Improved project outcomes through better woodworking specifications

April 25, 2017

Photo © Chris J. Dickson. Photo courtesy Halifax Digital Imaging

By Drew Parks
The creation of drawings and specifications for any construction project is a complicated business. First, the general conditions must be outlined, all appropriate references identified, and contractual obligations listed. Then, each section must clearly inform the bidder of the scope of work and its specifications. If a specifier wants to retain sanity in this process, every resource that can add credibility and accuracy to their document must be accessed and mined.

The content in many sections of bid documents is already benefiting from collaborations with the affiliated trade—structural, electrical, mechanical, and door hardware professionals all provide much needed input and follow up inspections to ensure the quality of the bid documents and the finished product. The architect and specifier cannot be expected to be experts on every aspect of building construction. Their job should be to create the vision, identify the detailing requirements, and corral the trade expertise needed to put their vision on paper for bidding and fabrication.

One area of the building finishes, for which available resources have not been fully tapped by the specifier, is the interior product collectively known as ‘millwork.’ Such materials are identified in the architectural woodwork, laminates, panelling, wood doors, and laboratory cabinet sections of MasterFormat—respectively, 06 41 00, 06 42 00, 06 46 00, 08 14 00, and 12 35 53. The items governed by these sections are often the first things seen when entering a lobby, boardroom, store, suite, or office. They are one of the principal elements that contribute to ‘first impressions’ and quality assessments.

Above: Mahogany wood and elegant design create a luxury retail space for the Touch of Gold jewelry store in Halifax. (The project team included Mill-Right Woodworking Inc. and Launch by Design.) Left: For North End Halifax’ Agricola Street Brasserie Restaurant (Design360inc), the theme was ‘industrial,’ with unique design elements by Provincial Woodworkers.
Photo courtesy RCS Construction Inc.

Unfortunately, the writing of these sections is often a source of frustration for the specifier. Accurate material and construction details are difficult to nail down, and clear identification of these elements in the bid drawings and specifications is a time-consuming process. Inconsistencies in the final specifications and drawings can plague the architectural firm, general contractor, and millwork firm throughout the bid and building process.

This article examines how resources from the Architectural Woodwork Manufacturers of Canada (AWMAC) can help design/construction professionals in this regard. The goals are:

Understanding millwork’s evolution
Millwork production and installation has changed dramatically over the last generation. Once the domain of the finish carpenter, the trade now comprises a team of specialists:

The manufacturing facility has evolved from the backyard shed or garage to larger industrial spaces filled with CNC machinery. The capability of the local manufacturing process has also evolved. It was not that long ago that low-tech manufacturing methods restricted the buyer to simple design and materials. Unique elements resulted in extra costs generated by labour-intense processes and limited access to ‘special’ materials. For years, complicated features such as carved elements, large interconnected pieces, multiple colour patterns, and inlay designs were only available with a large price tag. Today, the availability of new and reimagined materials and the detail and speed of computerized machinery has opened the door to ‘sky-is-the-limit’ design.

For the specifier, the downside of this new design opportunity and industry change becomes the complications of getting the vision details recorded in words and drawings for the bid process and, ultimately, in the translation of those specifications into the final installed product. The architect and specifier are expected to control all aspects of the building design, from foundations to finishes. The idea the architect, designer, and specifier can also be trade experts who understand all the intricacies inherent to each discipline is simply unrealistic.

Each qualified tradesperson has tens of thousands of hours of training and work experience; each trade’s business place usually relies on specialists within its own ranks. To adapt to this reality, the specifier community has developed links with the individual trades—consultants, inspectors, and engineers—to ensure the myriad details are looked after and a good product is controlled and produced for the owner.

With a team that included Naylor Architecture and Mill-Right Woodworking Inc., the Moncton location of Moxie’s Bar and Grill showcases how teak and maple solids and veneers combine to create a unique dining atmosphere.
Photo courtesy RCS Construction Inc.

Linking designers to the millwork industry
The millworkers of Canada have been working and learning together in an association that started in the 1920s in Vancouver as the Mainland Millwork Association. It continued in the 1950s as the Architectural Woodwork Association (a defacto Canadian Chapter of the American Architectural Woodwork Institute [AWI]), and in the 1960s as the Millwork Manufacturers Association in BC. Finally, in 1970, it became the Architectural Woodwork Manufacturers Association of Canada (AWMAC), representing British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario. This association, with the addition of Atlantic and Québec chapters in 2001 and 2010, has become a truly national entity.

AWMAC represents architectural woodwork manufacturers that produce and install the woodwork components in restaurants, hotels, casinos, offices, malls, schools, hospitals, assisted living complexes, and custom residential settings. Its membership also includes the material suppliers to those manufacturers, community colleges offering woodworking programs, design authority firms active in the specifying of architectural millwork, and industry research and advisory persons.

AWMAC has developed the woodwork standard for Canada and has been an equal partner in developing the standards for North America. Its standards were first published in 1972 as the AWMAC Quality Standards, and then reissued in 1978, 1984, 1991, and 1998. Then, in collaboration with AWI, it co-published Quality Standards Illustrated (QSI) in 2003. This was followed by Architectural Woodwork Standards (AWS), which was published in 2009 and 2014 as a collaboration with AWI and California’s Woodwork Institute (WI). The work and knowledge that have gone into these publications makes them an invaluable resource for everyone that designs, specifies, builds, or installs cabinets and millwork.

