Slowly, we are seeing some change in attitude and people are demanding plans and specifications for residential projects. Perhaps it’s related to the cost of housing or difficulty in obtaining quality workmanship - most likely a little of both. The ability to understand plans and specifications is what sets a true professional apart from his otherwise like skilled brethren. Reading plans and specs is a skill set that must be mastered for one to truly be profitable. This month we will take a light look at just what are specifications and where do they come from.
Famous last words on countless numbers of bids I did, as well as thousands of others like me, when bidding are per plan and spec. And if you were like me, when you did get the job bidding, being lowest bidder, you always wondered what you forgot. Unfortunately, no matter how many years you do bid work, that day will always be around the corner though less often as experience grows.
The other thing that used to concern me greatly about bidding jobs with specifications was if they would be electing to do what we call “selective enforcement.” What is selective enforcement? That is when for whatever reason they decide to follow every last letter of the specification. There are some jobs where one would be very foolish not to assume they were going to be fully enforced to the letter such as any governmental or publicly funded project. These can include such things as submitting plans showing all the locations of movement joints, pattern layouts or any number of items. They may also require the construction on mockups that will be the standard buy which your work will be judged. Both are normal in commercial applications. Then there are those ultra competitive privately funded commercial projects where use of specifications only seems to come about when things go wrong. In either case, specifications, those documents intended to level the playing field and provide guidance, are often poorly written and quite ambiguous. Of even greater concern, when a signed contract exists, they become the documents to which you’re contractually (legally) obligated to perform to. So just what are these specifications all about and how are they supposed to be used?
Basic specifications come from The Construction Specifications Institute (CSI). CSI is a membership organization that maintains and promotes the standardization of construction language used in building construction specifications. It is comprised of thousands of construction professionals across the complete spectrum of the building construction industry. CSI is the author of a document known as MasterFormat, which acts as an indexing system for organizing construction data, particularly construction specifications as related to various trades.
The MasterFormat standard serves as an organizational structure for construction industry. You find them used in publications such as the Sweets catalog in a wide range of building products, and MasterSpec, popular specification software. MasterFormat helps architects, engineers, owners, contractors, and manufacturers classify how various products are typically used. Most CSI-approved sections also include performance requirements such as the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) along with other professional organizations such as TCNA and CRI.
It is the intention of MasterFormat that each of these specifications be edited to the needs of each specific project in which they are used. The generic CSI version is supplied as an easily modified WORD document that can be tailored to suit the actual conditions and performance expectations of the job.
Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Instead, we end up with a hodgepodge of numerous specifications that aren’t applicable to the project or often, conditions encountered. This is what some of us call a “shotgun spec.” Why shotgun? If you fire enough pellets, you’re bound to hit something, good or bad. Professionals can often deal with the lack of guidance (which is actually a lack of due diligence by the project spec writer) by careful review of the conditions encountered in the plans and request clarifications of items that appear unclear. But, most of us, not wanting to antagonize the architect or owner, just give poor specifications or our best guess and bid accordingly. Some try to qualify what they are bidding by noting “our bid includes” whatever their most reasonable interpretation may be. Others choose a different route and reference the least expensive options they find available in hopes of getting a profitable change order later.
Your mileage using either tactic will vary widely when the fatal words appear, “Does your bid include the work required per plan and spec?” To which our response is often, yes, or yes as noted, but nonetheless, yes! Now the fun begins.
As an individual with nearly 30 years of bidding experience, I can tell you whether you qualified your bid or not, acceptance varies widely if you end up in arbitration or litigation. If you sign a contract that says per plan and spec, you bid per plan and spec and you can be reasonably assured, it won’t be your interpretation of qualifications unless duly noted and approved per contract requirements. Clarification by means of written requests for information (RFI) is your best defense against ambiguous construction documents when bidding projects. When working with specifications, pay close attention to terms such as related work in other sections. They are referring to items that will affect you.
Nearly all tile and allied product manufactures have prewritten specification forms available for use of their products. These can be very helpful if you can limit your use to that of a specific manufacturer. Using them instills end user confidence about your bid and establishes a clear performance criteria and expectation from and for you. Personally, I think every job should have easily understood specifications that clearly define what’s going to happen and how it’s going to happen. Who can lose when everyone knows and understands what’s expected?