Engineering Firms Sound Off on Performance-Based Specs

Codes and standards organizations talk much these days about the trend toward performance-based (PB) design. But do engineers perceive a trend toward PB specifications and away from more traditional prescriptive or proprietary specs? A recent survey of top U.S. engineering firms suggests that opinions are evenly divided.


Codes and standards organizations talk much these days about the trend toward performance-based (PB) design. But do engineers perceive a trend toward PB specifications and away from more traditional prescriptive or proprietary specs? A recent survey of top U.S. engineering firms suggests that opinions are evenly divided.

In compiling the annual CSE Giants Report, a ranking of top M/E design firms that will appear in our August issue, we asked firms a number of questions about their management and engineering design practices. In this year's survey, firms were asked the question, Have your engineers witnessed a trend toward performance-based, open specifications?

Of those who responded to the question, 42% answered yes, and 58% replied no—which is not to say that engineer respondents in either group use only one type of specification. In fact, when asked to explain how they feel about different types of specs, they tended to indicate that each type has its place.

"PB specifications are helpful when specifying systems where the manufacturers have different methodologies to achieve the same result," reported Julie Bauer, director of marketing at Affiliated Engineers, Madison, Wis. "[Our engineers] typically only utilize proprietary specifications where there are specific reasons to limit the options to one manufacturer."

Several respondents pointed to a connection between PB specifications and project type—particularly, design-build work. "We are currently undertaking increased design-build work using performance-based specs as the contract mechanism," wrote Cheryl Mruczek-Sharp, director of public relations with A. Epstein and Sons Intl., Chicago.

She went on to say that the trend will undoubtedly continue for her firm, as it attempts to capture the speed and cost advantages of PB specs. But she warned that an engineering firm's clients "must have systems in place to verify that contractors are complying with the requirements of performance-based specs." Quality is at the mercy of the contractor.

This note of caution about using PB specs was prevalent in the responses. Generally, engineers feel that PB design and specification makes good sense for some types of work, but each project must be evaluated on its own to determine whether the PB approach is appropriate.

"We have seen performance-based specs mostly on developer-driven projects or retail projects," said Suzanne Cammarota with Bala Consulting Engineers, Wynnewood, Pa. "Fire protection services are most often performance-based, and BAS systems are, as well."

There is also a tendency for PB specs to be applied on government projects, and proprietary specs on private work. One respondent suggested that PB specs are "too loose" for industrial projects but may be just fine for light commercial work.

In fact, a number of respondents suggested that it is in the high-tech arena that PB specs are most likely to be used. For example, in the areas of telecommunications and building automation, the number of vendors is always expanding. Items such as cabling and device partners are continually changing, making proprietary specs more difficult.

Oftentimes, it's the client who determines the type of spec. "For the majority of products specified, our clients want to see bids with select manufacturers that they are comfortable with," said Ellen Randall, AIA, public relations coordinator with CUH2A, Inc., Princeton, N.J. "Open specifications need to be performance-based to allow for multiple manufacturers with slightly different criteria, material, etc." But for certain items, she continued, clients have very specific lists of approved manufacturers, usually for major equipment such as chillers, air handlers and boilers.

One respondent suggested another advantage to the PB approach: "Properly applied, [PB specs] not only accelerate the design process but transfer some liability exposure to others as well," said John Pulley, P.E., engineering practice sector leader at The Durrant Group, Dubuque, Iowa.

Others, however, feel that PB specs put a greater burden on engineers to understand products and their comparability.

In short, there is consensus in the engineering community about the types of equipment and projects that are appropriate for PB specs. But as to whether there is a trend toward performance-based specifications, that depends on the firm.

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