It's a refrain that's too often heard: “the builder doesn’t read the specification.”

Despite how common this complaint is, most builders not only read the specification but refer to it constantly and sequentially throughout the contract and to their best to abide by it. Nevertheless, there is some truth in this negative statement which raises the obvious question – how is it possible to sign a contract to construct a hugely expensive building and then not refer to what is in the contract? It’s a huge risk, and one that undoubtedly happens way too much.

Let’s call the type of dubious builder who eschews reading specs the “stuff-it builder.” They may have a culture of impatience, impertinence and profit-at-all-costs. Maybe they prefer to wear-down the other party with confrontation rather than just getting the job done. Weak or inexperienced owners’ representatives (let’s call them architects) are verbally and emotionally overwhelmed. The more senior architect has an unhappy frictional contract experience. The owner will probably end-up blaming the architect for a contract that doesn’t run smoothly and one that produces technical problems. The owner likely will not come back for another building, or worse, will poison the architect’s reputation with negative word of mouth. The stuff-it builder is a big problem for both the architect and owner.

All stuff-it builders may not fit this generalized description. They may be the nice polite stuff-it builder. Whatever description they fit, they are a problem and should never be allowed near the project in the first place. A stuff-it builder, one that doesn’t look at the specification, should not be a source of amusement as an industry joke; rather they should be avoided and rejected with the same urgency afforded to scurvy.

Avoiding the stuff-it builder is best done during the builder due diligence and selection stage. If one manages to slink through to contract signing, the documents must give the architect the authority to contractually limit their damage and to keep them working hard for their money. However, to do this properly, the architect also has to execute their own contractual responsibilities to the letter, and has to have the will to constantly keep the stuff-it builder tightly contractually bound. A construction contract is only good if both parties faithfully execute their own responsibilities.

In the due diligence and selection stage, prospective builders need to be scrutinized thoroughly. This is hard work, but it should result in a smooth running contract so long as the documentation is good. This scrutiny involves such things (and more) as: the prospective builder’s work history (including legal contests), past reputation for cooperation of the company and of its individual members, financial history and status (including credit worthiness), current work load (they can’t become overextended by taking on your contract), immediate future workload (they can’t become overextended during the contract period).

This scrutinizing is a big job and can involve several experienced professionals to undertake. Relying on something superficial like a referral from a past owner is utterly useless because theoretically, owners just don’t know how to properly assess a builder. Most think a good builder is one who never argued and always smiled.

If the stuff-it builder does slither through to sign the contract, the documents must give the architect authority to contractually keep them in check. The drawings and schedules must be clear and thoroughly completed. There must be all the checks and balances in place in the general conditions of contract and in the specification. There are three master specifications available on the market: ArchiAssist, Natspec and SpecPack. Like selecting a builder, it is a mistake to rely on reputation alone when selecting a master specification. The general conditions of contract and the specification need to have all the detail and safeguards to facilitate a smooth running contract.

A specification must include (among many other things) for the builder to notify the architect if a documentation inconsistency is found, and a default path to follow for that and for all those other small dumb things that can cause arguments. For example; the builder selects the next size up if a documented material size is unavailable, or the site survey plan takes precedence if there is a discrepancy between it and the site and building plans, and many more resolution based statements for both big and small matters.

There is one particular but surprisingly uncommon specification item which can help deal with the problems caused by stuff-it builders, and that is specifying a penalty rate (usually a dollar rate per hour) paid to the architect for work the architect has to do to resolve issues caused by the builder not following the documents. Why should the architect have to wear this cost? Even if this is not enacted, it can be used as a bargaining tool during the give-and-take contractual process that happens at the end of many construction jobs. As far as I know, only one of the master specifications available to architects includes this precaution.

Stuff-it builders can stuff up your day big time. Do whatever it takes to avoid them by scrutinizing them and striking them from your list before they get near a contract. This effort will pay off with a more smooth running building contract. If for some reason they become the builder, have the right documentation and use it to microscopic detail so you can limit their disruptive power. Your future as a design professional may depend on it, because these uncanny beasts can cause extreme grief, and make you look like a fool in front of your clients.