From the Specifier's Corner: Apple Pie and Marmalade - Redux

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Anne Whitacre

About 25 years ago, I wrote a little piece called “Apple Pie and Marmalade” that was reprinted by manufacturers and also by various chapter newsletters.  Since the issues I discussed then are only getting worse, I thought it would be time for an update, because I’m still banging my head on my desk.

Rather than talk about how a building gets built, I’m going to use the somewhat easier comparison of planning a catering menu.  We still have a client, and in this scenario, the Contractor takes the place of the chef.  As with any catering project, the client also has a budget for their meal.  Now, you may argue that we as design professionals may not contribute a lot to the process, but after we consult with the Owner, the one of the things we actually do is plan the menu for the “Project”.  My original Menu 25 years ago consisted of this:

Roast Chicken

Green salad with tomatoes and Italian dressing

Apple pie 

In a nod to today’s priorities, let’s say that the chicken is free-range; the green salad is made up of local greens of varying types; and the apple pie is made with Gravenstein apples from Oregon.   We have been asked to make the meal gluten-free, so the apple pie is closer to a tart now, without a crust.   The menu now looks like this:

Free range Sonoma County chicken, fire roasted over alder

Local mixed greens, heirloom tomatoes with table-made Italian dressing with Extra Virgin Olive Oil and three peppers

Crustless Apple tart with organically grown Gravenstein apples, Kiyokawa Orchards, Parkdale

The Owner signs off on this menu, and we start calling caterers.

And… we start getting in the substitution requests.  Or rather, the chef starts to work and tells us what has changed:

“We don’t have a very good price on chicken these days and that free range stuff is impossible to get around the holidays.  What about duck?  Oh, and if you pick duck, it will cost you double the chicken cost because ducks are smaller”.  Our response: “Owner wants free range chicken.  Go find some of that.” 

Instead, the Chef takes the Owner out to play golf and they decide that line-caught salmon would work just as well.  (1)

The Owner calls us and wonders why we didn’t suggest salmon in the first place.  Our response….”because you directed us to use chicken”.  “Well, if you had told me that salmon had more protein and less fat, I might have chosen salmon.  You should have let me make the decision”.

As for the Field Greens:  The fields had a week of rainstorms and the greens are all sort of soggy.  What’s worse is that they get droopier during shipping.  Our meal is to be served on Tuesday night, and the Chef had planned to pick the greens Tuesday morning, even though the rain storm was predicted a week ahead of time, and they could have been picked on Monday while it was still dry.  However, picking greens was only on the schedule for Tuesday, and there wasn’t time to make a new decision.  Until… we had to re-assess the vegetable portion of the meal. (2)

“We’re bringing you Brussels Sprouts.  They are fashionable and everyone likes them more than a salad”.  “The Owner actually doesn’t like Brussels Sprouts.  What’s the issue with the salad greens?” “We don’t have anything local, and there isn’t time to ship it in from southern California”.  “You know, there are planes every hour from Southern California – you just need to get some greens from there.”  “We’ve already started cooking the Brussels sprouts.  And by the way, we need a change order for increased cost.  If you insist on salad, we’ll need a change order for that, since someone has to drive to the airport and we need to make two phone calls.  We’re billing you for the phone calls, too.”    Nope – we’re sticking with the salad greens. (3)

And finally the apple tart:  The chef didn’t know make to do a crustless one, and decided to substitute orange mousse.   “They are still fruit!  In fact, they are a better fruit than apples, because they have Vitamin C.  Plus I like it better.”   With no apple tart available at all, we are stuck with the orange mousse.   

So, our menu has evolved:

            Plank grilled, line-caught salmon, garnished with local herbs.

            Greens with non-heirloom tomatoes

            Orange Mousse, made with local Valencia oranges, and full Napa Valley cream. 

We sit down to eat… and the Owner comes to us very upset, and says “I told you this had to be a vegan meal.    Since you didn’t provide a vegan meal, I don’t see any reason to pay you.”  (4)

Of course, when we go through all of the notes and emails there was no mention of the meal being vegan.  Apparently, the Owner read a magazine, hired a consultant, and forgot to tell us.  (5)


Here is how it’s supposed to work:  The Owner sets the budget and the parameters for the design (the meal).  The Designer (us) establishes the menu.  Number of courses, type of food, how the various food items interact with each other.  We even plan the place setting.  The Chef (contractor) procures the food, cooks it, and establishes the schedule to make the meal service timely, and the settings lovely to look at.  We know that there will probably be some chaos in the kitchen.  We also expect that the Chef is experienced enough to deal with the chaos and not drag everyone else into it.  We also expect that there might be some menu changes – something like a Pippin apple for a Gravenstein, perhaps.  We don’t expect the Chef to completely change the menu – and certainly without conferring with us first.  We also don’t expect the Chef to talk directly to the Owner and change the entrée.  And finally, big changes – like a vegan meal – need to be discussed up front, rather than at the end – because that influences every decision we make.

In my original piece, local manufacturers, sustainability, and early contractor involvement weren’t issues.  We simply did not have those issues in the construction market at that time.  Substitutions were an issue, and because it was a hot construction market, we were dealing with pricing pressures on every project.  In the intervening years, we’ve had even more price pressure, and also an increase in “preconstruction services”; we also have varying (and sometimes conflicting) requirements for sustainability, performance and an already stretched labor market. 


Apple tart anyone?



Footnotes, going back to some projects I worked on in Seattle and Los Angeles.

1) Owner asked for brick veneer on their building.  Then he played golf with the contractor and they decided that EIFS was better.  We had already designed for brick veneer.

2) After six months of dry weather, the contractor decides to put down the roof immediately after 2 weeks of rain.  The selected roof membrane could not be installed on a wet deck.  

3) $400 million project and contractor submitted two $25 change orders because his guy had to run to the airport.  The Project Manager was so disgusted that he took $50 out of his wallet and gave to the contractor.

4) We are told… after project goes to bid… that we needed the assemblies to be Factory Mutual approved.

5) We work on the job for a year, and spent hours discussing how it would be packaged up for bidding.  We decreased the bid packages from 20 to 4.  The week before we go to issue the documents, the Owner informs us he has a new consultant who has a better way of dividing up the bid packages.  We spend 3 months repackaging and are informed that additional time is not an “extra service”. 

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