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.

  • Any builder who fails to follow specifications is simply lazy. They don't deserve to work and should not be allowed to win work.

    Presuming that the architect is the one who has contracted the builder, it is a good thing when consumers blame the architect and the architect's reputation suffers. This will ensure that lazy builder never wins work from the architect ever again and will thus limit the amount of work which that builder ever wins.

    Those builders who engage in this practice should shape up or leave the industry.

  • Good article Greg. Pity the head of the VBA doesnt understand anything to do with Building otherwise we would see a rapid demise in these types. Until our REGULATORS change and DO THEIR JOB this culture will prevail. I can name a Perth based Builder that we are watching carefully every day waiting for them to be listed like others recently. What happened to proficiency and proper qualifications. Oh, that would be the new regime called the VBA who encourage and develop this type of Builder to exist. When will the REGULATOR regulate. Maybe get rid of the "Dont blame me its not my fault" CEO Prue and replace her with someone who can and will do their job. Until then say hello to VCAT and an endless prescription of ulcer tablets.

  • The problem is worse with the volume builders who somehow manage to engage stuff-it contractors who, in my experience probably can't read the specs and plans even if they bothered. My PhD research revealed that this is a common problem with volume builders. The owner is not allowed to speak directly to anyone other than the project manager, who oftentimes is also a bit of a stuff-it person relying on the ignorance of the purchaser not to make a fuss when the job is completed. Quote, "You wouldn't want me to change it NOW would you lady?"

  • Interesting Spin on things Jarrod. As an honest, hard working and professional builder for the last 27 years, and with commercial building background, I'm astounded at the poor level of documentation within the residential construction industry, produced by architects. In most cases, poor builders are left guessing missing details in order to keep the job going. When they ask for clarification, responses take forever and delay the job. HOW ABOUT APPLYING AN HOURLY RATE FIGURE FOR THE POOR BUILDER TRYING TO SORT OUT INCOMPLETE OR INCORRECT DOCUMENTATION ? Surely thats not his job ?

    • John, I fully understand and appreciate your comments. As a designer of buildings for over 40 years and having many similarly aged colleagues in the various construction disciplines (including QS) I can say the problems start when the client won't pay for the detail you say is missing and pushes to get the work to tender way before it is ready!! This has been the case in WA with several recent very large projects. Contractors have been told 'they are tendering on the project so they must "know" what is going into it (even if it's not in the documentation)'. No, I'm not on drugs. It's a fact. So, from houses to hospitals getting clients to allow the time and to pay for FULL documentation, which will ultimately save them and everyone money and time and litigation, is almost an impossibility.

  • Best idea I have heard yet . Won`t work while the client said cheap , cheap , cheap & the Architect go`s cheap , cheap ,cheap to the builder

  • Greg, thank you. It is refreshing to hear your views and honesty! Your expertise, lengthy experience and ethical perspective speaks volumes!

    I like your phrase to describe those 'builders' who 'stuff-up' and ruin the Architects' day "big time." Of course for the owners the consequences are much more devastating. Commonly the big, all-encompassing stuff-up (think defective slab, drainage, and dangerously unsafe building requiring demolition)delivers massive detriment and results in owners' lives being ruined – and for too many, forever ruined.

    As you rightly point out, for owners a new house is a "hugely expensive building". In reality, for most people it is the biggest financial outlay of their lives. And yet as you highlight, in the case of the 'stuff-up builders' they do not even read the Specifications! In my experience, not only is this a truism, what is more disturbing is that many builders cannot read English and therefore we cannot expect that they could read the Specifications or Plans/Drawings. I am thinking here of cases where this is supported by their own admission after the event! This naturally begs the question: "How did they become 'registered'? The Victorian Ombudsman's Report of 2012 shone a bright light on how and why this has become part of the fabric of 'registration'. Let's look to the fact that we have 'no touch regulation' – no policeman at the gate!
    In relation to what you refer to as 'due diligence' at the pre-contract stage, once again you have raised a critical issue. Namely it is the fact that for owners there is no possibility of doing any meaningful 'due diligence'.

    No matter the motivation, any 'buyer beware' homework will generally not uncover the 'builder's' past history because the information owners require is buried so deep that no-one can ever find it – in confidentiality agreements, in changed company names, in VCAT cases not available to read on the austlii website (hence invisible), in negative comments (evidence based) removed from social media, etc. Presto, past reputation is simply not 'findable'! Thus, reputation in building is effectively not relevant because 'stuff-up' builders do not suffer any 'reputational damage' – no matter the blunders, the deleterious information is blocked from ever making it into the public domain. By comparison, if we want to buy a new car, there is a wealth of information in the media, including positive and negative information on individual companies. It is relatively easy for prospective consumers to become informed, to do due diligence and therefore to make wise decisions.

    Thank you for your truthful appraisal of what is often a subject 'too hot', too taboo and not spoken about.

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