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Ambiguous Specs: Curse or Blessing?

Technology, some have philosophized, tends to make us lazy. Others point out that a tight economy forces many to cut corners, architects and spec writers included, who do not even seem to afford the occasional phone call these days.

Ethics, and the wish to do as good a job as you can, also seem to have taken a back seat to expedience and the lowest possible bid.

Clear Specs

In an ideal world, the architect—who has been around the block a few times and knows what he or she is doing—has surveyed the building site, is familiar with the engineering reports, has designed a buildable building, and has gone over—in some detail—the drawn plans with the spec writer.

The spec writer, in turn, has an up-to-date database of products, along with their description and implementation specs—reflecting the latest in building efficiency and technology. He or she has studied and understands the plans and has received full and logical answers from the designers to any and all questions about specific details.

The specification document, as a result, is wholly tailored to the building project at hand, includes all items on the plans, and does not include items not drawn. The specs are, in a word, reliable.

Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, some contractors are lucky to see accurate specs even half of the time.

Ambiguous Specs

Ambiguous is a word that together with its many shady synonym siblings, such as obscure, vague, unclear, uncertain, cryptic, puzzling, perplexing and enigmatic, normally winds up at frustrating.

What forms do ambiguous specs take today?

Dave DeHorn, chief estimator at Brady Company in Los Angeles, offers a sobering view: “First of all, specifications are supposed to be that document that details what parts and pieces are needed to build what is drawn, and how those parts and pieces go together.

“When these are ambiguous, you have parts and pieces that don’t make sense and don’t match the particular job that you’re bidding.

“Nowadays, you may find the architect on the West coast and the spec writer on the East coast. For one, the spec writer doesn’t really study the job, but simply pulls in all-inclusive boilerplate descriptions that seem to cover every scenario; and for two, the spec writing will include products that he or she is familiar with, for example, foil-backed drywall. That’s a product used on the East coast because of temperature swings, but you can’t find it out here in California.

“And sad to say, we now see incomplete or ambiguous specs in almost every bid document.”

Gabriel Castillo at Pillar Construction in Virginia corroborates: “We used to see ambiguous specs about 20 percent of the time, now it’s closer to 50.

“The architect or spec writer seems to copy and paste from some already designed project similar to the one they’re now putting together, simply dragging in already written specs that may or may not apply to this project.”

Tom Russo, CEO of Division Nine Contracting, Inc. in Arizona, sees unclear specs about half of the time. “They no longer clarify the standards,” he says, “nor do they clarify what type of assembly to use. Instead, we see some boilerplate language that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the drawing or the project at hand.”

“Specs nowadays,” says Greg Vangellow, president of R.W. Dake & Co. in New York, “strike me as boilerplate. They are rarely clear.”

Dan Corker Jr., president of DACO Interiors in Virginia, is all too familiar with ambiguous specs, “Sometimes the specs not only conflict with the drawings, but are so ambiguous as to conflict with themselves.”

Mike Heering, regional vice president at F.L. Crane & Sons in Mississippi (and a former AWCI president), sheds this light on the issue: “To me, an ambiguous spec is one that talks a lot but says little.

“Some specs provide a list of materials, but they don’t give you a clear-cut indication of precisely which of them to use, and sometimes not much of it applies to the actual drawings.

“They are often so broad that after you have read them, you don’t know whether to use three-quarter inch or half-inch stucco, or whether they’re calling for seven-eighth inch. Nor do they tell whether I can use a standard cement and sand mix with mason’s lime, or if I am supposed to buy a pre-mixed product—and there can be a huge price difference.

“In fact, I don’t think the designer and the spec writer are talking anymore.”

David Hamilton, president of A.E. Conrad Company in Minnesota, says, “We see these types of specs more often than not these days. It’s not uncommon now to see computer-generated specs that are not job specific and that include things that are not in the drawing, or that do not include things that are in fact drawn on the architectural plans and are part of the job.”

Jeff Statz at Statz & Harrop, Inc. in Wisconsin sees ambiguous specs “about 40 percent of the time.”

Some contractors, however, are luckier. Glenn Sieber, chief estimator and co-owner of Easley & Rivers in Pennsylvania, says, “I don’t come across ambiguous specs that often, and if there’s something that’s not clearly defined, we definitely generate an RFI, because I don’t think it is in anyone’s interests to go in without knowing what we’re bidding.”

Time Is Money

Exceptions notwithstanding, it does seem that as the economy and the construction market have worsened, so has the number of ambiguous specs our contractors encounter risen. Is there a connection?

“Today, the spec writers are often hired as subcontractors by the architects to turn out fast, general specs—all to save money,” Russo says.

Heering believes that “in this economic climate, competition has hit the architects as well as the contractor, and now the owners interview a whole string of architects before deciding—they all have to go in and give their little dog-and-pony show—and the architect is now concerned about being the low bidder.

“It used to be that the owner called up his architect, and that architect would work straight through with the owner from beginning to end: design it, draw it and specify everything. But today, even the architects have to compete to get the project, so they’re looking at any way they can to cut costs.

