By Keith Robinson, FCSC, RSW, CCS, LEED AP
Many specifiers have been called into an uncomfortable meeting with a request to clarify exactly what was intended by the written words in the project manual. One can often be left with the feeling the only reason he or she is there is to take the blame when a satisfactory conclusion has not otherwise come to fruition.
The specs overrule the drawings—this is not an unusual reaction for anyone assembling or administering construction documentation, but this particular interpretation is used way too often and without sufficient thought about how this hierarchy exists. In the event of document conflict, there is no doubt about order or priority—it is defined in the standard Canadian Construction Documents Committee (CCDC) contract forms. (This author is not a lawyer; the discussion presented in this article is merely an opinion). The issue with this statement is the difference between a conflict’s ‘general understanding’ and ‘legal interpretation.’
The word ‘conflict,’ as used in the contractual instance, is the legal interpretation where there is a breach of contract. Essentially, someone is about to be sued, and the conflict refers to the process of resolving the dispute. However, ‘conflict,’ as used by the general understanding (i.e. non-legal expert) is any disconnect between the specifications and the drawings. In other words, it is a disagreement between facts and an individual’s interpretation of the documents, or any perceived argument during the administration of the project that does not actually form a breach of contract (but has the potential if not resolved amicably).
There needs to be a line in the sand—a point of decision-making to enable fair and equal document interpretation. The specification is being used as the tool for this demarcation based on the accepted order of priority. The sarcastic inference in this article’s title comes about when the specification is inconsistent with the graphic representation (i.e. drawings). But what happens when the drawings are correct and we do not want the spec to rule? What about the unintentional disconnect when the drawing notes are too specific—should they then become the specification? If so, what happens to the project manual (i.e. the traditional specifications)?
The standard CCDC forms of contract offer backup to support the graphic representation and accompanying notes. They state:
Contract documents are complementary, what is required by one is required by all.
In other words, the specifier might be humbly marching forward, feeling self-confident in being justified in switching the ruling documentation (in the constructor’s eyes) from the specification to the drawing. Now, however, the specifier may be steering toward a conflict in the true legal sense—a potential for breach of contract.
In arriving at a more reasoned approach to interpreting the contract documents, it is important to understand the definition of a specification and a drawing. Some of the earliest interpretations of ‘drawings’ are referenced in the 1700s and 1800s. For example, 1860’s The Handbook of Specifications, Practical Guide to the Architect, Engineer, Surveyor, and Builder in Drawing Up Specifications and Contracts for Works and Constructions, by T. L. Donaldson, stated “the working drawings contain the graphical information placed on sheets of vellum or other reproduction” with the implication everything else on the sheet was considered ‘words.’ (It is viewable online via the University of Michigan’s HathiTrust Digital Library). Those words had specific context leading to our current interpretation of the order of priority of documents, as laid out in 1886’s Specifications for Practical Architecture, written by Frederick Rogers. The current interpretation was derived from the following concerns (quoted in the language of the time) in the late 1800s:
- Of the exactness requisite in the practical profession of architecture, and how far it is influenced by the correctness of specifications and working drawings;
- Of the disputes and expenses which arise from badly drawn specifications;
- Of the trouble and vexation which an architect occasions to himself by a badly drawn specification; and on the propriety of general clauses in specifications;
- Of marginal references in specifications and contracts, their convenience, and their tendency to ensure the correct performance of the work, and of the care with which specifications should be copied into contracts;
- Of the advantages which would result, if copies of the working drawings and specifications for all works, were deposited somewhere for the public and private reference;
- Of the evil and depressing influence which bad building has upon architecture;
- Of the influence which contracting for the erection of buildings has upon architecture;
- Of the present state of architectural mechanical knowledge; and
- Of the question, “Have we improved in our practical building through specifications?”
In today’s environment, there are still similar concerns. The question is, why has there not been progress in construction documentation in the last 125 to 150 years to address these problems?
Making sense of things
Fortunately, the source publications for the definitions listed in this article have laid out CCDC’s principles of interpretation, with which design professionals are familiar in today’s common use of the order of document precedence:
- Words add clarity and content to graphical representations and working drawings.
- Words are understood in their general and popular use.
- Words that are commonly accepted by trade use are understood as standard or technical terms and have precedence over general or popular use.
- Specific and defined terms take precedence over standard or technical terms.
- Typed words take precedence over printed words (think of old-style drawing methods where words were hand-printed).
- Handwritten words take precedence over typed or printed words (handwriting is considered as reflecting the immediate thoughts selected by the parties themselves to express their joint understanding of the meaning of words).
The disconnect in today’s interpretation is the word ‘drawing’ is taken to be the physical sheet of paper bound together as a set of working drawings rather than the graphical content (as was the original interpretation). When words are added to the graphical content, they become an integral component of the specification information, adding clarity to the drawings. ‘Words printed on the drawing must match the words written into the specification’—this disconnect arises by our failure to recognize drawing notes are, in fact, specifications.
This becomes a bigger issue given our need to add more detail to the drawing notes than is necessary to convey clarity or content, especially considering the weight provided to the specification under contract. The more detailed the drawing notes, the greater the likelihood of creating discrepancies and potential for disputes.
So what is the solution to this dilemma? Communication—something everyone thinks they perform effectively, but which so often fails in the process of delivering the message. The ultimate irony is we are failing to communicate because of our need to provide overly descriptive notes on our working drawings. In other words, we are often failing to forward a message, speak with the person responsible for the written words that actually take precedence, and ultimately provide the communication to the person that delivers the finished project.
Do we assume the specification is not as good as the contract gives it credit? Do we overcompensate by adding descriptive text and sequential context to drawing notes that ignores the flow of communication supposed to occur between the drawings and the specification? This becomes a self-fulfilling conclusion—the specification is not good because no one thought to communicate the project requirements into the written document. The contractual significance of the specification is lost to the big recycle bin in the back rooms, basements, and back alleys of so many buildings due to the failure to effectively communicate project requirements.
This may well be an action plan for building information modelling (BIM) concepts and software, but this would be a discussion for a different column.
Keith Robinson, FCSC, RSW, CCS, LEED AP, has worked as a specifications writer since 1981, joining the Edmonton office of Cohos Evamy—now DIALOG—in December 1996. He has spent several years updating his firm’s library and master specifications to reflect the various challenges of identifying building materials and techniques relating to environmentally sustainable construction. Throughout his career, Robinson has provided contract documents and technical solutions for various major projects (including more than 30 LEED-certified buildings) throughout the world. He instructs several courses for the University of Alberta and is also a member of Construction Specification Canada’s (CSC’s) Executive Council, currently serving as its 2nd vice-president. Robinson can be reached