Questions from Bidders – No Surprises for the Spec Writer

This morning, my architect-client on a school project forwarded some questions from bidders on the project. 

None of the questions was a surprise.  In fact, I’d asked some of the same questions weeks ago, but the design team hadn’t gotten answers back from the Owner.  (See my post below about how Owners need to respond to questions in a timely manner.)

All members of a team on a construction project look at the drawings differently.  The Owner, the architect, the engineers, the spec writer, the contractor are all looking for different things; we’re all extracting different information from these documents.  The specifications writer looks at the drawings in a way that’s a bit different from the architect’s way, and a bit like the contractor’s way.  (But I don’t do any take-offs or estimating!  Phew!)

So, Owners and architects, take a look at those questions from the spec writer.  Answer those questions before CD’s go out, or you may find bidders asking those same questions a few weeks later!

“How Did You Get… So Far Behind?”

Sunday morning a few weeks ago, my family ran into some friends of ours, and we were chatting about what we were going to do for the rest of the beautiful day.  I said that I needed to squeeze about 3 weeks worth of work into the rest of the day.  (I was exaggerating, but not by much.)  My friend paused, then responded with a perfectly reasonable response, “How did you get… so far behind?”

That’s truly not how I saw my situation.  My perspective was that the reason I had so much work to do was because I hadn’t received, in a timely manner, the information that I needed to do my work.  I had unanswered questions out there.  Yes, there was some work I could have been doing, but I have a (totally rational) distaste for taking the risk of having to completely redo something.

Our work as design professionals does not follow a linear path.  I know that the work of my accountant friend who asked the question isn’t completely linear either; he also relies on input from others to complete his work.  But the bulk of the work that we do when preparing construction documents for a building is collaborative.  None of us can operate independently of other members of the team, and, remember, the Owner is part of this team.  The work of each of us involved in this process is integral to the work of the whole team.

We start with some basic info.  We begin our work in a somewhat linear manner.  We design or research things, we ask questions about products, building codes, existing conditions, the work of other team members.  Sometimes one question brings not just one answer, but an answer and a whole host of other questions.  We need to get these answered before we can move on.  We get these answered; these questions bring up more questions.  We build on the design work of other team members, after we put all our work together at design documentation milestones.  Sometimes we have to take a step backwards, if someone went a little too far ahead.  We build (or revise) on the input of the Owner.

I have found that, sometimes, Owners provide information without realizing what they’re providing.  Sometimes Owners do not respond to questions from the architect in a timely manner.  Owners sometimes seem to want us to “finish” before they review things.  This is a really bad idea if we are not actually to have free rein in this design process.  Owners need to realize that we proceed with the information they give us, and if they don’t actually want the stuff they’re giving us information on, they shouldn’t give us that information.  I know this sounds ridiculous, and obvious, but it needs to be said.

None of us knows everything that is involved in the work of others.  Owners seem not to understand how much work and time is spent developing a design or a project specification based on specific instructions, and how many parts of a project every single other part profoundly affects.  When we, the design team, are instructed to change things or add things at the last minute, it’s never good.  The reason we have intermediate milestones is for everyone to review the work of others, and for the Owner to make sure that the direction is correct.

Every member of the team should carefully review documents that are issued at every milestone.  If the Owner doesn’t like something, the Owner needs to speak up immediately, instead of waiting until after the next milestone, when things have been further developed.

So Owners, please answer questions from the architect.  Please know what you want before you provide information to the design team.  Please understand what it is that you are asking for.

Owners, you may not realize your very important role on the team.  Design is a “garbage in, garbage out” sort of process.  Sure, I can write a good spec in a vacuum.  But a project specification that’s good in a vacuum isn’t necessarily good for your project.  When you get questions from the architect’s spec writer, answer them thoughtfully.

Owners, if you need to change things after they’ve already been developed, please change the design team’s schedule and fees as well as the scope of the work.  It’s only fair.  It will allow architects, engineers, and specifiers to produce better, more coordinated documents, and this is likely to save you time and money in the long run.

Can You Say “Addendum”?

Yeah, “addendum” is a fancy word, derived from Latin. The Latin background is the reason the plural is “addenda.”  But really, what’s important is that it means something that’s added.  In construction, it’s something added to or deleted from the contract, or something that revises the contract.  Remember, the contract includes the contract documents – the drawings, the specifications, the agreements, etc.

The Project Resource Manual – CSI Manual of Practice, published by the Construction Specifications Institute, says that addenda are “written or graphic instruments issued to clarify, revise, add to, or delete information in the procurement documents or in previous addenda.”  It goes on to say that “it is imperative that participants to the construction process properly account for these changes by posting or documenting the appropriate addenda information in the affected areas of the drawings and specifications.” 

So, what is the proper procedure for design professionals when issuing addenda?

Remember that you are MODIFYING THE CONTRACT DOCUMENTS.  The easiest way to think about this is to put yourself in the shoes of the people building the project.  They are going to take your addendum, cut out the additions from the paper document of the addendum, and tape them over the things in the originally-issued documents that changed.  They will strike through the things that your addendum deletes.  When you, the design professional, issue addendum changes (or ANY modifications to the contract documents, actually) you NEED to actually MODIFY THE DOCUMENTS.  If an Addendum item changes something about the contract documents, you have to actually modify the documents.  You can’t just answer bidder questions without actually modifying your documents, the contract documents, to back up the answer to your question.

If you can’t put yourself in the shoes of the contractor, put yourself in your own future shoes.  How does it feel when a question comes up late in the project, and you think that you may have changed something a while ago, but now you can’t remember what changed, and there is no official documentation of that modification?  Feels bad.  Looks bad to your client.

Do yourself, and your clients, and the contractor, a favor.  Issue proper and complete addendum modifications.  Change the actual documents, and, even if you don’t issue a whole drawing, document exactly what the change is, so that the intent is unambiguously communicated to all the participants in a construction project.  You’ll probably thank yourself later!