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Dealing with Incomplete Drawings

Word is that architects hardly ever provide enough details on their drawings, leaving contractors trying to read their minds and bring the project to life. Is this true?

We asked AWCI contractor members about their experience with architects’ drawings. A summary of the responses given here paints a fair picture of how things stand and suggests some approaches to completing construction projects regardless.

The Problem

Roman Morin, superintendent at Daley’s Drywall in California, speaks for many when he says, “Only a small percentage of drawings received for projects are complete.”


“In general, the pace of design and construction does not allow the drawings to be complete to the point where we can build without a lot of clarifications and RFIs,” says Brian Garcea, CFO at RG Construction Services in Illinois. “The drawings are never complete. For example, on one high-rise apartment building that the architect drew in Revit, the nominal dimensions used in the model were not aligned to the actual wall thickness. We identified it and corrected it, but coordination had already started and ultimately those floors needed to be re-coordinated.”


Matt Fleck, CEO of Fleck Exterior Systems in Florida, explains, “We are an EIFS subcontractor. As a whole, architects are very uneducated about EIFS and how it works and is applied. Nine times out of 10 the architect has many conflicting details or notes with respect to the EIF system. I think the biggest problem is their ability to slap things together on a computer and copy and paste info that makes no sense when it’s read. Construction software systems are wonderful for construction, but give the architect/owner the ability to change something too quickly in some cases. They can make mistakes and alter something multiple times within the same week and send everyone an automated email each time saying the drawings have been updated, and please review them so they can add any cost impacts. This can be frustrating to us because we spend time looking through the email and all of the drawings when the change may have nothing to do with our trade. It gets to the point where you loathe receiving an email regarding updated drawings.”


Fortunately, it’s not all bad. “To be fair, there are a few architects who have been educated by an EIFS professional and get it right,” Fleck continues. “Architects have a very hard job to do. They are supposed to design a building and make sure everything functions properly and is designed correctly. That is extremely difficult! They have to be masters of all trades. I am excited when I see certain architects designed a job because of their attention to detail and the fact that they give us just that—detail!”


Nestor Hurtado, estimator/project manager for Marek in Texas, says, “Typically, schematic or design development drawings range anywhere from 15% to 30% complete, lacking a lot of detailing and specific notes. This leads to many assumptions at this early stage that could have a negative impact on the project. ‘Issue for construction’ drawings are usually between 85% and 95% complete. For the most part, there is enough information to get us started, and if we see any missing information, we communicate with the construction team to keep moving forward.”


Rob Schwarzenbach, vice president of door and frame operations at Heartland in Iowa, says, “Generally speaking, there is adequate information within the plan set for pricing purposes, and part of the contractor’s role is to review the plan, ask clarifying questions and sometimes visit the job site to provide as-complete-as-possible pricing for the customer. Providing a very clear scope of work with pricing is recommended. This should also be reviewed when receiving the contract for the work. Most of the time drawings share the project intent, but it’s common to communicate for clarification on what should be included in the pricing.”


“A/E firms used to have someone test drive the drawings to see if they were enough for the builder,” recalls Bill Rosch, vice president at Rosch Brothers in New York. “I don’t think they do that anymore. The drawings are almost never complete. But we do a lot of design/build so that our partnerships with A/E and customers don’t require complete docs. It is worked out before pricing.” Nevertheless, incomplete drawings can lead to problems. “We recently had a project that called for wood finishes but failed to specify the level of finish the owner was expecting. We had to stop and find a firm that could provide these factory finishes not specified, and it delayed the project.”


“Drawings are never complete anymore,” says David Lockwood, president of Modoc Contracting Co. in Oregon, expressing a common complaint. “It has become a lot worse in the last few years. We have not experienced a dream situation in years.”


Kevin G. Biddle, president of Mader Construction Company in New York, estimates, “On most smaller projects the drawings are probably 75% complete. But on any project over a million dollars the percentage drops to about 30%. The drawings are usually good enough for interior contractors to get the job off the ground, but usually there will be a hiccup as things move forward due to lack of detail or discrepancies with the specifications.” He does not favor “delegated design” or the use of “architect’s intent” to camouflage lack of details. “It is simply a cop-out by the architect and engineers,” he says. “‘Delegated design’ and the word ‘intent’ used by architects have set our industry back.”


“It is extremely rare for drawings to be 100% complete,” confirms Michael Gutierrez, vice president of estimating and preconstruction at California Drywall in San Jose. “That said, as long as we are brought on board early enough in the process, it is not an issue. If we are invited to the table very late in design when MEP is already 100% designed and architectural drawings are at 100% CD level, as in a ‘hard bid’ situation with the project starting shortly after bid award, there is not enough time for us to modify detailing in a way that provides cost savings to the owner.”


