The Final Word

Vince Bailey / April 2020

Check the spec. It’s what all astute bidmeisters should do as a preliminary to starting any estimate, if only because the spec enjoys the distinction of being the final authority in the hierarchy of construction documents. Unfortunately, it is often the most maddening of all the vague and perplexing edicts lurking in a typical bid folder. The specification manual, also known as “the spec-book,” “the project manual” or simply “the specs,” has otherwise been referred to in certain irreverent terms (most popularly, the POS acronym) by fellow estimators. The reasons behind this frustration are the basis for this writing.
Virtually all project contracts grant the specification manual final authority in the order of bid docs. Its decrees in these instances have primacy over the particulars of the architectural plan set and even the structural drawings, particularly when there might be some contradiction. And so being the canon over all other project documents, one might imagine that great care would be taken in spec prep and editing. Sadly, that maxim does not always hold.
The specification sections issued by the Construction Specifications Institute that directly impact the wall and ceiling trades include exterior insulating finish system, cold-form steel framing, thermal insulation, plastering, light-gauge framing, gypsum board assemblies, acoustical ceilings and paint. And while a complete specifications manual is far-ranging in scope as it sets forth the general parameters of a project, this column will draw only on experiences encountered within those sections that relate to our industry.
Clearly, most design teams start with a boilerplate format for each spec section cited above. These master formats contain all acceptable manufacturers, all acceptable product data, various tolerances and all manner of standards applicable to each section. That is to say, the master format is a smorgasbord of these components from which the designer can simply cherry-pick the ones most relevant to his design and delete all others. This sort of “multiple choice” arrangement becomes embarrassingly evident when a designer inadvertently issues a section in which he has forgotten to make the requisite edits. I’ve even seen cases in which the master format was left completely intact, replete with blank underscorings, and “insert product here” prompts. Of course, this shotgun approach to specifying is the most drastic example of carelessness, but less blatant (and less humorous) examples of negligent spec-writing abound.
One common spec error resides in the EIFS section. More often than not, when I peruse an EIFS spec, it becomes readily apparent that the design team (or whoever edited the spec for the team) does not recognize the difference between a barrier and a drainage system, as they present the descriptions for both systems side by side. Of course, those who have any familiarity with EIFS at all are aware that the difference is vast and costly, as a drainage (sometimes called water management) system adds layers of material and labor to a standard barrier system. But in listing them both, the spec editor tempts the estimator into the error of pricing the cheaper system, only to find that he will be held to the more stringent (and more expensive) alternative when the contract is awarded.
With the insulation section, it is common for thermafiber to be specified for sound attenuation and acoustical fiberglass batts in the drywall section (a duplication and a conflict). Similarly, one can frequently find unfaced, foil-faced and kraft-faced fiberglass batts specified for thermal insulation, along with rigid foam board assemblies that may have no corresponding application in the architectural drawings.
This segues into a frequent fault in the writing of a great many spec sections: that components and tolerances are included in the spec that obviously do not pertain to the project they are named to. This error of inclusion is particularly frustrating to an estimator because it leads him to mistakenly believe that he has missed something in the plans and consequently causes him to waste much precious time re-perusing the pages, searching for an omitted component that simply isn’t there.
The gypsum board assemblies section (the drywall spec) is typically awash in redundancies that are all too frequent. Some of the most common errors include redundant levels of abuse or high-impact board, paper and glass-mat board both listed as tile-backer, texture and smooth finishes appearing side by side, and setting compound instead of air-dry listed as the specified all-purpose mud.
The ACT spec typically carries a couple of repeating errors. First, a performance spec is listed instead of naming a particular tile as a “basis of design,” leaving the peril of pricing the wrong ceiling tile wide open for error. The other common blunder that spec editors make is naming a tile that is not compatible with the grid they have indicated.
Clearly, the smorgasbord master format that spec writers use these days contributes to careless errors in developing spec sections that should (but rarely do) pertain to the specific project. The consequent instances of error and omission are a profound source of frustration for bidmeisters everywhere.

Vince Bailey is an estimator/project manager working in the Phoenix area.