Thinking out LOUD!

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Article Index
Thinking out LOUD!
Primary Intent
Long History
'Element' Misunderstood
Use in Heavy and Civil?
Not a WBS!
Think Modular Use
Usage of the term 'level'
Omit Reference ID's
Think 'Planning'
All Pages

Various items of interest to those concerned with improving UNIFORMAT II understanding and development, that have been vexing the author for some time. A mild 'rant' perhaps, but made with the intention of provoking thought and serious consideration by others.

Introductory Comments

As time moves along it becomes more readily apparent that those who seek to write and use new UNIFORMAT II classifications, especially in the heavy and civil engineering area, have widely ranging views on what the UNIFORMAT II is, what it is intended to do, and how best to go about using it.

Having viewed various proposed solutions for a variety of constructed entities it is apparent to the writer that there can often be a clear divergence between what has been written and developed for UNIFORMAT II in the area of buildings, and the wide range of subsequent solutions proposed for heavy and civil engineering.

Through my years of involvement with UNIFORMAT II I have observed several attempts to write new classifications and have noted the wide variance in their application of the basic principles that drive UNIFORMAT II. This widening experience has given rise to a number of thoughts that, while I have largely kept them to myself, it is now time to expose them to the ‘light of day’, in the hope that others, may correct me where I am wrong, and adopt my message where they are not.

The following statements, observations, and thoughts are not meant to be dogmatic or authoritarian (no matter how they may appear) but are simply an airing of background thoughts that have been running through my mind for some time. Indeed they could change as more thought and reasoning is applied to them, the resolution of which I believe, and hope, may well aid in the development of new UNIFORMAT II elemental classifications. The overall intention is that together they will all follow the same pattern, rules and application that guided the original UNIFORMAT II (i.e. ASTM’s E1557 classification for buildings, published in 1992), and form the basis of a cohesive, consistent, and common approach and application.

The Primary Intent of UNIFORMAT II

UNIFORMAT II and its sister classifications, and there are many in use throughout the world, are primarily written and used for Cost Management during the planning, budgeting and design phases of construction projects. Cost Management typically encompasses Cost Planning, Cost Control, and Cost Analysis.

They are not intended to be a full work breakdown structure (WBS), and are specifically directed at the construction aspects alone, but can be incorporated into a full WBS as required.  As each and every project is unique in some form or another making a range of  UNIFORMAT II classifications available as individual entities (modules) aids in the creation of truly project specific WBS’s. For that reason UNIFORMAT II classifications are developed as discrete classifications that can be used individually or together, as a package, to suit the needs of any particular project.

An important, and fundamental, consideration is that any elemental classification shall be just as usable at the commencement of planning as it is at the completion of design and construction. It is therefore specifically intended as ‘high-level’ classification.

UNIFORMAT II has a Long History

The original Uniformat was written in the early 1970s primarily at the instigation of the American Institute of Architects and the United States General Services Administration, to assist both organisations in creating a format and structure within which the setting of realistic cost targets and budgets allowed for continued reasoned control during the design development phases of buildings. Note that at that time Uniformat was directed solely at buildings and related sitework.

One advantage that this pioneering development effort had was that its authors were already practitioners of the art and science of elemental cost planning, cost control and cost analysis and were using this methodology on a daily basis. They could also lay claim to having been formally trained in the technique, which was originally developed by James Nisbet in the United Kingdom. He, at the end of World War II, developed the elemental technique for use by the Department of Education, in response to their dire need to quickly construct new, and refurbish many damaged, schools required as the result of a booming population, and all within a limited budget.  That original work, published in the early 1950’s, was adopted by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in the early 1960’s and continues in use today by many jurisdictions, throughout the world, for all forms of building construction.

The North American version of this technique differs in some ways from the original (primarily to suit a distinctly different contracting environment) but follows the same basic principle of summarising cost to function, regardless of materials and construction method.

It might also be noted that another cost control technique also grew out of that war time period. Although evidently unconnected in origin the Value Engineering process, developed by Lawrence Miles of the General Electric Company, also seeks to understand, control, and improve cost from a functional point view. These days using UNIFORMAT II as the control hierarchy is an excellent way of setting up cost summaries for work being subjected to a Value Engineering workshop.

The Term ‘element’ is Easily Misunderstood

Perhaps part of the reason that many may misunderstand the fundamental purpose of UNIFORMAT II is the original, and continuing, use of the term ‘element’.

