Plans and Specifications Part 1

If you spend enough time in the construction industry you’ll eventually  notice that a hefty amount of whatever is written, is written in legalese.    The Construction industry has largely defaulted to using American Institute of Architects (AIA) created documents for all contractual relationships.  As much as “Builders” have become “General Contractors” the Architect’s role has moved from “Designing Buildings” to generating “Contract Documents”.

Plans and Specifications Part 1

It’s a good thing these skills are just as related as….golfing and….fire fighting.

Often Contract Documents  are taken to refer to the plans and specifications only.  However anything the Architect cites, attached, or generates that is at all tied to the contract may be considered a “Contract Document”.  Some examples include; Request For Information (RFI) responses, Request For Proposal (RFP), Directives, Invites to Bid, Addenda, Architects Supplementary Information (ASI), Pricing Requests, Meeting minutes, Soils Report, Hazardous Material Assessment,  Schedules, Code requirements, Engineering Standards, Contracts, etc.

With all these various documents in play there can be confusion when documents conflict with each other, it’s important to know that there is a standard for determining hierarchy.  Starting from the basic plans and specs scenario, the specification’s trump the plans in all cases.  If there exists a conflict between two drawings, the drawing with the larger scale (more detail) trumps the smaller scale.  Often Architects will include notation that requires written dimensions on Architectural sheets to trump all others.  For example, a plumbing plan may show the layout for restroom fixtures, however the dimensions for fixture locations must be taken from the Architectural plan.

Architects adhere to the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) Master format numerical coding system for individual scopes of work.  This allows a universal coding system for trades to find all applicable specifications pertinent to their scope of work. Generally speaking, specification books are large tomes of legalese with requirements for every element of a scope of work.  Each subsection will define what is to be covered which typically includes allowable standards for ; material, installation, manufacturer, submittal, quality control, and final deliverable items like warranty and operations manuals.

The plans are generally speaking, the dimensioned pictorial reference for the project.  The Architect will often employ a team of consultants in different disciplines as needed.  The most common consultants are engineers from Civil, Mechanical, Structural, and Electrical disciplines.  Landscape Architects, Interior Designers, Lighting consultants, Audio/Visual Consultants, Acousticians, Fenestration Consultants, Kitchen Equipment providers, Security consultants, and Medical Equipment providers are examples of the various consultants the Architect may hire to form the design team which generates the construction documents.

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The Architect is in charge of the entire construction document development and the consultants work for them.  As projects are in development, it’s common for the Architect to make changes constantly.  A fairly common issue is that an engineer will develop their plans missing information shown on the Architects plans.  For example a lighting plan on the Electrical sheets may have a slightly different layout than the Architectural reflected ceiling plan.

Unfortunately for estimators everywhere, the standard Architect assumption is that if the desired item is shown even once, anywhere in the CD’s , they can claim their intent was clear.  Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing (MEP) trades notoriously bid on the “Engineered sheets” only.  As an estimator, it’s crucial to check that the Architects vision is accurately transcribed into the consultants work.  Errors here can be very expensive on items like decorative lighting fixtures.  Be very cautious about verifying that each fixture type has the same counts,  fixtures can vary tremendously in price so even though it may be the same overall number of fixtures, the price can fluctuate profoundly.

Why won’t they just tell me what I need to know?

There are some scopes of work that are profoundly frustrating to bid because each consultant delivers entirely separate documents with only cursory references to where critical information might be found.  A prime example of this is earthwork.  Let’s say the project is a ground up building on a new (greenfield) site.  The civil plans will generally show what the existing and proposed topography needs to be.  The building itself is generally shown as a simple outline with an elevation written in the middle.  Structural plans will show the building foundation which helps to a degree in that the volume of the foundation materials must be excavated.  Be careful since the Structural plans often contain detail drawings with dimensions defined by  relationships to other parts.  In other words, the detail showing a foundation wall section is “Typical” however its height at any given point must be derived from all influencing factors.

This still falls short of telling an earthwork contractor the entire scope of the project.  If the soil samples indicated native material is unsatisfactory, the site may require over excavation (overex) to cut out the offending material.  In some cases moisture treatment and compaction are required in specific layers (lifts).

Neither the civil, nor the structural plans will contain this incredibly important information.  No, this information is in the soils report under “recommendations” which are inevitably buried in the middle of the soils report.  The natural question now is “where’s the soils report”?  Some design teams provide the soils report as a standalone document, others include it in the specifications manual.  In other cases, a GC will be obliged to ask for it via RFI.

Plans and Specifications Part 1

The reason everything is so fractured is that the engineering disciplines are very concerned about liability.  They seek to contain their risk by providing only information they have developed.  Soils Engineers are very aware that their work is being relied upon by the structural engineer.  The structural engineer is very aware that their work is being relied upon by the architect.  Generally speaking, the more liability the engineer faces, the more they will seek to protect themselves.  Soils reports can take on a level of legalese that is impressive even by congressional standards.

So what if I have a question?

RFI’s pertaining to engineering consultant’s work will be routed from the Architect to the engineer(‘s) and back.  It’s common for an Architect to have little to no understanding of what was asked or answered.  Consult with affected subcontractors and put together an RFI that respectfully illustrates what you believe is the intention.  Sometimes they’ll show mercy and answer you.

Conventions versus intentions

The term “schedule” on plans means a chart of related specifications.  Common examples of schedules found on plans would include a door schedule, or a HVAC Equipment Schedule, or a Light Fixture Schedule.  Plan schedules share a few conventions.  First off is an arbitrary name for each unique “type” of related specifications.  In the case of a Door schedule, there may be several hardware groups defined.  A hardware group will include all door hardware required for a specific opening which may be a lengthy list.  The schedule will list the door number, the hardware group, the door’s width, length, material, finish, frame type, and rating.  It would be cumbersome to include all this information at each door opening of a floor plan so the schedule is a more concise way to convey all that information.

