Poor Specifications Lead to Legal Trouble

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Wednesday, May 20th, 2015
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A spec practically and contractually binds the project together, and without a good one, we leave ourselves liable for things that go wrong on site, no matter how small the job may be.

Queensland construction industry barrister Andrew Wallace of Maroochydore (who was once a carpenter and joiner), has said publicly, “If you don’t incorporate a thorough specification into your contract, it is not a matter of if you will get into legal trouble, it is a matter of when.”

A poor spec can wreck you in different ways. It can clutter up and sabotage your documentation process by its inefficiency, you will have to resolve more construction hassles resulting in wasted fees and possibly legal challenges, and afterwards bad word will be spread by your client who didn’t pay you to produce variations and constantly fight with the builder. Say goodbye to your practice!

Specifications can come in many different sizes and forms, each with varying content and quality of content. The necessarily huge scope of a spec’s content naturally makes this a reality.

Every practitioner has their preferred ways of presenting specification content, some of these are good, some not so good.

Each project spec needs to be produced from a master spec. Theoretically, the master has all the information necessary for all building materials, and the spec writer edits the master to suit the project.

For architects, there are basically two choices for acquiring a master:

1) produce their own office master

2) purchase a proprietary industry master.

Producing your own office master spec

The ‘own office master’ usually matures over a lengthy period of time. I have done it and it took me three months without a single day off, working Saturdays and Sundays, with 100 per cent of that work time dedicated to the task. This resulted in just a rudimentary master. I then spent several years working on it part-time to refine it into something I could be proud of.

If you are not prepared to spend this sort of time on your own master, then spending more time updating it to keep up with standards and industry changes, just don’t try. I have seen many ‘own office masters’ and most are poorly cobbled together without any structure, the owners probably too proud to see that their spec was second-rate.

Another common fault with the ‘own office master’ is that successive and various writers all add their bit, with good intentions of course. Without disciplined office protocol for master additions, these many and varied contributions of different value, introduce varying qualities and text-language to an already ‘patch-work’ of master past-contributions.

If you go the path of the ‘own office master’, be sure to dedicate the appropriate time to create it and maintain it, and set rigid protocols to its upkeep, with one person, preferably a single experienced spec writer working on it to keep consistency of content and language in the master.

Purchasing a proprietary industry master

There are three proprietary industry masters available for architects. These are ArchiAssist, Natspec and Specpack. They are all different in production method and their presentation of spec content.

This article doesn’t delve into the details of each master. You need to investigate that for yourself. Also, talk to others who have used the various systems, and ask several people about any one master.

The following are some basic qualities in master specs that will help guide you.

The cost of the master needs to be weighed up against other money saving features of that particular master. If a master costs three times the purchase price of the next cheapest, but you were able to quickly recoup that money by speed of production of the first spec written (compared to the next cheapest) that may be good value.

Other cost considerations include how good is the master in avoiding construction disputes which can cost you in a big way. Check the master producer’s guarantees on this.

Check what other explicit guarantees the master producer warrants.

Also, is the master produced with long and short versions? If so, you need to ask if the short version is guaranteed to give full protection, and if the answer is yes, you need to then ask why is a long version required and what does it have in it that is unnecessary? A house will have nearly as many trades and material types in it as a hospital, so why should the spec for both be that different, especially if the scheduling of project specific items is done separately (not added to the body of the spec).

Are the materials schedules done as separate documents? Incorporating them into a spec can be impractical because they are usually started long before the spec is started, and if they are part of the spec, any schedule change (which happens a lot) will require a re-issue of the whole spec.

Is the master a single Microsoft Word document or do you have to assemble it from many parts?

How big will the resulting spec be? Big specs are universally hated and will not get read. They also consume a lot of time in writing. I say good specs are concise and are absolutely no longer than 100 pages.

How much training and preparation work do you need to do to start a spec? Is it simply reading a short guide or do you have to attend a day-long seminar?

How much time do you need to actually begin writing? Is it simply a few minutes to copy and paste a single Microsoft Word document master from your home file to your project file, then start, or do you have to spend all morning setting it up?

What back-up does the master producer offer? Can they help you resolve a construction dispute by reminding you of specific master spec content?

Does the master use italicized defined words (as done in all the industry general conditions of contract, the BCA, and many other important contractual documents)? Having italicized defined words makes a complex written document much easier and clearer to read. Not having them will likely cause confusion and misinterpretation, decrease the value of the defined words, and cause loss of confidence in the spec.

Does the master contain only that standard but good quality construction detail that repeats year to year that you never really want to rewrite each time, making spec writing a process of deleting what is not required? Adding your own words to a spec is difficult and time consuming and increases the chance of using inappropriate wording. Draw or schedule the project specific detail.

Is the master set-up for the deleting process with things likely to be deleted bundled into single clauses or paragraphs, or do you have to spend a lot of time searching and deleting information that is ‘sprinkled’ throughout the document?

These are some of the questions you need to ask when shopping for a master spec. You will of course come up with many more your own questions which need to be answered.

It is challenging to get really good protective documentation (and impossible to have perfect documentation) but it is doable for all of us.

One error can be a nuisance, then subsequent errors can start to erode the contractual relationship.  Before you know it, you have a fight on your hands and no client will refer you on, let alone come back for repeat projects, if a contract has been marred by dispute.

It is worth it to get your specs as good as humanly possible.

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