In UNIFORMAT II this term has a very specific definition that is both narrower and more specific than that found in any general dictionary.

Element, n — in construction planning, design, specification, estimating, and cost analysis, is a significant component part of the whole that performs a specific function, or functions, regardless of design, specification or construction method.

Discussion — While through analysis, or by direct application, construction estimates categorised into elements (functional elements) with allocated costs, may be summarised in an elemental cost summary, or elemental cost analysis; elements (functional elements) also provide a framework for consistent preliminary description, outline and performance specification, through all stages of planning, design, construction, and maintenance.

Per ASTM E 833 - Standard Terminology of Building Economics

This definition, which is common with definitions published by other sources, is the fundamental foundation upon which UNIFORMAT II is built and applied. Understanding it can go a long way to avoiding many of the mistaken applications and misinterpretations of UNIFORMAT II that are often evident.

Is  UNIFORMAT II Applicable to Heavy and Civil Construction Work?

The decision by the ASTM E06.81 Building Economics subcommittee to extend the remit of UNIFORMAT II to include heavy and civil engineering entities, in addition to buildings, has caused this writer much ‘heart-burn’ over the years. Primarily because he had not seen the need for such an approach in those industries.

Why the difficulty you may ask. Well I’m still not reconciled to what I see as a fundamental difference between the ‘light’ and the ‘heavy’ construction industries. Buildings (light construction) are put together from a very wide range of available materials and components, used in relatively small quantities. Civil works (heavy construction) on the other hand are largely put together from relatively few materials and construction techniques, often in very large quantities.

With light construction a wide choice of methods and materials permits an almost limitless combination of solutions, sometimes very complex, with a consequently endless struggle to maintain specified work and changing expectations within budget during design. This contrasts with heavy construction where the choices would appear to me to be far more limited. Indeed, they might even be obvious at the outset, and while certainly not devoid of budget control difficulties these may well be more associated with quantity as opposed to content.

Do note that the setting of light (building) construction budgets, using UNIFORMAT II, is a form a parametric estimating. Those familiar with members of the Institute of Parametric Analysts will recognise their abilities in managing the design of complex aerospace vehicles by using parametric estimating, their need to control cost during design (high choice, low quantity), and their ability to use past experience (analysis) when planning new work. These processes are essentially the same in building cost management using UNIFORMAT II.

UNIFORMAT II is Not a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)!

Now that I have your attention it becomes a incumbent upon me to support that potentially provocative statement. Many explain the the UII hierarchy in terms of it being a WBS. However, if UNIFORMAT II is a WBS then it is one that is very carefully nuanced towards cost management during the design stages of any constructed entity.

It is much better to say that UNIFORMAT II is not a full WBS. Certainly not, as presently defined by the Project Management Institute (PMI), where they more accurately (using their terms) refer to cost breakdown structures (CBS) that form part part of a full WBS. More specifically UNIFORMAT II is an elemental cost breakdown structure (ECBS) that can be included within a WBS as needed by any specific project.

A full WBS includes not only the construction work but also the work of managing and supervising the design and construction, as well as other important and important approvals and regulatory needs, all of which will represent the many and various activities involved in the work of a true project manager. UNIFORMAT II is specifically set to the construction aspect alone. This should not be surprising as the basic, fundamental, and and primary intent of UNIFORMAT II is to provide the means for robust management of construction cost built, or designed, into the construction work. That’s not say that UNIFORMAT II can only be used solely for that purpose, as experience has shown that, once set, the elemental hierarchy that UNIFORMAT II has established works well for other quantitative procedures, and several text-rich report procedures as well.

Individual UNIFORMAT II Classifications as Modules

The intention within the E06.81 subcommittee of ASTM is to write specific, discrete, elemental classifications that are working tools. Other organisations, and individuals do have a tendency to write an elemental classification(s) as one long list, attempting to include the whole built-environment within the one document. This  may be fine for use in filing construction information, and so in effect they are simply hierarchical  indexing systems. However, these do not typically work well  in the cost management of construction during design, in preliminary description, in condition assessment, or other mathematical and/or text-rich reports. These activities work best with a fixed and consistent format tailored to suit structures of known function, where their commonality will significantly increase their utility and ability to work one with the other (inter-operability).