“In recent years we have noticed an increase in incomplete drawings,” says Art Trautman, principal at Sonora Drywall in Arizona. “As the saying goes, ‘the devil is in the details.’ Many times they are missing. But often details are thrown in with no explanation for where they should apply. I attribute this partly to the acceleration in scheduling that we have all experienced in building, which also applies to design development. However, a good percentage is complete enough to bid, maybe with some qualifications added.”


Veronica DeBonise, president of G&G Plaster, EIFS & Drywall in Massachusetts, says, “Vital details are typically missing. I can’t remember a time when they were 100% complete. There was one architect who included the manufacturer details in the drawings as additions—I was delightfully surprised.”


“Architects’ drawings are terrible these days,” laments Mike Taylor, executive vice president for Liddle Brothers Contractors in Tennessee. “They are often incomplete with very few details—very difficult to price, much less build. We have seen a steady decline in details of drawings over the years. In all fairness to the architects, they say the owners do not want to pay for a good set of prints. This is a serious situation because lack of detail and information leads to poor workmanship, which leads to lawsuits.”


“Architects at one time used to write the specs for the project,” Taylor adds. “Now they have spec writers, and where they come up with these people is anyone’s guess. Most of the time, they have no idea what they are specifying, and this creates a huge problem. In general, it is a big mess getting worse.”


Victor Roach, president of Western Partitions, Inc. in Oregon, says, “Usually 90% of the information needed to submit a bid is provided, while 10% is vague or contradictory enough to cause potentially wide swings in pricing. I would say there has never been a project that didn’t have design deficiencies. Some of the deficiencies can be found during the bidding. But often problems aren’t discovered until construction begins and things don’t fit together. Technology and BIM continue to help with this but haven’t eliminated it. To build a project often requires dozens or hundreds of RFIs just for the drywall package, not including the other trades.”


Stan Kasper, president of The Rockwell Group in Illinois and Wisconsin, says, “We cannot make assumptions about the intent of the architect. Too often, they have a specific idea or goal with the construction, and it can cost us dearly if we try to guess. Less than 25% of the time are the drawings ‘complete.’ I believe that is partly due to the owners making last-minute changes and then pressuring the architect to rush the plans out, resulting in multiple last-minute addenda and bid clarifications.”


“They’ve been terrible over the past two years, particularly at bid time,” says Ron Karp, principal at Advanced Masonry Systems/Advanced Drywall Systems in Florida. “Then, as the project progresses through construction, it’s a constant battle for accurate information in order to build per the intent of the drawings. We’re seeing more and more RFIs and ASIs, resulting change orders, etc.”


“Most of the time, the drawings are not complete,” says Shawn Burnum, vice president of operations at Performance Contracting in Kansas. However, this is not necessarily an issue. “For larger projects, we may see the drawings multiple times, at different stages of development. We often clarify details, offer value engineering or alternative construction methods or materials and try to help our contractor partners secure a project and keep it within budget.


“We do a lot of ‘design build’ or ‘design assist.’ On these projects, we are contracted even before the final design is complete, knowing we can work to a final budget that keeps the project on track. This way, construction can begin before the design is done as everything is fast-tracked nowadays. We favor this type of contract relationship because we are involved earlier in the process and can help architects design the correct systems or details that will be cost effective and meet the desired outcomes. The challenge is having owners engage and trust the trade community enough to contract with us during the process. We have wanted a seat at the table, so we don’t push back if opportunities exist to be part of the conversation.”


Pat Arrington, principal at Commercial Enterprises, Inc. in New Mexico, points out that the Construction Specifications Institute “states that if you have to provide three amendments on a project, the architect should reissue the documents. We are receiving between six and 21 amendments. Complete documents at bid time are rare. Some specifications and plans are close enough to go to contract with.”


Like Burnum and many others, Arrington favors “design/build projects with the owner-architect and general contractor ‘joined at the hip’ able to provide complete documents. This way all parties will be able to deal with changes in materials, code changes, labor availability and other variables.”


Bill Fritz, president of Mission Interiors Contracting LLC in Texas, explains their approach: “Drawings for new buildings are usually 70 to 80% complete at bid time, franchised repetition build projects—100%. Once we have reviewed the drawings we will submit questions to the general contractor in writing. If we receive the answers, we will bid the project. If not, we will not waste our time. This process has become more difficult in the past few years due to the platform bidding that is so prevalent in the industry. The majority of our clients work well with us in acquiring these answers. We find repetitious projects with the same floor plan boring but profitable. Individual high-end restaurant builds are the most difficult, with drawings and specialty building items that are long lead and expensive. Business owner buildings seem to be the simplest, easiest-to-build buildings.”