The AWS Manual has become an important text in community college woodwork program courses, with all of those recent graduates introduced to its contents. AWMAC has also published two ‘mini booklets.’ One focuses on the information from AWS Section 10−Cabinetmaking, and is used as a reference at the work bench in schools and businesses, while the other draws on all the installation information in the AWS and is utilized as a quick reference guide for installation crews on project worksites.

AWMAC has developed the Guarantee and Inspection Service program (GIS) to ensure adherence to those standards on any project for which it is specified. It is essentially a system of monitoring millwork manufacturing, materials, and installation to ensure AWS standards are followed.

AWMAC appoints an inspector who is contracted to inspect the millwork production in at least three stages:

Reports from these inspections are issued to the architect, general contractor, and millworker at each stage.

GIS is a tool for the specifier, architect, and owner to use to effectively control the quality of the millwork product. The program only comes into effect when the specifier calls for its use in the project specifications. A sample of the suggested wording can be found on the AWMAC website. Specifying GIS promotes integrity; it is a mechanism to ensure compliance.

In the White Point Lodge Dining Room (Queens County, N.S.), Rodney Enterprises Ltd., and Design360inc worked together to ensure the rustic pine décor added to the relaxed atmosphere of the beach and water views.
Photo courtesy Design360inc

Problems and solutions
When it comes to woodwork components for projects, many of the oft-encountered problems listed below can be solved simply by specifying the Architectural Woodwork Standards and AWMAC Guarantee and Inspection Service in the appropriate sections.

Conflicts between the specifier’s tender drawings and written specifications
Beyond specifying AWS and GIS in the appropriate sections, it is important to specify less and draw less (as little as possible, with the former). One should show only what the designer wants to see, not how to build the cabinets. In other words, it is important to show elevation and plan views, but sections are only for unique or unusual requirements. The AWS covers how to build a cabinet, so it does not make sense for the specifier to try to duplicate what has already been created. (However, variance from the standards must be shown.)

If the specifier provides a written summary of the required millwork scope, includes a list of material and hardware choices, and specifies GIS, he or she has provided all the information required to build quality cabinets. When the inspection service program has been specified, AWMAC also offers pre-tender review of the documents.

Bid submissions that do not include quality materials and workmanship
Specifying the GIS ensures the AWMAC member or non-member will have to build to AWS. It also makes certain even the lowest bid will have to provide a quality product and that the specifier will receive from the awarded subcontractor good shop drawings that clearly show the millwork construction, materials, and installation details.

Bid submissions that do not follow the specifier’s drawings and vision
Independent oversight greatly enhances the architect’s ability to get the product that they envisioned. AWMAC can lend impartial opinion to the specifier when the subcontractor brings up arguments centred on the alleged need to change the specified material or construction methods.

The Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) machine centre has started to dominate the manufacturing equipment in many modern woodworking shops.
Photo courtesy CNC Automation

Extra time, spent by the specifier and architect, answering unnecessary questions or justifying material choices and construction methods
It is tempting for many specifiers to throw in more detail drawings and specifications in an attempt to make sure the information is ‘clear.’ More often than not, that extra information serves to muddy things, rather than clarify. Relying on AWS for the millwork construction specifications and requesting AWMAC for a pre-tender review of the documents can ensure clarity (along with correctness, concision, and completeness).

Damage to millwork products caused by an unstable project site environment
calls for the site environment to be stable and within those standards’ established, reasonable ‘geographic’ parameters before millwork components are brought or installed onsite. To this author, it only makes good sense for the design professional to stand with the millworker (and AWMAC) if the site contractor should try to force delivery of millwork components before the site environment has been stabilized.

Multiple deficiency lists after project completion
The AWMAC inspections and reports reduce the installation practices that lead to deficiencies. The inspector identifies all construction-related deficiencies, leaving the architect to identify only the variances to their specific design and material requirements.

Getting a bond or guarantee for the project millwork
The GIS program provides a two-year guarantee for the millwork components providing the millwork has been built to AWS standards. This guarantee is backed up by the millworker, AWMAC Atlantic, and AWMAC Canada.

To reduce specifiers’ workload, improve specification and drawing quality, and ensure a smooth transition from drawings to installed product, it is important to call for the AWMAC Architectural Woodwork Standards and the Guarantee and Inspection Service in the construction documentation (and to take advantage of the latter’s pre-tender inspection of documents). It is also crucial to state early in the written specification the expectation nothing less than AWS-quality shop drawings will be accepted, and any extra ‘after-award’ costs associated with the bidder’s lack of knowledge of the standards’ requirements will not be entertained.

It is also critical to state the environmental stability of the project site be achieved by the general contractor before delivery or installation of millwork components will be approved by the architect’s office. From there, all that remains is to remember to specify less, draw less, and think about what to do with all the free time saved in streamlining the processes.

Drew Parks is the manager of Architectural Woodwork Manufacturers of Canada (AWMAC) Atlantic Association. He has been part of the millwork industry for more than 40 years, having worked as cabinetmaker, lead hand, production manager, project manager, general manager and owner, collaborating with architects and designers on many major projects. Parks can be contacted via e-mail at[6].

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