For want of a better term I’ll use the ‘modular’ figure of speech here. Each constructed entity within any project will be analysed and controlled individually (this is a basic tenet of UNIFORMAT II) as modules that perform specific functions, and that collectively will form the ‘project’ . These discrete constructed entities are basically understood by, and have elemental classifications expressly written for, their prime function. For example, a building is an entity constructed to provide shelter (function), which may be used for various purposes (use). An appropriate elemental classification for a building will, apply to all forms of buildings, no matter their use. It might be worthwhile understanding that whereas the prime function never changes, or rarely so, the use may change several times throughout its life. Indeed many buildings may contain several uses at the outset.

This principle of writing discrete classifications specifically for function versus use will apply to all forms of UNIFORMAT II classification. For example:

- A bridge functions as a link from one point to another over an open space (chasm, river, etc.), But its use may be for road, rail , foot traffic, or carrying pipelines or canals etc., or indeed for a combination of these uses.

- Tunnels also function as links, but differ by being built through a physical impediment be it a hill, mountain, or other obstacle over which it is impractical to construct. Again, tunnels may be used for several purposes, or multiple purposes, and also their use can change through their lifetime. There are numerous examples of railway tunnels becoming road or pedestrian tunnels, and even mushroom farms!

Isolating Special Needs with UNIFORMAT II

The basic rules for applying UNIFORMAT II state that each constructed entity, being discrete, shall be analysed individually regardless of its end use. However, as noted earlier such discrete entities, while having one overall function, may include several uses.

For this reason it is not infrequent that the costs and budgets set for each use are required to be separated (abstracted), or at least identified, one from the other. In large part this need is the result of specific funding and profitability needs. Appropriate analysis can allow clients to control expenditure towards specific end uses, i.e. cost centres, or users, to meet their financial goals. Quite often these specific uses are funded separately, and so must be budgeted and controlled separately.

When consistently using the fixed hierarchy inherent in an appropriate UNIFORMAT II elemental classification it is relatively simple to prepare these abstracts for as many costings (or descriptions) as are required. These, when aggregated together, will represent the appropriate whole constructed entity for which a typical general construction contract will be let.

It is valuable to recognise that, to a trained eye, any elemental cost analysis will be seen as a ’picture’ of the work envisaged. So where ‘abstract’ analyses are provided the inclusion, or exclusion, of text or cost against specific elements, will give a clear indication of overall content or scope, and its magnitude. A simple example will be a ‘base building’ abstract accompanied by a ‘fit-up’ abstract which, when aggregated together, will represent an overall project. It will be readily apparent just where the money and effort is being spent, and for what purpose. In recent times it has, unfortunately, often become necessary to spend additional resources on ‘hardening’ facilities that may be prone to outside threat or risk, so an ‘abstract’ elemental analysis may well be prepared to isolate that need. Another example may be identifying work included for ‘beautifying’ or ‘visually improving’ otherwise ugly or uninteresting entities. So long as the same common fixed elemental hierarchy is used in these ‘special needs’ abstracts, the work can be easily be both exposed and aggregated within the whole.

‘Levels’ an Expression that can be Misleading.

Since the original Uniformat and its subsequent revision into UNIFORMAT II in 1995 the term ‘level’ has been applied to the various levels of aggregation within these hierarchical breakdowns. This terminology does not typically appear  in other elemental classifications used throughout the world, and seems localised to the United States of America, and while alluded to in some Canadian publications, is not typically used in technical conversation within Canada, where elemental analysis and cost control during design is frequently employed.

While it is a correct term ‘level’ appears to imply a simple level of disaggregation, without regard to the specific needs, application, or content of any particular level. Where it is in general use the term will usually include a number. So, you will hear users refer to items of work  included at ‘Level 2’, or some other level number. This is all well and good where there is a well known and common understanding of intent, and a common relative starting point for a level numbering system has been agreed.  However, this use of language can be misleading too, when participants begin their disaggregation at a different start point, or use the same level numbers to include items of widely different levels of dis-aggregation. Such eclectic results are very common. It might be worth recalling here that the original Uniformat of 1975 included a much different level of content at Level 1 from that subsequently used in UNIFORMAT II in 1992.

