Some Specifications Just Aren’t Fair

The Construction Specification Institute’s (CSI) recommendations for writing effective specifications contain the now familiar “Four C's.” Specifications should be clear, concise, correct and complete. But the CSI “Project Delivery Practice Guide” includes an equally critical C requirement — that of coordinating the specifications. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) considers this to be so important that they have included it as the fifth C in specification preparation. But how are some specification writers on the design team coordinating the drawings, specifications and reference specifications? They are transferring their responsibility for construction document coordination by requiring the contractor to find all the conflicts caused by poor coordination, as illustrated by the following specification language:

“In the case of a conflict between two or more terms in the construction documents, the more stringent term or higher quality material shall be required and an ambiguity shall be construed not to exist.”

No design team construction document coordination? Lack of design team quality control? Negligent professional practice? No worries, make the contractor responsible for finding and paying for the conflict! This seems to contradict one of the basic elements of a contract between two parties, that both parties are acting in good faith.

Perhaps the design team is not aware of the CSI recommendations on coordination, which are quite specific, as shown in the following selected excerpts from the “Project Delivery Practice Guide”.

Coordinating Drawings with Specifications
“The drawings and the specifications are complementary, and both are needed to fully describe a construction project. Aspects of the specifications and the drawings may be clear, concise, correct, and complete, as to the information they convey, but unless the parts are coordinated with each other, the construction project may experience many problems and discrepancies. Effective coordination and quality assurance programs must begin early in the design process and depend largely on continuous and effective communication among project team members.”

“Coordination must occur at all levels of the project team. Consultants must ensure that the drawings and specifications within their offices are fully coordinated. Various consultants must also coordinate their graphic and written materials among their respective offices. The responsible A/E must not only coordinate the drawings and specifications within the A/E’s own office, but also be responsible for coordinating the entire construction document package and for maintaining the communication process that will facilitate this coordination.”

Responsibility for Coordination: “One person should be the coordinator and should have the responsibility for reviewing consistency between the drawings and the specifications. In preparing drawings and specifications, the specifier and A/E should work together, keeping in mind the difficulties faced by estimators, bidders, contractors, inspectors, and product representatives. In many instances, the A/E is also the specifier. As the project design stage begins, a conference should be held that includes the A/E, the consultants, the drafters, and the specifier. Specification preparation should proceed concurrently with design, and coordination should become a continuous process from the beginning of the project.”

This CSI document also provides a checklist of recommendations for conducting preliminary and final coordination at set milestones such as 50 percent completion and 90 percent completion. The CSI checklists refer to coordinating documents for omissions, overlaps, and duplications between disciplines; conflicts and discrepancies; difficult or impossible construction methods; incompatible materials and components; inconsistent terminology and abbreviations; and more. CSI states that these items should be considered within the drawings and specifications for each discipline, between the drawings and specifications of separate disciplines, within the project manual, and between the project manual and drawings. This document also recommends that consultants review the drawings and specifications of other disciplines and forward corrections and comments to the A/E for communication to the other project team members. CSI cautions specifiers that checking construction documents is not the same as coordinating the separate portions.

Contractors must diligently prepare bids, but usually only three weeks pass between a bid notice and a bid letting. This doesn’t allow much time for determining quantities and pricing, and working with subcontractors and suppliers. It definitely doesn’t provide the time needed to perform the quality control function that is the design team’s responsibility. In addition, the contractor does not have the same skill set as the design team in determining what conflicts exist in the construction documents.

Contractors also don’t make the final determination of whether or not a conflict exists. Instead, they send a Request for Information (RFI) to the design team identifying the two or more items they believe might be in conflict. But when the specifications require that the “more stringent term or higher quality material shall be required,” the design team’s response may be to agree that a conflict exists, identify the conflicting requirement that produces the highest quality result for the owner, and then tell the contractor to pay for it. This is simply inequitable.

A fundamental principle of construction agreement is that owners pay for benefits they receive from the new construction. When responsibility for coordination is transferred to the contractor and the contractor does not discover conflicting specification requirements during bidding, the design team has essentially forced the contractor to pay for owner benefits. The switch from the owner pays for the benefit to the contractor pays for the owner’s benefits is all due to the design team’s abrogating its quality control responsibilities through contractual trickery.

On one project for which the “most stringent” provision was included in the specification, the contractor wisely excluded that specific provision in the owner-contractor contract agreement. We encourage all contractors to exclude these types of specification provisions in their contracts.

Ed. Note: More information from The Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) documents on “Project Delivery Practice Guide” and “Construction Specifications Practice Guide” can be purchased at