A homeowner contacted me about representing her in a lawsuit she was filing against a contractor who had done tile work in her house. Neither her state nor local building codes specified anything regarding the installation of ceramic tile, and after pointing to a tile she had selected for the installation, she instructed the contractor to "install these tiles in the tub surround." With no ceramic tile installation experience, the contractor purchased the tiles, installed each one with a small dab of white glue over plain, unprotected gypsum drywall, and then finished the job by grouting the tiles with plaster of Paris. When I first saw the installation, I was immediately shocked and promised the homeowner that I would get on my white horse and ride into court to save the day.
Unfortunately, the judge thought otherwise. "What were your instructions to the contractor?" "Were these photos of tiles stuck on the tub surround wall taken after the contractor was through with the installation?" "You instructed the contractor to install tiles in the tub surround area, and these are the tiles in the photos?" "The contractor did what you told him to do, case dismissed."
The contractor walked out of the courtroom without a judgment against him, the homeowner will never buy tile again, and I was stunned until I understood the importance of how a spec is worded. Even though there was not a written spec, the judge accepted the homeowner's verbal instructions as the job spec and because of its lack of specificity, decided not to go after the contractor. This article is not intended to explain how to weasel your way out of responsibility because bad installations are not good for your business and are harmful to the tile industry and every installer who tries to do things right.
With hindsight, it is easy to see how things could have been different, but hindsight is an expensive way to build a house or any structure. For the individual tub surround, had a few specifics been included, the customer would probably be enjoying the shower and the contractor spending his profits. The instructions for the tub surround should have included the type and color of tile to be used and any accessories, like tile trim, towel bars or soap dishes that would be installed with the tile. The brand and type of adhesive, membrane, and setting bed surface should also be included as well as the brand, type, and color of grout and flexible sealant for the joints. Instructions should also cover the location of movement joints, surface prep, curing information, and other pertinent details.
Commercial specifications, because of the usual scale of the projects involved, and because individual contractors depend on the work of other, need to be far more detailed. A written specification can be purchased from an architect or a specification writer, and that is certainly an option for an installation contractor. Another way to get a specification is to write one yourself, but unless you have been instructed and are qualified to do this and keep all your legal bases covered, writing your own commercial spec can be risky. If you are involved with non-residential construction projects and choose to go this route, I recommend contacting the CONSTRUCTION SPECIFICATIONS INSTITUTE (www.csinet.org), and look into the training, education, and accreditation that group offers. For residential construction specifications, there are no resources offering education or training.
Writing your own spec can be a daunting experience, especially if you source from different manufacturers for adhesive, membrane system, grout, sealant, and the other materials that go into an installation. Most manufacturers can provide an accurate and appropriate specification, and are happy to do so to keep customers happy, and to help ensure that their products will be used properly. An easier approach, though, and one that can provide better results and perhaps even a warrantee, is to have a master spec that covers all the materials to be used. This is relatively easy if you decide to single-source your installation materials from one manufacturer. If you are responsible for developing a commercial spec, and you decide to rely on a manufacturer for the writing, it's a good idea to work closely with the project architect to ensure that all the details, concerns, scheduling demands, and other required features of the tile installation portion of the project are figured into the spec.
A practical and accurate spec puts contractors on a level playing field when a project goes out for bidding, and ensures that clear instructions for the work to be done are available for all trades involved with a project. This is particularly important since tile installers no longer use generic products, but rather engineered installation materials whose application instructions vary with each brand and product.
Developing and writing an appropriate specification is critical to the success of a project, but merely possessing a good spec is no guarantee that the project will be done right unless the specification includes provisions for quality control and oversight. In this sense, other than practical instructions and references, a spec should include language that describes, for example, how a process shall be monitored, minimum sampling information that needs to be recorded, and a chain of command when there is a problem.
Having a good specification is essential for tile installation, but unless there is some form of oversight or quality review, all the benefits of even the best spec will be lost.