Architect HeadshotNew methods and materials consistently increase the complexity of specification writing. For more than 50 years, David Koch has kept pace, working on a variety of construction projects. David shared some of his tips on staying up-to-date on new trends, how he avoids jobsite problems and how he creates the most effective specifications.

Tell us about your background and how you became a specification writer.

I’ve been interested in construction since I was about 10 years old – I always liked building things. I decided on a career in architecture and started working at my first firm in 1961. One of the principals there suggested that I start writing specs to broaden my horizons. I began working in the old 9A/9B format, and from there, I worked my way up to manager of specifications for two large companies.

How did you start your own consulting firm?

Specifications have always been my favorite part of architecture, even though most architects do not like it. I struck out on my own in 1981 and started my firm, ASAC Consultants, Inc. As an independent specifier, I am able to mentor young architects in their education. I also assist those who are too crunched by time or budget, or do not have the technical focus to produce specifications on their own. Years of experience researching products and installations unencumbered by most of the demands of an architect’s office allows me to hone in on this aspect of architecture.

What is the most important thing a spec writer can do when specifying a tile installation?

Regardless of the type of construction, you must have good – meaning current – information and knowledge. You need manufacturing reps you can count on, and certain people and certain companies have more credibility than others. For instance, my CUSTOM rep updates me on codes just as soon as they change and advises me on new products and methods, ensuring that I specify the appropriate products for the intended use. This is one manner in which I learn about new technology and products before architects might see or adopt them.

What mistakes do many specification writers make, and how can they prevent them?

Tiling Section 09 30 00 is one of the more difficult spec sections; tile is just not easy any more. The proliferation of new types and sizes of tile, along with more complex substrates, has led to innovations requiring new mortars and setting methods. Some specifiers might be using an outdated spec that calls for a thin-set instead of a medium bed mortar, even though they are installing large format tile.

Specifications are very complex, and it takes a motivated, interested individual to track and implement all of the updates. Code is always changing. I work in many states, and although codes like IBC 2012 have been nationally accepted, some states still have their own codes. There are jurisdictions using older issue codes that do not account for new materials or methods. Specification writers who do not take the time to master this knowledge might produce a bad spec. It is also important to take into account locale, because what works in Tucson won’t necessarily work in Miami.

How much follow up or jobsite inspection is involved?

Jobsite observation is the responsibility of the architect, but they may have limited construction administration presence on the job due to contractual requirements that do not allow more complete observations. Tile installation is a highly technical specialization many may not understand, which can include general contractors, and many architects just don’t have the time to learn it all. 

Some contractors want to cut corners and "value engineer" various tile installation products out of the specs, such as crack isolation membranes or epoxy grouts. This can be a recipe for disaster - the owner can sign off, but this creates a liability. The specs are written the way they are because they are intended to produce a good job and keep us out of court.  

Which current tile trends are the most interesting to you right now, and why?

I am working mainly on hotels right now, and they include a lot of tile. They used to have very limited amounts versus carpet, but now it's everywhere and the designs are awesome! Artisan tile work has long been a tradition in Europe, and we're finally catching up here in the U.S.

Have you encountered problems with the use of tile on a job?

TCNA does not recommend the use of a gypsum product as a tile substrate, although many in the industry are not aware of this. For a number of years, I’ve been using cement board units (CBU) in vertical applications in lieu of gypsum-based boards. The challenge is determining who is responsible for what based on where the CBU is in the spec. The people doing the studs and drywall are used to doing it all, but the tile contractor needs to see what they are mounting to in order to warranty the job. I believe the tile contractors need to be responsible from the stud face to the tile face so what they are putting up can be verified and they can ensure a waterproof and long lasting installation. This approach may contrary to what CSI promotes as “not defining trades” but there is logic in that decision.

How do you stay up-to-date on new products and design trends?

I follow the designs indicated in the architects' drawings and I read and listen a lot. I don’t like to abuse product reps, but I will challenge them on the products in their arena. My CUSTOM rep knows his stuff. He keeps me up to date and gets right back to me, no matter when I call.

Which resources do you use to write specifications?

I use the Internet and I read, read, read. I used to teach Construction Documents at Southern Polytechnic Institute. One student complained about having to buy the CSI Manual of Practice as the textbook. Now, he's an architect with over 20 years' experience, and he recently thanked me for teaching him how to do things right. He keeps the Manual of Practice right on his desk.

Do you have any advice for others specifying tile and tile installation products?

Strive to be correct – and remember that there is a lot of education involved in being correct. And let’s get some more young people interested in this stuff! It’s really fun and challenging!

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