“The quality of the bidding documents we receive from architects has gone down over the last several years,” says Dave DeHorn, chief estimator for Brady West in California. “I truly believe that they get pressure from owners to ‘hurry up and finish the drawings’ so they can get the project out to bid before the next wave of increases comes around. There is too much ‘cut and paste’ going on,” he adds. (This is a common complaint). “The details and specifications need to be specific to the project. Too many times we see an architect has hired a specification writer to do the specifications and they do not line up with the drawings” (another common complaint). “I have heard an architect say, ‘We put the drawings out incomplete and let the subcontracting community tell us what needs to be updated through RFIs.’”


“The drawings are almost always a nightmare at my level,” DeHorn continues. “I usually see the first set of published drawings. Through RFIs and addendums, the field people installing the scope have a somewhat better set of drawings because the estimating side of the business has tried to clear all the roadblocks that would hinder the operations side. With that said, the operations side, once they get into the project, also have many questions to ask about the drawings.”


Michael Mazzone, president of Statewide General Contracting and Construction in Hawaii says, “About 75% of the time the drawings are complete enough for us to bid or construct. It is very common that we need to ask for multiple clarifications on items drawn. I think the copy-and-paste function is the leading driver behind this problem,” he adds, echoing the suspicions of Fleck and DeHorn. “I believe architects try to share the liability by being vague on details. We find cold-form details are often incomplete. We have seen just a line drawn with a description, ‘metal framing’—no designation for metal size or gauge.”

The Solutions

As you have read, while there are exceptions, contractors are usually asked to bid and often build projects based on incomplete architects’ drawings, specifications and details. Despite this, projects are being awarded and built. How is it managed?


Burnham says, “There are multiple ways to deal with incomplete plans, and it depends on the type of owner/contractor you are working for at the time. For example, some owners want you to bid straight to the drawings and specifications—you must base your estimate on experience and traditional methodology. With others, you can write RFIs as you are developing your estimate for further clarifications. You can provide clarification on the assumptions you made in your proposal. And finally, you can provide voluntary alternates to suggest cost saving ideas that were not in the original documents.”


Biddle addresses how to deal with unanswered RFIs: “We try to send in as many RFIs as possible. If they are not answered, we estimate worst-case scenario and offer deducts (e.g., ‘If 20-gauge studs are acceptable at detail 3/411 in lieu of 16-gauge studs, then please deduct $3,500 from our bid’).”


“Build relationships and have open communication, so when questions or concerns do arise, it’s a simple conversation on how to resolve and move forward,” advises Schwarzenbach. “Communication and time to review the plans are important investments to minimize surprises later in the project.”


Fleck shares his approach: “We can usually figure out what they are trying to achieve and fill in the blanks based on our experience, and what we know will work to achieve what we believe to be their end goal. We tell them what we plan to do and how we will do it, and what needs to be in place for us to execute the system we qualified in our bid. If the issue is something completely out of the ordinary that we can’t figure out or haven’t seen before, we submit a ton of questions to the contractor or even the architect.”


One popular way to look at it is to welcome the lack of architectural detail and turn it to an advantage. Garcea explains: “Our focus as a company is to try and engage the general contractor and architect early to allow us to participate in the BIM coordination efforts by fully modeling our wall and ceiling assemblies. This allows us to provide solutions and optimize the construction details, ultimately saving construction time and cost.”


Gutierrez shares this view: “The dream situation for us has always been when we are brought on board during the schematic design phase and participate in a design-assist process in collaboration with all of the trade partners affected by our scope of work. As sophisticated as design software and prefabrication has become, we see this as the preferred delivery method of the future.”


There is always the option simply to not work for frequent offenders. Rosch says, “Some architects’ budgets are too low to provide complete documents. That is why many contractors won’t work for certain architects or customers.”


Fritz says, “We will not accept a contract until we have compared bid drawing versus final drawing.”


“Government projects have Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) that makes their incomplete documents work for us contractors,” notes Arrington. “I believe FAR-governed projects are fairest when it comes to being paid for everything.”


Morin reflects, “The hot burning question that always arises: What have you had to learn that they didn’t teach you in school? Answer: Communication.”


Until the trend is reversed and general reformation occurs in the area of architects’ drawings, contractors will continue to employ a diversity of ways to deal with the issue. Projects will go forward and buildings will be built. But it sure would make things easier if drawings and specs were complete when issued. So much more time could be devoted to building instead of avoidable paperwork.


Let’s hope the god of architects is listening!

David C Phillips, a freelance writer and photographer, is an original founding partner at Words & Images.

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