When a building’s specifications are unclear, you can still gain an edge by leveling the playing field.
By: Mark L. Johnson
More and more, drywall and ceiling contractors have to pick up the omissions of intent in architectural drawings, add notes to their bids and hope, frankly, that in contracting work they don’t get burned. Ambiguous drawings and specifications are becoming persistent and costing money.
A case in point: Recently, B&B Interior Systems, Inc., Fort Lauderdale, Fla., won the contract for work on a commercial building. Jeff Burley, B&B’s CEO/president, says the drawings showed one part of the structure built with fire-rated material. But, the intent on the building’s opposite side was ambiguous. It clearly did not show the same fire-rating details. "I bid it the way it was drawn,” says Burley. "We won the contract.”
One day, as work progressed, the GC’s project manager motioned Burley aside. "You know the fire rating over there,” he said, pointing in one direction. "We need you to fire rate this assembly over here.” He pointed the opposite way.
"It’s not on the plan,” Burley replied.
"Yeah, but it was the intent of the architect to have fire rating in there, and our contract with the owner says I can’t go back to him,” the GC said. "We’ve signed an agreement. You know the requirements. You should have built it fire-rated.”
"Well, read your contract. Your contract says that if it was ‘intended, even though it’s not drawn,’ it’s still in your contract.”
The extra fire-rating assembly cost B&B $7,000. "That ate into our already razor-thin profit,” Burley says.
"Architects Shouldn’t Do Drawings”
Clearly, subcontractors are feeling the heat. "You used to have a markup so you could take some hits now and then,” says Dave DeHorn, chief estimator at Brady Company/Los Angeles, Inc. in Anaheim, Calif. "But in this economy, we’re bidding stuff at 5 and 8 percent and still not getting the work. And if we do get the work, it doesn’t leave much room for ‘what ifs.’”
Unclear specifications sometimes leave estimators submitting bids and hoping for the best. But, they have to be prepared to take a haircut—a contract with the assumption that the subcontractor makes good on all assemblies and structures, even those not backed by details.
"It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and we’re all wearing Milk-Bone® underwear,” Burley says, paraphrasing a popular line from the "Cheers” sitcom.
Building owners are savvy. They know competition is tough at the moment. "The owner is ‘securitizing’ his drawings with language in the contract with the GC that flows down to the subs, making everybody all ‘in,’” he says.
Besides building owners taking a hard-line stance, drywall and ceiling contractors also see the current economic squeeze affecting the quality of building documents. "I don’t think they are giving architects enough money to get a decent set of plans,” says Allan Brueblood, chief estimator, A.W. Baylor Versapanel Plastering, Inc., Ormond Beach, Fla. "There are a few architects out there that are good, but we’re running into some drawings where they just haven’t had the time to clean them up.”
"My opinion is that an architect shouldn’t do drawings until they have two years’ experience in any trade,” says Mark Waldoch, project manager and estimator, Prestige Drywall, Inc., Anoka, Minn. "I don’t care if it’s as a laborer sweeping the floor. They would learn so much in two years of working in the field that it would solve so many problems.”
Tips and Tricks
Schooling architects in the trades would be nice. But it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. So what can drywall and ceiling contractors do to qualify their bids and, when they land projects, enact better contracts and follow-through? Here is a list of items to try:
Start by identifying ambiguous language in the job scope. Look for unclear items and items that are "intended” but may not be drawn in or specified. "We do our best,” Burley says. "The estimator has to drill down into all of that reading. If he has time, he’ll do it. If not, the estimator has to ‘qualify’ it.”
Polish your communication skills. Some drywall and ceiling contractors say there’s an art to offering a proposal that qualifies discrepancies. The GC may look only at your price and not your bid exclusions. You may win the bid, but you always have to remember that a bid is just a proposal. You still need your proposal to be incorporated into the contract.
Separate and footnote your add-ons. "I put in ‘cost-adds,’ rather than guess at something in my bid,” says Brueblood. "That makes the initial bid look better, and if they want any of the ‘adds’ they can always order them up.”
Call the architect. "When we do our proposals, we exclude things that are vague and call the architect,” says Waldoch. "I guess that’s why there’s so many addendums. The other subs are calling them, too.”
Write the architect. If the specs call for 16-gauge metal studs, but the drawings note 20-guage, write the architect and tell him your pick. Be prepared for no response. "You’re lucky if you get an answer out of the architect,” says Joe Knarr, chief estimator, Mader Construction Company, Inc., Elma, N.Y. "Half the time when we get the drawings the architect is already saying, ‘We’re not taking any more questions.’ But, they may address it in an addendum.”