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Whenever information pertinent to a plan is compartmentalized into a schedule there is a strong likelihood that errors will occur.  Door schedules are a great example of this.  From the plan view it’s easy to see which doors are exterior and which are the interior.  Looking at a door schedule, the interior versus exterior distinction is buried in the spreadsheet.  It’s very easy to transpose an entry especially since the door numbering is an arbitrary thing that may have no clear relationship to where the opening will be found on the plans.  Adding further mischief is the convention to put the door hardware schedule in the specifications.  The hapless estimator doing a door takeoff must  reference the specs, the floor plan(s), and the door schedule simultaneously to do their job.  More RFI’s are written about errors in door schedules than any other topic.  Perhaps some bright light will consider moving the door and hardware schedules onto a dedicated floor plan so everything is on the same page.

They draw the treasure map, you pick the pirates.

Before leaving the door example it’s worth pointing out that doors may be furnished by several unrelated bidders.  Storefront doors are typically furnished by the Glazier, as are solid glass (fancy) doors.  Overhead doors may be furnished by a garage door company or a specialty supplier in the case of interior security gates.  Wood doors may be furnished by door suppliers, or millwork contractors, or a combination of the two for applied trim wood doors. Automatic doors installed in storefront are typically by an auto-door firm.  Electric Americans with Disability Act (ADA) openers for manual storefront doors are typically furnished by a door supplier but there are always exceptions.

None of which is in any way, shape or form, indicated by the construction documents.  It’s entirely the GC’s responsibility to know “means and methods” and to always adhere to “design intent” regardless of how confused you are by the CD’s conventions.

Finish schedules are common on projects with recurring patterns like multifamily buildings.  The more homogeneous the design, the less problems will occur.  Schedules can be very helpful for defining complex specifications like HVAC equipment, Kitchen Equipment, Light fixtures, and so on.  A lot of time is saved by centralizing pertinent information. It helps a great deal that MEP disciplines tend to consolidate their information towards the obvious trade divisions.  Architects and Interior Designers are “mass communicating” so their schedules tend to work poorly for everyone but them.

Why didn’t you read the specs…

As an estimator it’s important to know that Architects feel that the specifications are perfectly obvious in the same way that a floor plan shows the building perimeter.  To subcontractors, the specifications represent approximately 20 pages that matter surrounded by 600 that don’t.

Although they may be loath to admit it, specification manuals are often “cut and paste” efforts where doubt is handled via overkill.  It is incredibly common for specification manuals to contain sections on systems or assemblies that have no bearing on the individual project.  In trade parlance this is a “canned spec” meaning the design team just re-used a spec book so a particularly onerous requirement may not actually apply to the job at hand.

This is why you’re here

As an estimator, it’s your job to contain risk, maximize profit, and win a bid.  The most powerful tool at your disposal is your judgment.  It’s a simple fact that mistakes will find a way to your door regardless of who made them.  Canned specs might not be enforced leaving you to decide if it’s worth the risk  to exclude something that seems unnecessary.  If it’s excluded from your estimate,it must be excluded on your proposal.  Whenever you’re on the fence about an issue, ask a trusted subcontractor what the exposure is so you have some idea of your risk.  Remember that an estimator must show leadership and fairness.  If the plans and specs ask for something impossible, don’t demand that your subs “bid it anyway”.


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© Anton Takken 2014 all rights reserved

About Anton Takken

I chose to focus on estimating for a few reasons. Chief among them was that it's a position that's hard to fill in most companies. Job security and advancement is easier as a result. Unique to this job is a higher vantage point over the company and its place in the market. Bids are generally over in a few weeks which keeps things from getting boring. The reasons few of my colleagues pursue estimating comes down to a few misconceptions. The first is that it's the builders version of accounting - perceived as a lonely and quiet life among the charts and plans. The second is that it's not engaged in the construction process. Lots of the appeal of the construction industry is the sense that individual effort brought a plan into reality. The teamwork and camaraderie present among tradesman seems conspicuously absent at the estimators desk. Finally, I think the last reason is that it's daunting to be responsible for setting the price of something that's never been done. The good news for folks in estimating is that it's much more social than advertised. An estimator's phone is constantly ringing. Taking the opportunity to build relationships with the bidders creates a positive atmosphere and encourages everyone to do their best. It can be too much of a good thing which is why it's common to arrive at their voicemail when you're calling with a question. A strong rapport with the bidders can be invaluable. Subcontractors have much more exposure to what's going on in the market and they're often eager to share their knowledge. Learning from these experts is a priceless opportunity that's often overlooked. More on this in a bit. I decided to start this blog because I noticed that estimating has applications in many arenas. Over the last few years I've helped estimate in fields ranging from software development to blacksmithing! The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it's not about knowing what everything costs, it's about knowing how to figure that out. I believe the very first step to knowledge is to seek it, the second is to retain it, and the third is to pass it on. I hope to share some insights into how estimating is done and hopefully have some fun doing it. My experience is mostly commercial construction, but I'll try to make everything as generally applicable as I can. There are many aspects of business that all markets share yet it's remarkable that one of the most consistent is the failure to recognize that estimating is the very first step to a successful project. So if you're frustrated that work isn't profitable, or exasperated that there's never enough time to get the job done, this blog will be worth your time. Feel free to email me at: View all posts by Anton Takken

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