“Holding Your Specifications”

Specifications are important and an integral part of the project and the legally binding contract documents.

by David Dexter, FNSPE, FASPE, CPD, CPI, LEED BD+C, PE

As consulting engineers and design professionals, we all work for clients to develop their vision of a project. We do this through open communication and coordination with the desires of the client as we interpret their vision. We must take that vision and turn it into words (specification) and graphical representations (drawings), a.k.a. construction documents (CDs).

The process of design is an iterative process, beginning with the first discussions of the client’s vision. It is incumbent on the design team to understand and take that vision to the next level by using their knowledge. The design team takes the conceptual and molds it into the final form by creatively using the laws of science and physics to take the dream and form it into steel and concrete. This iterative process continues from the discussion stage into the schematic design stage (SD), which may go through several iterations. Once the client signs off on the SD, they are acknowledging that at this stage the design is approaching the original vision within the limits of the budget and meeting or exceeding the minimum requirements of the applicable codes and standards.

The next step is to initiate the beginning stages of CDs, which will also go through several iterations before final acceptance by the client. At each stage, the design team must work with the client to ensure that the design is advancing the vision and remaining within budget. After many reviews, comments, and edits, the graphical portion of the design has reached the 100-percent CDs level and is ready for review by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ).

Remember, the AHJ’s responsibility is to review the submitted documents to ensure that they meet the minimum requirements of the code being enforced. The AHJ is not the design professional, who is ethically and legally responsible for the client’s vision as shown on the CDs. The AHJ may produce comments in the form of an adjudication order, but those are only the AHJ’s perspective as they view the code. As the engineer of record and design professional who is sealing and signing the documents, the Professional Engineer (PE) is responsible for the design. As such, the PE needs to fully understand their design and be willing to defend it with calculations and logical reasoning. This should be a cooperative effort between the AHJ and PE. This is about protecting the public’s health, safety, and welfare, while honoring the client’s vision and staying within budget.

The engineer should never change their design because an AHJ questions the approach. It is incumbent on the PE to logically explain why the design meets or exceeds the minimal requirements of the code and best serves the needs of the client, while protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the public at large. The AHJ and PE both have the common goal of serving the public good. The one major difference is that the PE holds the liability and ethical obligation to protect the public’s health, safety, and welfare. It is not a competition! It is and should be a mutual effort that involves communication and a shared goal of providing a design that serves the public good.

What Are Specifications?

While the graphical parts of the CDs are what the AHJ generally reviews for approval, the drawings are only one part of the contract documents. The other part of the contract documents is the specifications, the topic of this article. While the AHJ may not have as much interest in the specifications as the graphical drawings, they are both part of the construction documents being submitted for review and approval. Once the AHJ has reviewed the CDs for conformance with the minimum requirements of the code and placed an “approved” stamp on the documents, they have also approved the specifications; however, the reality is that most AHJ typically do not look at the specifications.

Specifications are an act of describing or identifying something precisely or of stating a precise requirement for what is to be provided as part of the contract. A specification often refers to a set of documented requirements to be satisfied by a material, design, product, or service—a technical standard.  A specification is broadly defined as “to state explicitly or in detail” or “to be specific” about what is expected to be provided. Specifications describe the architect’s and engineer’s design and performance requirements for the submitted project. They also further describe the acceptable manufacturers’ products and the associated characteristics and performance requirements of those products to be supplied for inclusion in the project. In terms of the client getting the quality and intended end product, the specifications are the primary portion of the contract documents that ensures an acceptable outcome.

Specifications are important to the construction process; they provide clear instructions to the intent, performance, and construction of the project. Specifications should reference the quality and standards that are expected to be applied, and they should clearly define materials and products. These products are expected to conform to the requirements as detailed on the specifications. Specifications should be short and project specific, use plain English and formatting, be coordinated with both the drawings and the client and design team, set the direction, and point at the project vision. Remember, the specifications are the design team’s written requirements for the development of the project. They are what the client has contracted with the construction team to be provided.

Over the years, both as a contractor and as a consulting engineer, I have seen and developed many specifications. As a contractor, I have seen specifications that do not fit the project, describing work or equipment that is not involved or shown on the associated drawings. As a consulting engineer, I get the opportunity to review specifications by others within our office or provided by other consultants, and the quality ranges from poor to overly restrictive. Specifications should always be project specific and coordinated with the client, design team, and the basis of design as depicted on the drawings.

It has been my experience that most specifications begin from a master set of specifications. This master set may be developed by a firm or purchased by subscription from companies such as Arcom, which offers MasterSpec. Either are simply templates that can be used to create the “Project Specifications.” Additionally, “Guide Specifications” are published be various product manufacturers to assist the design team, while promoting their product. Regardless of where one begins, no one should ever use a specification from a similar project without editing it to be project-specific. I cannot tell you the number of times that senior staff or young designers have pushed or utilized “similar project” specifications without reading and editing them. They will cite the cost of effort to edit or the time constraint to get the project complete and out to the construction team. These are simply excuses for not appropriately serving the client’s needs.