Phone the GC. After contacting the architect, Knarr tries the GC. He adds qualifying language to his bid, submits it and tries to get someone at the GC on the phone. "Unless you get a scope letter out to them early, GCs usually don’t have time to go through everybody’s quote,” Knarr says. "They just look at the bottom line. You could leave yourself ‘out there’ if you qualify, so you’re better off making a phone call and making sure everybody knows.”
Weigh the pros and cons of signing the contract. You either acquiesce, or offer to strike vague language that could get you into trouble. "Unfortunately, years ago we were able to negotiate a lot of the language out,” Burley says. "We’re not in a position to do that like we used to. They’ll say, ‘Look, if you don’t want to sign it the way it is, then the guy right behind you is dying to get the job.’”
Write change-order requests. "Even after you’re awarded the job, there are still so many things that come up,” Waldoch says. "We estimators hate doing change-orders once the job is going. But, there’s so much stuff that gets missed that you have to.”
Iron out all issues. Then, begin work. "We try to eliminate problems through our estimating department, so that when operations gets on the job, they hit the road running,” DeHorn says.
Level Your Playing Field
In the end, drywall and ceiling contactors contacted for this article agree that the best way—and perhaps the only way—to turn ambiguous specifications into an advantage is by using them to level the playing field.
DeHorn works closely with his general contractors. "We take a different approach than most people,” DeHorn says. "We just work with a few good clients. We don’t go out and shotgun a bid to everybody. Those few clients we work with expect us to include the parts and pieces that make the system a whole. I always clarify in my bids, very clearly, that I have such and such pieces and parts to make the project work.”
After adding qualifying language to his bids and submitting them, more often than not the GC issues new documents to all bidding parties, including DeHorn’s competitors. This is exactly what DeHorn wants the GC to do: Send all bidding firms the same notes and clarifications. "In doing so I bring my competitors up to an apples-to-apples playing field,” DeHorn says.
Tony Barrier, vice president, general manager, senior estimator and project manager at B&B Interior Systems, has been estimating since 1981. What are his tricks of the trade? "I could sum it up in three words: Qualify, qualify, qualify,” he says.
Of every drawing or specification that crosses his desk, Barrier says seven of 10 have ambiguity, contradiction or lack information. "The problem is the architects are unfamiliar with the changes in the industry that have taken place over the last two years. Their specifications are not performance-based,” Barrier says. "They’ll indicate 20-gauge material in ‘mils’ (millimeters) like ‘30 mils.’ They don’t understand that that’s an obsolete item in the industry. Now, metal studs are ‘27 mils,’ depending on the manufacturer, and they meet a 20-gauge performance criteria. The ambiguity comes when you need to build something with 20-gauge performance. We hope that they’ll accept the ‘20-gauge performance’ rather than a ‘30 mil stud,’ because a 30 mil stud comes with a premium and is a special-order item. The cost difference adds up quickly.”
Say No to "Toss-Off” Lines
One experienced estimator, who preferred not to be named, offered two more ways to work spec ambiguities into an advantage.
First, this estimator says that architects like to push the engineering of structural stud framing off onto the framing/drywall sub. "The 05400 section spec will include some toss-off line like, ‘drawings are schematic only—engineering to be provided by contractor of this section,’” he says. "Well, on a competitive bid, am I going to go out and hire an engineer pre-bid so he can over-build the job and render me unable to compete? No way. I’ll just qualify my bid with a counter: ‘typical structural framing was assumed with (I insert minimum gauges and sizes) as a basis of design. If upgrades are deemed necessary, post award, added cost will apply.’”
This estimator says he doesn’t carry an allowance for engineering in his base number. Rather, he buries it in qualifications as an exclusion—as a cost-add that may be deemed necessary.
Second, this estimator notes that architects appear confused by the various levels of drywall finish required for particular conditions. He says they invariably call for a Level 4 finish when no texture is specified. Some estimators, knowing that a level 5 finish is necessary for a smooth wall, fill the gap and include the skim coat in their bid. "I will base my front page proposal number on how the spec reads, then carry an optional add for skim coat or texture on the back pages with my qualifications,” he says.
In the end, dealing successfully with ambiguous specifications comes down to good, clear communication and follow-through.
"We have to convey the information to the customer and the architect in a way that they’ll accept it,” Barrier says. "Then, if you’re fortunate to get the project at a small margin, you guide the customer in the direction that you bid the job, rather than allowing them to force you to do something that’s unwarranted.”
Mark L. Johnson is an industry writer and marketing communications consultant.