As the basis upon which applications for building permits are assessed and construction of buildings proceeds, the importance of design documentation cannot be understated.

Whereas getting things right in this area from the perspective of architects sets a tone for a constructive relationship with the builder, clear understandings all around and a high probability of project success, not doing so can lead to disputes, variations, acrimony, legal action and reputation damage.

Greg Blain, an architectural specification writer and director of ArchiAssist said document errors generally fall into two broad categories – a failure to document everything completely and a failure to coordinate separate documents.

With regard to the first point, Blain said it is imperative to document everything about what is to be built so that any question on the part of the builder can be answered. He said a common mistake is to put out jobs without the necessary specifications. This creates problems in which the builder has to come back to the architect with more questions than need be the case and potentially leads to problems in which the builder goes ahead with what he or she feels is an acceptable solution in areas where specifications are lacking.

When this happens, architects weaken their position with regard to having matters promptly rectified in an amicable and cooperative manner.

“The thing is that if the builder has built something, it is not documented and then the architect comes along and says, ‘well, I don’t think that’s right’ but can’t back it up with anything in the contract, then the builder says ‘well, too bad – this is what I have built,’” Blain said.

“If it’s written and documented somewhere, they (the builder) will fix it with minimal complaining. If it’s not written or drawn, there will be a fight.”

When it comes to not properly coordinating documents, Blain said issues can arise in which for instance, the schedules say something which appears to be different to what is stated in the drawings or there is a lack of clarity in the wording within a document or between different documents. This can lead to unnecessary delays where the builder must seek clarity before proceeding.

Blain said a special challenge in this area results from multiple documents needing to be prepared by multiple parties on some projects, including specialist consultants for areas such as structural, groundwork and draining, plumbing and hydraulics and mechanical and electrical.

In terms of legal implications, Kim Lovegrove FAIB, a partner at construction and planning law firm Lovegrove Smith and Cotton and Conjoint Professor of Building Regulation at the University of Newcastle said documentation which is flawed, ambiguous or incomplete can precipitate a need for legitimate costly and time consuming variations and amendments to the building permit. He adds that poor documentation can also create the potential for the relevant building surveyor to issue a notice of building order and eventually, start litigation against the architects either directly by the client for generating defective design documentation or as a third party by the builder or engineer.

Lovegrove said the architect rather than the builder is responsible as the ultimate author of the design, and that the architect is ultimately responsible for any eventual errors which result from any flaws in the design or the design documentation.

“If there is any ambiguity in design documentation or specification, then invariably, there will be cost implications,” he said.

“A builder is entitled to expect that the design documentation furnished by the architect is accurate and marries up well with the specifications. If the design documentation is flawed to the extent that there is ambiguity, (then) by the nature of the fact that the architect is the owner’s agent and the author of the design documentation, that creates an opportunity for legitimate variations.”

Lovegrove said one area where there was anecdotal evidence of a rise in legal claims revolves around water ingress claims in high rise buildings. This phenomenon is most often caused by poor design and/or workmanship associated with the balcony where water blown onto the balcony during winds and inclement weather ends up seeping into internal spaces. He said this area could increasingly emerge as a hotspot for litigation as increasing numbers of Australians adopt this kind of housing.

Aside from the immediate cost and legal implications, Blain said costs in terms of lost clientele and reputational damage flowing on from problems associated with documentation cannot be understated.

“If you take a minimum example and something is not documented well and the builder has a bit of a debate with the architect about it and they grumble and groan and fix it to what the architect wants – that’s the start of the erosion process in the relationship,” he said. “It may not be much and then the next one happens and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger.”

“Eventually there is acrimony, there is bad feeling, and then the client gets sucked into all of this. The client is not immune from all this because the architect is acting for the client. And look, the architect might convince the client that this is part of the process of building and the client might be happy (but they may not). How do you measure the cost of that?”