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Who Checked the Specs

Preparing Requests for Proposals and Specifications for Design-Build ProjectsWho Checked the Specs?

By David Marihugh, A.M.ASCE

I was recently reviewing a specification book for a heavy civil construction contract prepared by another consulting engineering firm, and I read under the heading of “Methods of Construction” for a rather complicated item of work that is new to our region of the country the phrase, “The work shall be performed in accordance with the industry’s generally accepted methods of construction.” Not quite understanding what specifically that meant, I contacted the writer, and I asked him to explain to me the intent of this specification language.

My colleague confidently explained that what the specification means is that, “The contractor is to perform the work the same way that everybody else does it.”

I told my colleague, “If you are lucky, yes that is what it means. However, it could also mean that the contractor can do whatever he wants to do, and then claim that is how other contractors perform the work.” Since that specification did not specify the exact method of construction, how could the engineer say that it was not done properly?

Generally, the methods of construction are left to the contractor’s discretion for the determination of costs, but this critical item of work was new to our state. If the engineer did not know exactly what the methods of construction were, then a little more research was needed, or at least a clause requiring the methods of construction to be specified as a shop drawing submission, thus requiring the contractor to submit the proposed method of construction for approval before performing the construction. Simply saying to, “Do it right,” and hoping for the best outcome can be dangerous to specify.

What went wrong here? Maybe the specification writer was a little too inexperienced and was in over his/her head, or maybe there was a deadline that had to be met and the specification writer ran out of time, but what I believe was the biggest mistake here was that nobody bothered to check those specifications before they were sent out for review. Certainly, no experienced specification writer would claim to have reviewed that specification and found no fault in it. I have always compared the consulting engineering business to working in a factory, except the finished product we produce is lines and words on paper, or more specifically plans, specifications and engineers' estimates (commonly referred to as PS&E).

Plans are designed based upon calculations that are checked and rechecked. The plans are then drafted, checked and rechecked. Finally, the plans are printed, reviewed and signed by a licensed professional engineer. Plans can and do occasionally include flaws in them, sometimes significant; however, nobody who knows what they are doing in the consulting engineering business is going to prepare final design plans and not check them. In fact, most construction plans include a line for the plan reviewer’s initials.

Although the preparation of the engineer’s estimate may consume just 1% of the total effort to prepare a construction project, it is probably the one portion of the project the client is most concerned about. No matter how well a project’s plans and specifications may have been prepared, an inaccurate engineer’s estimate can render an entire project a complete disaster in an instant. Therefore, although bad estimates do happen, an engineering company would be foolish to bid a job without having somebody review their engineer’s estimate.

Who prepares the specifications for a project? In a perfect world they would be prepared by an experienced engineer who is comfortable with writing complete sentences that make paragraphs. Those specifications would then be checked by the company’s top specification writer. However, the world is not a perfect place, and the specifications do not always get checked. Poorly prepared plans, estimates and specifications are all equally capable of getting an engineer into trouble. Therefore, remember to always check everything, and to treat the specifications with the same level of respect you give to your plans and engineer’s estimate, even if it means the tedious rereading of a book of contract-specific technical specifications. It just might save you a lot of trouble, and money, during the construction of your project.

David Marihugh has worked for the HNTB Corporation in New Jersey for 23 years, and he has been a member of the Construction Institute’s Specifications Committee since 2009.