Issue: 7/01

Editor's Note: Here is the first installment of a new PME column featuring guest editorials. We offer "Sound Off" as an open forum for industry professionals to express their opinions about industry issues, as well as to offer advice to our readers on how to manage their businesses. To submit material for this column, contact Kelly Johnson at

Homeowners always want to modify the builder's plans as they see it being built. First-time (unsophisticated) owners have difficulty in formulating their program, and yet they expect a perfect project. In design-build, the owner gets whatever he can afford because the contractor will build to a firm price by changing what the owner gets. All projects have a change-order process built in to respond to unknown conditions. Although the scope of the work is defined by the contract, sometimes changes are necessary.

But let's eliminate all of the above reasons and focus on what the owners expect.

Owners expect the systems they bought to work without extensive modifications or adjustments by their own forces. Every one of us can relate to the story about buying a new car from a dealer, and within a week, taking it back for one defect or another, or buying merchandise that doesn't work properly and has to be returned. What is the owner's remedy for building systems that don't work? How can he get the contractor back for repairs? How can he return the merchandise?

Owners Don't Know What They Want

And that is why they hire architect/engineers (A/Es). Owners can tell in general terms what their goal is. They may want an office for three hundred employees, but it is the A/Es who put the accounting function close to the president's office. They set the tone by selecting color schemes and landscaping. They project the company's image to the public in non-verbal ways. Owners want the building cool enough in the summer and warm enough in the winter. The A/Es see to it that the operating costs are reasonable and that the systems fit the owner's intent. Is he going to sell the building, or does he have to maintain the equipment? Owners who are going to retain their buildings want more from the systems than just heating and cooling. They want them to work properly when they take possession from the contractor. Most owners don't have the resources to collaborate with the A/Es to any detailed level.

Experienced owners such as HUD have reams of material closely defining the design. All of these buildings are built the same way, and they all have the same design problems; but contractors who have built one before can build one again. HUD's building inspectors are very familiar with the scope of the work to be done. Mostly, HUD gets what it expects.

The Inspection Service Is Missing

Whose responsibility is inspection? State and county inspectors have no responsibility to enforce the specifications, only the codes. Their presence on the project may be a site visit during initiation and several near completion. It would be nearly an impossible task for them to become familiar with each project's specification.

Although many owners believe that the engineers have the inspection function, AIA contracts clearly exempt them. While they may be at the job site more often than the code inspectors, their responsibility is to report deviations from the contract only when they are discovered. They are also called upon to interpret the contract and to make sure that payments to the contractor do not exceed the worth of the work.

Many owners have inspectors, but their time is taken up in managing the contracts. Only very large projects, such as HUD's, have inspectors whose sole responsibility is to discover a contractor's non-compliance. These owners see the true cost of insisting on compliance.

Owners Don't Insist On Compliance

While owners want the systems to work when they take possession, they allow small, undocumented deviations. Every A/E has had the frustration of telling the owner of such deviations, only to be told, "ThatOs all right. We donOt really need that." Or even, "YouOre not going to make the contractor do it all over again just to correct that little flaw, are you?" It is especially frustrating after that for the A/E to be told to "beat up" the contractor for some other transgression that seems unimportant to the A/E.

A/Es Load the Documents with Unimportant Details

There is so much non-essential information in the specifications that no one reads them until they need to find something that pertains to the problem at hand. Many contractors feel that specifications are only enforced after some issue comes to light, so why read them until then. Some specs are taken from previous similar projects and often have not been completely edited to fit the current project. Every contractor has had the experience of finding a major piece of equipment mentioned in the spec that does not appear on the drawing. It was not purged from the previous project, and he knows it, but too often the documents say that what is indicated on either the drawings or the specs is binding. No wonder he shouts, "If it's not shown on the drawings, you don't get it!"

Often the remnants of problems faced long ago reside, like ghosts, in the A/E's spec--things that the A/E vowed would never happen to him again. A paragraph appears and lingers forever, telling the contractor that no sheet metal fitting shall be made of remnants. Such things are superfluous, because a leak test is specified. Enforcement of the leak test would require the contractor to eliminate the number of remnants in the ductwork.

A/Es should make the specifications thinner and more to the point by purging the unneeded provisions from specs and removing anything that they don't expect to be fulfilled. They need to think about what is important to this project and make sure that there are no unanswered questions. If the A/E doesn't know what is in the field, the contractor surely won't either because he only sees a set of bid documents.

Contractors Don't Always Follow the Specifications

Often the contractor's foreman has his own opinions and ways of doing things. Assume that lagging is called for on insulation specifications for a school. These also call for ASJ with joints covered with a sealed flap. The foreman has done this for hospitals, but this job is for a school. In his opinion, lagging is overkill, so he leaves it off. At the end of the job, it is discovered that lagging is specified but is missing. He pleads his overkill case with the owner and is not required to provide it. Why? Often, it's because the owner has no desire to inflict a large loss on a contractor who has done an otherwise good job. The owner wants that contractor to bid on his next project. He does not think he is substituting the foreman's level of quality for the engineer's, but it's not likely the next school spec will call for lagging.


The owners don't take the engineer's advice, but more importantly the A/Es don't listen to the owners. Because the system is adversarial, neither owners nor A/Es listen to contractors. The contractor's foreman isn't the only one who has his own idea of how the job should be done--the A/Es are guilty of this as well. Once the program is set, the owner rarely sees the mechanical or electrical engineers. The only communication is through reviews, where the owner marks up the documents at certain stages. It takes a very experienced owner to communicate in this way. Even so, discussion is an easier and more effective way to communicate. Since many owners do not understand all the ramifications of a decision--say VAV air systems--they can't ask the right questions. Most engineers do not ask for guidance because they know this or feel that their judgement is better than the owner's. These obstacles to communication need to be overcome so that listening can occur. Of course, the contractor is denied this access, because he is often not yet "on board." Their communication comes in the form of contract documents.

This is a call to the owners to help the engineers enforce the specifications. It is also a call to the engineers to produce more concise documents that contractors can understand and rely on. A/Es also need to listen during the programmatic stage to what the owner wants and check their work to see that the owner gets it.