In any project, the client brief sets the foundation of the client/architect relationship, whilst specifications detail how buildings are constructed.

Where they are not careful however, architects can fall into several traps with these documents.

To explore these, Sourceable spoke with Wendy Poulton, manager of risk services at risk management consultancy informed.

In respect of briefs, Poulton says problems can arise in three areas.

First, there is a failure to afford sufficient time to prepare the brief upfront. This can lead to misunderstandings about client objectives and a mismatch between architectural specifications and what the client wants to achieve. Where this is not identified until after start of construction, costly and difficult rework can be needed.

Instead, she encourages architects and clients to take time to articulate what clients are looking for.

Next, Poulton urges caution about clauses within the agreement which are tied to the brief. Examples include those which specify that the design will be suitable for the client’s requirements or that it will be able to be built within the client’s budget.

These clauses seem reasonable. They are problematic, however, when aspects of the brief remain yet to be decided at the time the agreement is signed. By agreeing to design to a brief which has yet to be finalised, architects commit to producing a design which is appropriate to requirements which may not have been decided upon. Likewise, agreeing to stick to a fixed budget before the brief is finalised sees them committing to a cost which is as yet unknown and, when decided upon, may be unrealistic.

Finally, Poulton encourages architects to review briefs prepared by the client and provide feedback. Whilst contracts will often presume that the brief has been written perfectly, mistakes can be made which inadvertently create problems.

Beyond the brief, Poulton says there are issues surrounding specifications.

First, it is important to avoid discrepancies between what is written in specifications and what is shown in other documentation such as drawings. Where these happen, builders can become uncertain about which to follow. Whilst building contracts will often contain an order of priorities in the event of uncertainty, the builder may not even notice that the discrepancy exists and thus may still work off incorrect information.

Often, Poulton said, this can arise where specifications change during a project. The height of some stairs, for example, may be recorded in three different places – two drawings and the specifications. Should this be altered, inconsistencies can arise whereby the architect inadvertently forgets to update all three documents.

Where possible, this should be avoided by recording information in one place only. If this cannot be done, architects should carefully check that any changes are reflected across all documents. Next, there is inconsistent terminology.

Where the specifications state in certain places that the builder ‘must’ act in a specific way and in others that the builder ‘may’ act in certain ways, the builder might reasonably presume that the word ‘may’ has a different meaning and implies greater latitude compared with those things he or she ‘must’ do.

That’s fine if such differences were the architect’s intention. Confusion can arise, however, where the same meaning is intended but different wording is used.

Accordingly, Poulton advises using consistent terminology and to avoid using words interchangeably. This may be counter-intuitive, but clarity is the objective.

Third, in light of current attention surrounding non-conforming building products, it is important to keep a trail of documentation about your approach to ensuring that any products specified are fit for the purposes for which they are to be used. As well as certification or other evidence of suitability related papers, this includes any correspondence with suppliers about what the product does and/or how it should be installed.

Finally, there should be a single source of authority in respect of decision making within the client’s organisation. All decisions should be referred to this person.

If this is not done, Poulton says you may take directions from others who may not have authority to give these. Proceeding on that basis may not meet your contractual obligations to the client.

For architects, briefs and specifications can involve traps.

With a few strategies, they can reduce their chances of difficulty and increase the likelihood of successful outcomes.