufacturer would have to follow the standards, specifications and special provisions.
  • Plan documents. Project plans are the drawings, schematics and details used to construct the project. Plans not only show locations, dimensions and details, but often they also contain notes and more detailed directions for individual product construction and manufacturing. Plans generally are what most precasters look to when they quote and build their products.

The four sections above and the terms and conditions should be consulted for each project you bid or quote to ensure you can actually manufacture the product. Generally, there is a hierarchy for each of the documents: Plans supersede special provisions, which supersede specifications, which supersede standards. This level of understanding is important, because sometimes the sections contain conflicting information. Remember, if you can’t get a question answered during the bidding process, at least understand and be prepared to defend the document that served as a basis for your bid.

Some of the most frustrating instances of working your way through the plans and specifications can be when the design engineer has copied one section from a previous project, while the specification or special provision is relevant to the current project. Some specifiers, believe it or not, may not have read or do not understand the standards they reference. They reference them because their firm has always referenced them. Here are some examples of this:

  • An engineer requires vacuum testing of storm manholes with under-drains connected to them. If under-drains are connected to the structure, it is designed to take on ground water. The purpose of a vacuum test is to make sure that a structure is leak-free and won’t allow any ground water in.
  • PVC joint specifications, testing and acceptance requirements are applied to RCP.
  • Concrete for underground pipe and manhole structures is required to meet the architectural specification, which is usually much different than that of a utility structure spec.

It is important for the designer to understand that just changing a standard or specification for the same product can greatly affect the availability and price. The more specialized the project is, the more careful the reviewer should be.

Why is all of this important and why should you care? Risk and liability! If you quote or bid a project, the engineer and owner expect that you can make the product to their requirements. If they specify an ASTM C361 confined groove joint, that is what they expect. If you don’t have the equipment to produce it, you will all want to know that right up front. This is why it is important that all of your sales force and estimators understand your production capabilities.

Get proactive

What are some pre-emptive ways to ensure that your local owners and engineers are specifying to your capabilities? Get to know them first. Provide a Lunch and Learn to every engineer you can, talking about precast and your capabilities. Stay in contact with the design community and ask about upcoming projects. Offer your expertise to review their plans and specifications before they let the bid.

Getting to know your local engineering community is the most proactive thing you can do to affect your business. How do you go about this? Attend your local American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) monthly meetings. Get involved with local professional associations like IWEA or AIA. Make sure everyone at these events knows what you do and sees you as a peer and resource.

More than 30 states now require continuing education requirements for engineers and architects. Use the contacts you made at the professional events to call local engineers and offer them a 50-minute class on precast products and how to specify them. More than likely they will accept. You can download Lunch and Learn presentations from the NPCA website that can serve as a good starting point for your own presentation.

Once you have established relationships and have shown that you can be a resource, stay in contact with the community. You can usually find one or two good contacts in each office that will work closely with you. Visit their offices once a month or so to drop off a new product information sheet or the newest widget you’re handing out to your customers. While there, ask what they are working on or if they have any upcoming projects. Mention that you would be happy to take a look at the plans and specifications to review them for constructability with regard to precast. Looking at the plans before the bid is let will help them deliver a better product to their customers by reducing the number of questions during the bidding process. The more precise their plans and specs are, the better their bid price will be.

Though making changes to national standards is a very difficult process, influencing change to local specifications and special provisions is an attainable goal. Working closely with your engineering community can help them understand your capabilities and help you understand their expectations. When both sides understand and agree on what the finished product should be, everyone wins.

Eric Wathen, P.E., is a technical services engineer with NPCA.

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