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When Omission Becomes the Mission

In criminal law, they say a perpetrator’s degree of intent is the key to his level of culpability. It doesn’t seem to me that it’s any great leap to hold the same standard to our bumbling brethren engaged in the design aspect of our industry. After all, the glaring omissions so prevalent in the bid documents that I’ve perused as of late are nothing short of a crime against professionalism. Just what is it about the mental state of an architect when he leaves a gaping hole in his drawings, equivalent to the sucking anti-substance of a black hole in deep space? Is it a negligent, depraved, malevolent, or a merely cold-blooded and calculating mind that creates these maddening voids?

Some of all of the above, I would speculate. Of course, a great many of these deficiencies derive from the same common carelessness and shoddy workmanship that seem to plague our craft at every level. Perhaps all architects need a refresher seminar on the Spearin Doctrine, in which the Supreme Court determined that designers have a legal duty to provide constructible plans to contractors. Of course the threat of litigation is just a paper tiger until some structure collapses or a beam fails. Clearly the frustration that we estimators experience in trying to glean a reasonable facsimile of a takeoff from a collection of cartoon scrawls fails to merit a review by the High Court. Besides, my purpose here is not to focus on unintentional hiccups due to chronic skull vacuum; my aim is directed at something more insidious—something deliberate.

I am alluding to the apparent purpose behind a disquieting spate of phrases that have cropped up among the bid docs over the past few years that we devoted quantifiers are compelled to contend with—weasel-worded CYA commandments and preemptive defenses like “provide a complete assembly,” or the maddeningly murky “where contradictions occur, apply the most stringent,” or the architect’s panacea of preference: “drawings are schematic.” Such verbal contortions make it abundantly clear that these pencil-pushing prima donnas are deliberately shifting critical design determinations onto the group that is the least adequately equipped to do so: we guesstimators at the vanguard of an ailing community of subcontractors.

The obvious objectives of these evasions are twofold. First, they absolve the designer (and thereby, the owner as well) of any responsibility in the event of a failure of an assembly or material that the subcontractor has volunteered. But as resources become more scarce, I see it more clearly as a ruse to get a desperate sub to commit to a price that does not include the phantom work that he will later be compelled to perform at no extra cost.

Far be it from me to pretend to a wisdom that allows me to advise this readership on how to respond to these deliberate gaps in the info. I’m in just as much a quandary as the next guy—damned if I do, and damned if I don’t. That is to say, if I fill in the vacuum with reasonably applicable stop-gaps, then I face the likelihood of losing the job to a hungry competitor who is willing to gloss over the glaring omissions and take his chances with the inevitable outcome. But if I leave the omission unaddressed, I am certain to be confronted with it in a post-award tirade launched by an irate GC who is going to hold me accountable for a complete performance of the work based on the provisions in contract documents, both expressed and implied.

And, for those of you with a fairness obsession who are inclined to play devil’s advocate, I will grudgingly confess that a pre-bid question period is frequently offered for the purported purpose of getting clarification on such oversights in the plans. But more often than not, the window of opportunity is something like two days long (including weekends), with an expiration date that suspiciously and without fail precedes my initial perusal of the bid docs. Then too, the answers are usually conveyed at the stroke of midnight on bid-day eve, accompanied with a terse announcement that no extension of time is granted for any necessary modifications. You can almost hear a villainous cackle-track, à la Vincent Price, echoing through the email. Shudders!

OK, maybe I exaggerate a bit for effect—but only just a bit, I swear. Besides, the entire question-period discussion is a distraction from the hard fact that if design “professionals” provided something anywhere close to a constructible set of plans in the first place, this fictional pretense of an attempt at clarity would be rendered unnecessary.

Of course, hard-line skeptics of my conspiracy theory will not be convinced by such a limited discussion of the topic. So I will continue in this vein next month, when I promise to be a bit more specific in my scathing indictment of the pocket-protector set.

Vince Bailey is an estimator at Valleywide Plastering in Phoenix.

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