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Understanding Quality Processes in Specifications

Quality assurance and quality control are often used interchangeably or combined using the term “QA/QC.” In developing specifications, it is critical to understand the differences between the two and to use the terms appropriately. Quality processes in specifications can spell the difference between maintaining or losing control over the design intent of a project.

Quality Expectations

Specification quality processes must focus on what the specifications are trying to accomplish. Generally, specifications contain products, processes, and procedures. Specifications establish quality, methods, materials, and fabrication.

By contrast, drawings show quantities, location, layout, relationships, and dimensions. There is nothing qualitative about drawings. That is why specifications are critical in establishing quality requirements.

Quality is the process of meeting requirements. Specifying is a quality process, and it is important to make certain that specifications are clear about suitable quality standards, procedures, and tests. Quality is determined by product users, clients, or customers, not by society in general. Quality is not related to cost or adjectives such as “high” or “poor.”

Best-of-class specifications are the result of a process that documents design intent, levels of quality, and construction processes that are, in the judgment of the design professional, appropriate for the quality and budget prescribed by the owner’s building program.

Quality Assurance

QA is the process of specifying standards and tests that are used to ensure that the application or installation meets specific requirements.

Specification quality assurances are procedures that assure that proposed materials, fabrication, and installation strategies meet contract requirements. These are not perceptions or desires but real qualitative processes and procedures that can be tested in the laboratory, factory, or field.

According to Wikipedia, quality assurance is the “systematic measurement, comparison with a standard, monitoring of processes, and an associated feedback loop that confers error prevention.” Quality assurance standards are effective only if tested by controlled processes.

Quality Control

QC is the use of procedures for evaluating completed materials, fabrication, and installation for compliance with contract requirements determined by the quality assurance process. According to Wikipedia, quality control is “focused on fulfilling quality requirements.” Process outputs include laboratory testing, field testing, and manufacturer testing during fabrication.

In short, quality assurance lists a standard to comply with, while quality control is how the material or system is tested to show compliance with the standard.

On a coatings project, for example, listing compliance with NACE standards (now under the Association for Materials Protection and Performance, or AMPP) would be considered quality assurance. Listing the level of substrate cleaning inspection or mil thickness of a coating testing is quality control.

Division 01 Quality Assurance

The ground zero of quality resides in Division 01 — General Requirements. The Division 01 sections of the spec provide critical quality assurance and control procedures to be used during construction administration. The following are some examples of how Division 01 procedures can provide significant quality assurance for a project.

  • Substitutions are often the beginning of quality problems in a project. Substitutions are many times offered to save money or make money for the contractor. Correct procedures can reduce most if not all substitutions and resulting quality problems. Specify standard procedures that keep the designer in charge. Require the contractor to provide side-by-side submittals showing the original specified material and the proposed substitution. Comparing the cut sheets can identify quality problems before they happen on the project.
  • Submittals are a subtle but very important quality process for three reasons. 1: Submittals show exactly what the contractor understands about the project. 2: Submittals allow you to see before you buy. 3: Submittals ensure that what is specified is installed. The submittal review can eliminate substitutions offered as a submittal.
  • Special project procedures are special sections that provide specific guidance and requirements for special types of construction. Some examples are Special Project Procedures for Healthcare Facilities, Alteration Project Procedures, and Historic Treatment Procedures. These sections contain very specific procedures for maintaining the quality of the environment, care of critical equipment, and related requirements from external agencies.

The quality assurance elements of Division 01 can be quite intense and focused on a range of technical procedures. From a design perspective, a couple of items to track include manufacturer and installer qualifications. Practically, requiring years of manufacturing experience has very little to do with the quality of the manufacturing process. Providing the specific requirements in Part 2 of the specification is much more effective and enforceable. Requiring testing and material certificates from manufacturers using recognized testing agencies, such as UL, Intertek, or Warnock Hersey, provide real quality control.

  • Require trained and certified installers. Installer qualifications must be enforceable to ensure control quality. Years of experience are very hard to verify and, again, have very little to do with quality products or processes. Installers trained and certified by manufacturers are very effective and enforce quality control.
  • Request mockups. Mockups are one of the most effective quality control processes available. They are an extremely powerful, controllable, and relatively inexpensive quality control procedure. Having clear and enforceable mockup requirements in Division 01 allows each specification section to reference the requirements and then provide specific product or assembly requirements.
  • Include cutting and patching in Division 01. While this is not direct quality control, cutting and patching provides quality assurance for a range of project issues that can have real quality impacts. Cutting and patching provides specific requirements for fixing installation errors, mistimed work, and alteration-type work. For example, if a wall is damaged, cutting and patching requires that the entire wall be repainted, not just the damaged area. This is a significant quality control tool and is often overlooked or ignored.
  • Pay attention to project closeout. Project closeout affects the ultimate quality of the project by requiring submittals that document the as-built aspects of the construction. Material care data and directions are critical project closeout and sustainability elements to maintain the quality of the project over time. Project closeout requirements and substantial completion punch lists are very effective QC processes. Project maintenance is critical to sustainability. If the project elements cannot be maintained, the project is not sustainable.
  • Include demonstrations and training. These are quality assurance tasks that allow the owners to understand and maintain their projects. As stated above, maintenance is basic to a sustainable project.

Specification Section QC Basics

In a typical three-part specification organized under the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI)’s SectionFormat, each part of the specification has clear QA and QC roles.

Part 1 – General identifies procedures and processes that define the specific administrative requirements unique for these products and activities and their relationship to other products and activities. It is critical to understand that reference standards are not enforceable QA or QC unless they are actively referenced in the specification. Listing standards in the specification does not make the standard enforceable. A standard must be contained in an action item to be enforceable.

For example, listing ASTM C309, “Standard Specification for Liquid Membrane-Forming Compounds for Curing Concrete” does not provide any enforceable quality. Using the sentence, “apply curing compounds in accordance with the requirements of ASTM C309 for Type 1 curing compounds” is enforceable because it directly ties the application of the ASTM standard.

Part 2 – Products identifies the materials and methods of the types and quality of products and assemblies that are required for the project. Performance requirements and system descriptions are highly effective quality control requirements found in Part 2. They help to ensure consistent quality of materials, fabrication, and installation.

Part 3 – Execution describes preparatory actions and how the products are incorporated into the project. There are often very detailed and comprehensive quality control articles listed in this part. How this section is developed can have a significant impact on the quality of the construction. Primarily, this includes how things are prepared to receive products, system, or finishes.

Coatings rarely fail due to bad products. Coatings fail due to poor or inadequate preparation. Preparation is the number one quality control element of Part 3. Quality assurance is understanding what appropriate preparation is and how to specify it.

The Most Effective Quality Tool

Simply put, we must ask more and better questions! The type and extent of the questions we ask can make a significant difference in how we approach quality in the built environment. Quality procedures and processes in specifications can provide the basis for the types of questions that need to be asked and answered in designing and constructing a quality building. Quality assurance corresponds to the questions, and quality control corresponds to the answers. Never stop asking quality questions.

This article was originally published in the March 2022 issue of CoatingsPro. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author

Michael Chambers, FAIA, FCSI, CCS is a California architect specializing in specifications, quality control reviews, and product marketing. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California, a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, a Fellow of the Construction Specifications Institute, and a Certified Construction Specifier (CCS). Chambers is a principal of MCA Specifications located in Elk Grove, Calif. For more information, contact: Michael Chambers, (707) 391-0131.

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