It is far better to refer to the various hierarchical levels by name and not by number. Using an appropriate name permits use and appropriate clear indication in any hierarchy, at any level, without confusing the content. The content remains consistent no matter where applied and within whatever structure it is used. A critical concept of UNIFORMAT II is the ‘element’. It is the element that is the key, critical concept, and component of elemental classification. The term has been specifically defined  to maintain its distinction and to avoid confusion, as also have the terms Major Group Elements and Group Elements, and even Sub-Elements. In conversation the word ‘level’ may still be used, but it will be with greater precision when referring to something as at a ‘Sub-Element Level’, or a ‘Group Element Level’ ,or ‘Element Level’ for example.

It is not uncommon to see writers proposing new elemental classifications, who wish to use numerous levels of detail. In doing so they are missing the essential point of the UNIFORMAT II elemental concept. Again, the need is to stress that elemental classification is not simply a ‘list of stuff’, no matter how many levels it may include, but is a structured hierarchical concept that can be applied across many forms of constructed entity analysis or description, with a common understanding of intent. An important part of UNIFORMAT II is also to understand the concept of ‘less is more’. Increasing levels of detail does not lead to an improvement in functionality, but to a less useful classification, that is less able to function as a valuable, common reference and control document though the full planning and design completion cycle. (see earlier remarks on parametrics).

A Specific Choice made to Exclude Element Reference Numbers

There is a clear distinction between the content of the mandatory part of an ASTM standard (the main body of the standard), and appendixes that are non-mandatory.

In understanding that UNIFORMAT II classifications are a part, and only a part, of an overall project, upon consideration it seems illogical to dictate reference or identification numbers to each major group element, group group, or element within each classification.

A full work breakdown structure is typically prepared specifically for each project, embedded within which are one or many UNIFORMAT II elemental cost breakdown structures. Consequently any reference or identification applied in a mandatory manner will likely create a mixed and confusing numbering structure. Full work breakdown structures are typically authored for specific projects and frequently maintain a custom reference numbering or identification system that is unique to that project, in its identification of structures, and their location etc. Business organisations will often maintain their own databases and work breakdown structures that are proprietary and unique to themselves.

In an E06.81 subcommittee meeting some two years ago, and after much discussion, a decision was made was to omit reference identification numbers from the mandatory part of any UNIFORMAT II standard classification, and include them solely within any appendixes. Appendixes are typically noted as being examples only.

An additional and prime reason why this decision was made is that the various proposed discrete UNIFORMAT II classifications will use and re-use many common elements. As each classification differs in its end product, it can be expected that these elements will be collected into a variety group elements, and subsequently into a variety of major group elements. These groups and major groups will not likely be common to every classification, consequently attempting to use a mandatory reference or identification number for each common element (group and major group too) can only lead to publishing a confusing and ultimately illogical schema.

This decision is not without some opposition, but with thought these detractors may see that the inherent logic will prevail.

Think like a Planner!

Many writers and authors of new UNIFORMAT II classifications have difficulty in settling on the right level of detail at which to pitch an ‘element’. As a suggestion they may find that in stepping back from their knowledge (and consequently detailed thinking) as an estimator, designer, or constructor, they’ll begin to better ‘see the wood for the trees’, or in other words see the bigger picture. Doing so, and thinking as a planner, specifically a cost planner, can be an important step forward. In essence, for UNIFORMAT II purposes, it is important to see (envision) the primary, functional, component parts of any constructed entity before they are designed and detailed.

This point really can’t be stressed strongly enough. The whole concept of UNIFORMAT II is to set realistic budgets before the design has been commenced, giving the client a better opportunity to understand the impact of their proposed action, and be able to compare the succeeding increasing design detail with this budget during the cost control phase. So, appropriate elements are those that can be seen, and modelled, with no design detail available (cost planning), and, with the subsequently more detailed estimates, be easily summarised back to those same elements (cost control), and finally, upon design completion, easily summarised and analysed (cost analysis) for use in the ‘feed-forward’ process for future cost planning work.

While admittedly not a wholly satisfactory explanation, elements can be likened to those essential parts that are often apparent when sketching an outline of any proposed new entity on the ‘back of an envelope’ or ‘on a restaurant napkin’.

Thinking like a planner, and not like an estimator/designer/constructor (with all the available detail and design solutions in hand), can greatly assist in understanding the fundamental concept of allocating reasoned sums of money, or reasoned description, to functional elements of the constructed entity. The intent,as I’ve often been heard to state, is to ‘create simplicity out of complexity’