Specifications that are not specifically detailed to the project create confusion and added work in the form of RFIs (requests for information), ASIs (architectural supplemental instructions), and ultimately COs (change orders) that cost the client additional funds. They also place the design team in a bad light with the client and potentially open the door for E&Os (errors and omissions). In extreme cases, liquidated damages can be an unfortunate result of this lack of proper oversight by the design professional. 

Thus, regardless of what one thinks, specifications are important and an integral part of the project and the legally binding contract documents.

So, should design professionals hold their specifications? I would argue that the answer is obvious if we are to serve the public’s best interest and the client’s needs; the specifications are integral to the contract and are therefore binding. As a professional, I am bound to hold to appropriately written specifications that the contractor agreed to follow.

Types of Specifications

Now, having stated that, there are basically two types of specifications: private and public.

In the case of public projects, legal ramifications are associated with the specifications that dictate one’s ability to alter or change the documents after bidding and award of contract. This does not mean that changes cannot be considered, but they must follow the procedures as called out in the contract. If the appropriate procedures are not followed, the client/owner could be subject to claims of unfair bidding practices and potential claims by contractors that submitted a bid on the project but were not awarded the contract. Public projects greatly limit the ability of the engineer of record to not follow the specific language of the specifications.

On the other hand, private projects allow much more in the way of latitude in how the specifications might be interpreted, as the governing party is the client. But this is no reason to not hold your specification, as you should have completed a substantial effort in developing these project-specific specifications and the engineer of record should defend them as being in the best interests of the client and project. While one may consider contractor/vender offerings of alternate or differing products, the final say belongs to the client in coordination with the engineer of record.

Holding to the Spec

If the project-specific specifications are appropriately developed, edited, and well-thought-out, you should not need to accept alternative equipment or reduced-quality products because the contractor/vender offers them. You must ask if these alternate products will impact the overall quality of the project and ultimately cost the client more money in the long run. Will these alternate products provide with client with the project quality that they contracted to receive? If the contractor offered a proposal based on the contract documents, specifications, and drawings, why are they now offering alternate products or services? What will the client receive in return, and what will the contractor save? All of these questions should be considered in evaluating any suggestion of change of a product or before accepting a product that does not fully conform to the specifications.

Additionally, when a contractor offers a substitution you should ask if the suggested changes or alternatives increase the cost borne by other contractors to accommodate the suggested changes or alternates. If any potential cost impacts exist, the offering contractor must be prepared to pay for those costs within their proposal to avoid potentially difficult and costly issues down the road.

This is not meant to imply that such proposals should be discarded without analysis or evaluation. Everyone involved in the process, the owner, design team, and construction team, has valuable input and knowledge, but it is a question of value and who receives the benefit. The client, through the contractual process, entered into an agreement based on the contract documents (specifications and drawings) and should receive the full value of that agreement. While the contractor or their venders may offer alternative products, materials, or changes to the design, the client still needs to receive what was agreed upon through the contractual agreement. Failure of the contractor to comply with the contractual documents is equivalent to committing a fraud against the client. As the client’s official representative, the PE is ethically and morally obligated to serve the client’s best interests, while holding the public’s health, safety, and welfare above all other considerations.

So, as a Professional Engineer, I will always hold to the specifications that were developed in concert with the ownership and design teams. A properly developed set of construction documents that are the basis of the contractual agreement should be reason enough to not be cast aside because someone proposes to alter the design or offers a lesser product, claiming it to be equal. As the engineer of record, the final say as to equivalency rests in my hands, an obligation and responsibility that should not be taken lightly. If the effort has been put into the project documents, be prepared to defend the decisions and choices that were made. If, at the end of the discussions, the client decides to accept an alternate offering, see that they receive full value by receiving an appropriate change to the contract amount.

The AE/CE team should have an established program to review and update the specifications for content, especially for manufacturers, materials, and standards. Specifications are living documents, and properly updating and maintaining them can go a long way in reducing issues once the CDs are out for bid.

About the Author

David Dexter, FNSPE, FASPE, CPD, CPI, LEED BD+C, PE, is a Registered Engineer, Certified Plumbing Inspector, and Certified Plans Examiner with more than 40 years of experience in the installation and design of plumbing systems. He specializes in plumbing, fire protection, and HVAC design as well as forensics related to mechanical system failures. Dave serves as Chair of ASPE’s Main Design Standards Committee, Chair of the Bylaws Committee, and Co-Chair of the Professional Engineer Working Group. He also was the 2010–2011 President of the Ohio Society of Professional Engineers.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not the American Society of Plumbing Engineers.

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