There’s one part of the contract that no one ever looks at: The document register. And yet it can contain documents that apply to your work without you ever knowing about it. And most of the time your client does not even send it to you.

Recently a client of ours lost money on a project because a document called the Principal’s Project Requirements called for a certain type of mechanical system. It wasn’t in the plans, wasn’t in the scope, and was never given to the contractor. Only towards the end di the principal raise this with the builder who then realised that the wrong system had been specified and back charged the Contractor. Only then did the contractor realise that this document was on its document register and so could be argued was in its scope.

And this is the problem.

The document register is the documents for all trades for the entire job. Your subcontract might be for electrical but the drawings for the landscaping irrigation will be there too. Does this mean that is also part of your scope? Its easy to make bad assumptions here.

The builder always includes the register as it appears on the head contract and rarely is this list apportioned between subcontractors. So most of the time you don’t know what exact documents pertain to your subcontract. Here’s another example. A steel contractor has structural steel fabricated and erected on site only to be told it was the wrong colour. Sure enough, buried in the contract documents was one called ‘Finishes Schedule’. This typically applies to interior design or internal fit out works. It rarely applies to steel. So there was nothing to do except wear the huge cost to repaint the steel.

It is so easy to miss. And the fact that so few contractors actually read their contracts only makes it more likely to happen.

And these documents can be big ticket issues;

Australian Standards: Some of the items you install may not meet the AS standard required by these documents. You’ll be faced with a remove-and-replace order.

Engineering: Often a certain standard of engineering or structural integrity is required. We once had a louvre contactor who had not realised that a whole suite of engineering standards was required for his work and had entire sections of work defected. Of course neither the builder or principal was aware either, until the work had to be certified. No one had read the brief!

Finishes Schedules: These documents usually apply to materials and colours and texture. Often they contain the actual products or brands that need to be used. If you proceed with another brand or generic product your work can be deemed defective.

Design Brief: Watch out for these ones! They can contain anything. Every part of the job has some element of design. It may well affect your trade. This document is misleading as it addresses itself to the builder but dictates many things about the subcontract scope. Often the builder will omit things from this document when drafting tender documents, and then the contract scope. But it will be the subcontractor that pays for this, as the presence of that Brief in your document register means you ‘should’ have known about it when tendering.

As I say often, read, read, read. Go through the contract carefully and if you don’t see a document register then ask if there is one. Often it appears in the final version of contract but not when you are quoting! Then ask what documents apply to you and look at your quote again and see if you’ve missed anything. Contracts almost always shift the responsibility for finding these scope issues on the subcontractor.

The reason these hidden scopes are so dangerous is timing; they only arise at then end when the head contract certifier is inspecting the work using the head contract documents. Then something is spotted that does not meet some schedule or brief and will come down from on high to hit your bottom line.

Tread carefully.