And though the holes were rather small, they had to count them all.—John Lennon
Upon review of my previous writing on the appalling gaps that so frequently crop up in the documents from which we estimators are expected to derive a hard value, I believe I was right in my conclusion that it fell somewhat short of a convincing argument. Not that anyone who has daily perused the architectural offerings of the past few years, as we bidmeisters have, would argue that the holes have not grown wider, deeper and more numerous as of late. In fact, I think I may have been understating the obvious in this regard. But it seems my contention that these obtrusive voids are deliberately conceived was not adequately supported in my last effort. Admittedly, the thesis was suffocated by the rant. To remedy the shortfall, I offer some common examples of blatant omission that virtually all wall and ceiling estimators will immediately recognize from their own encounters—examples of such a nature and context that more than suggest a purposefulness that suspiciously advantages the authors of such awful vacuum.
For instance, who has not come across a set of plans in which the economy of framing indicated on the partition types page is inadequate for the actual condition? Better yet, who hasn’t encountered this scenario in the past week? You know how it goes: the typical full-height wall type calls for 3 5/8-inch, 25-gauge framing, studs at 24 inches on center. Of course, the deck height on the project is 14 feet, and every industry-standard height-limiting table tells you that beefier studs and tighter spacing are required in such a case. More often than not, some veiled citation of the standard is buried somewhere in the docs as a CYA measure. Regardless, the dilemma is the same: If you follow the more stringent standard, as you should, you will effectively be forfeiting the job to the poor sap who has priced the project per plan. Of course, once he’s taken the job, the standard will be invoked like it was one of the Ten Commandments and he’ll be compelled to make up the difference out of his own pocket, such as it is. Who benefits? The owner does, he and his proxy, the architect, who budgeted and paid for a substandard assembly and got the upgrade for free. But hey, it was just an oversight that the sub should have caught, right?
Another classic case in point involves what I call the recurring mystery of the final act. For years now, architects have been omitting the final step of the drywall finish from spec books. Typically, the design team will specify a level four finish, but leave the critical final treatment—i.e. texture or smooth—up to speculation. Again, the option is left open for the drywall quantifier to "fill in the blank” and include in his estimate a spray or putty coat or opt to leave the final finish out of the base bid, per plan, and beg for a post-award add (good luck on that!). Incidentally, I’ve noticed that of late the spec authors have taken this artful deceit to the next level by reproducing the entire Gypsum Association "Recommended Levels of Gypsum Board Finish” in the drywall section, but still cunningly evade any mention of a specified final step—a brilliant silver-bullet sort of CYA.
Perhaps the most pernicious design omission that I’ve seen come down the pike in recent years lurks in the pages of the structural drawings. More and more frequently the engineer will withhold the designation of stud gauge and size for exterior walls and foist the critical determination back on the subcontractor with a turn of a phrase that goes something like "steel stud details and gauges depicted are for schematic purposes only, and the (sub) contractor will provide design and calculations for all cold form framing.” Translation: Figure the minimal standard for your proposal if you want to get the job, but have fun trying to get compensated if your post-award design is more stringent.
These are just a few of the more common design omissions that I’m sure are painfully familiar to most of this readership. Now, you don’t have to be Stephen Hawking to figure out the common thread running through these scenarios and the dozens more not mentioned here: The consequences of these gaps always favor the owner/designer, much to the subcontractor’s detriment. I don’t think it’s any great leap to infer that these voids are purposely designed to exploit the desperation of struggling subs by entrapment. One can further extrapolate that as these times of economic woe continue to deepen—as long as there are hard-up subs who’ll take the bait—those in the superior contractual role will continue to capitalize on the hardship by creating holes.
Vince Bailey is an estimator at Valleywide Plastering in Phoenix.