Sunday, January 24, 2010

Why Is The Project Manual So Big?

“Do you spec writers get paid by the pound?”

Sooner or later, on almost every construction project, somebody in a meeting comments on the size of the project spec, to general guffaws all around.  Each participant tries to outdo the other in displaying a dismissive attitude toward construction specs.

Then, within a few days, someone locates and distributes a grainy tenth-generation photocopy of that seventies-era cartoon showing a construction-site outhouse with a speech balloon saying “Damn!  We’re out of specs.”

But the minute that any of the actors in a construction project need support for a position they’re taking, where do they look?

The spec. 

If the spec has information that settles the issue, everything’s fine.  But if the answer can’t be found in the spec, the spec writer puts on his or her thinking cap and wordsmiths something to make the documents better on the next project.

That’s why the spec book is so big. We spec writers get a lot of feedback.  And we’re driven by the need to strive for a loophole-proof set of construction documents.

The inevitable result of such feedback is more words and more pages in the Project Manual. 

Ultimately, though, we’ve got about as much chance of eliminating contract document document loopholes as the IRS has of eliminating tax law loopholes. Why? 

  • Numero Uno, The Last War Syndrome:  No two projects are really the same, and the solution to the last project’s problem may not quite cut it for the current project.  Frequent criticism of the military is that they’re always fighting the last war.  Same thing for spec writers and loopholes.
  • Numero Two-o, Contractor Attitude:  No two projects have the same cast of characters.  Project A’s contractor may be super-cooperative and dedicated to really satisfying the owner and getting continuing business.  Project B’s contractor may have bid the job low, always intending to make up the difference on change orders, in which case even a good set of contract documents will be under constant attack.  Contractor B might challenge provisions in the documents that contractor A would accept without question.
  • Numero-Three-o, BIM!:  Whenever we emerge from this ghastly depression, BIM usage will take off like a rocket.  As entranced as I am with the idea of BIM and it’s possibilities for improving AE/spec writer productivity and document coordination, contractors will certainly find ways of exploiting information in the BIM model for all kinds of embarrassing change orders. Which leads me to…
  • Numero-Four-o, Contractor Creativity:  The loophole-exploiting creativity of contractors, like that of tax lawyers, seems to be boundless.

Even though it’s a never-ending task, eliminating contract document loopholes remains an ideal we have to strive for, kind of like the holy grail.  Hence big spec books are here to stay.

Oh, by the way, the numero-uno, numero two-o thing.  I borrowed it from one of my favorite writers, the late Molly Ivins, who was fond of using this device for lists in her newspaper articles about Texas politics.

1 comment:

  1. As a fire sprinkler contractor focusing on small commercial projects, we find specs written for our classification often non-compliant with the Codes and Standards.