“That’s why I think we see more ambiguous drawings and specifications these days. The architect may have hired spec writers who don’t understand how just a couple of words can change a specification completely, or that leaving two words out can call for a completely different product.”

Specified versus Buildable

Today, by our unofficial survey, our contractors see unclear specs in at least one out of every two bid requests. The accurate plan—with synchronized specs—that you can take off and bid with confidence, seems to be a species threatened with extinction.

When you, based on experience, know that—as specified—this project cannot be built, what do you do?

DeHorn will try to figure it out before submitting his bid. “I try to get the spec right, so that my competition has to bid the same project I have to bid,” he says. “If there’s a part missing in the spec, I’ll send the architect an RFI so that when that addendum goes out to all bidders, my competition has to bid the same project I do.

“That said, I always try to bid it as buildable.”

Russo uses RFIs. “Get the RFIs out,” he says. “Even if they only respond 50 percent of the time, it’s the way to go. The project has to be buildable. And if we don’t hear back in time, we will bid as spec’ed, but with clarification, outlining precisely what we have bid.”

Corker does the same: “The answer, obviously, is to write an RFI, because we want to bid something that’s buildable. However, 50 percent of the time you never resolve the issue—either the architect does not even respond or his answer generates more questions. And now the bid deadline is here, so you have to guess at what they want in your bid response.”

Heering agrees. “And then the RFI game begins,” he says. “However, if we are lucky, the specs will include the ‘and/or equal’ phrase, and that makes a big difference, allowing us to pick a less expensive product that still meets the specs.”

Then he adds, “We used to bid it as buildable. Not anymore. Now we bid it as specified. We may eat the cost of some of the omissions, but we simply have to, or lose the job.”

Vangellow says, “If there are omissions in the specs, bidding buildable will always be more expensive, and I have lost jobs that way. However, I’d rather take the high road and do the right thing than try to change-order the guy to death later. Still, some customers, even some we’ve worked with closely in the past, now demand that we bid it per the specs, if that’s the cheapest.”

Corker’s company will “usually bid as buildable.”

Hamilton says that “if it’s a private job, we bid it with clarifications, especially when it’s someone we know—and that’s to protect both ourselves and the general, putting up a flag about an issue, whether or not it is a cost item for us. But with most public works—where you have to bid everything as per the specs—you bid what’s there and hope that you can work it out later.”

Naturally, anything short of ideal takes on the color of the curse, whether grave or mild. It’s something we have to live and work with.

But can ambiguous specs be a blessing, an advantage?

For those who see this glass as half full, the potential blessing takes the form of trust and loyalty.

Loyalty Points

Look at these as brownie points earned in the Loyalty Department by experience, skill and an ethical outlook.

Castillo says that “by bidding it as buildable, I’m showing the GC that I know what I’m doing. “I show that I produce quality work. The GC comes to me because I’m expert at what I do. And by making sure the project can be built, I send the GC and the architect the message that I know what I’m doing, that I’m trying to do a good job for them, and that I’m proposing something that will work the way the architect intends it to work.”

Russo says, “There is no advantage to gain on public jobs, where all is bid by specs, and the job always goes to the low bidder. But for private jobs, you definitely earn loyalty points by bidding it as buildable. Also, that levels the playing field and may well get you the job.”

Stephen Donnelly, president of Stephen P. Donnelly Company in Minnesota, agrees: “Demonstrating that you know what to do to make it work will earn you loyalty points with both the general and the architect.”

Hamilton agrees: “It’s difficult to turn this to your advantage on a public job with a lot of bidders. On a private job, however, you can because the general and architect often appreciate your feedback. They rely on our expertise. They’re not specialized the way we are, and they depend on us. And this ends up as a positive for everybody.”

Birkland agrees, but with one qualification, “RFIs and bidding it buildable used to earn you loyalty, but now the GCs are committed to using the low number as well. It’s a never-ending battle. They need the jobs, too.”

Corker sees eye to eye with Birkland: “Covering the architect’s behind by pointing out discrepancies used to earn you loyalty points. It worked very well up until about a year or two ago, when the economy tightened and everything was reduced to the low bid.”

Vangellow amplifies, “The current economic climate is driving this. It’s dollar pressure rearing its ugly head. Some contractors bid substandard work, and both the GCs and owners know it. But everybody is driven by tight deadlines and low bottom lines.

“It can be a hard battle to fight, but I’d rather sleep at night and bid it as buildable.”

Better Days Ahead

Full recovery might be a year off—less in some part of the country, more in others—but the consensus is that once the economic pressures toward the all-mighty low bid ease, the value of loyalty and ethics will return.

And with the crazy dollar pressure off, architects and GCs will again be able to afford—though, in truth they can never afford not to, since short-cuts always, always, always come back as expensive specters to haunt—to reward those qualities that many a contractor at heart holds as the highest: experience, skill and an ethical outlook.

Truly, they are your advantage.

Coeur d’Alene, Idaho–based Ulf Wolf writes for the construction industry as Words & Images.

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