Construction Documentation Reminders from Children’s Literature

“What I mean and what I say is two different things,” the BFG announced rather grandly. 

“Meanings is not important,” said the BFG.  “I cannot be right all the time.  Quite often I is left instead of right.”

I’m reading The BFG with my 7-year-old.  It’s a 1982 children’s book by Roald Dahl.  (To give you a frame of reference, in case Dahl wasn’t one of your favorite authors when you were a kid, Roald Dahl also wrote the 1964 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.) 

The BFG (the Big Friendly Giant) is a nice vegetarian giant, who tries to communicate clearly, but frequently mixes up his words.  He knows that language is not his strong point, but he thinks that’s just fine.

The book is charming and funny, especially when you read it with a child who has nearly perfect grammer, understands that the BFG’s way of speaking isn’t grammatically correct, and finds it hilarious.  We laugh a lot when we read this book.

But some of the BFG’s pronouncements have uncomfortably reminded me of some people whose paths I’ve crossed in my professional life.

There was the electrical engineering consultant I worked with a long time ago, when I was practicing as an architect.  His drawings were a mess.  I told him his AutoCAD grid snap settings were turned off, so none of the 2 by 4 light fixtures in his ceiling plans were actually on the ceiling grids.  He proudly told me, about the snaps, “I don’t use ‘em.”  Aaarrrgghh! 

There was the owner’s project manager who, when I commented that a provision in the owner-generated general conditions didn’t match the rest of the documents, said “This is illegal verbiage; I would not worry about it.”  (The owner had no intention of clarifying this provision in our documents, and had no intention of correcting this “illegal verbiage” for future projects.)

There are owners and architects both, on CM/GC projects, who have had an awfully relaxed attitude towards documentation before and during construction, who have dismissively said things such as, “Oh, we talked about that with the contractor.  He knows what we want there.”  They didn’t intend to clarify our documents, and were therefore relying on the contractor to provide something based only on a discussion.

In all three of these examples above, the professionals knew that communications were not clear, and they were quite sure that that was just fine.  IT’S NOT OK!

Now, since this is the first time I’ve re-read The BFG since I was little, and we’re only halfway through, I don’t remember if the BFG’s communication shortcomings cause any mishaps.  I am sure the giant’s miscommunications do not cause any change orders, lawsuits, or unhappy clients.

On the other hand, unclear and incomplete construction documents can cause misery for owners, architects, and contractors.  They often lead to change orders, and they can lead to lawsuits, and unhappy clients.

CSI (The Construction Specifications Institute) always reminds us that our contract documents must be clear, concise, complete, and correct.  If you can’t accomplish that yourself, the right thing to do is to hire someone who can accomplish it for you.  Owners, you should have qualified people prepare (and regularly update) your procurement and contracting requirements.  If you are a public entity, you absolutely owe that to the taxpayers.  Design professionals, if you haven’t mastered new must-have technologies, you should hire, or outsource to, people who have.  Owners and design professionals, you should properly staff projects so that the required documentation gets done in a timely manner to prevent misunderstandings.  (Design professionals – this needs to be a factor when you negotiate your fees.) 

Contracts are based on what’s written and drawn.  They are not based on what we meant to write or draw.

“I know exactly what words I am wanting to say, but somehow or other they is always getting squiff-squiddled around.”  (The BFG)

We can do better.

7 thoughts on “Construction Documentation Reminders from Children’s Literature

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading BFG with my children oh so many years ago. But the “Big Honey Hunt” (Berenstain Bears) is the one we wore out from use, twice.

    It is one thing to unknowingly create conflict or ambiguity. It is quite another to consciously decide to incorporate such things or ignore an instance when it is pointed out. Remember contractor’s estimators have but a few weeks to comprehend documents that architects and engineers have spent many months creating. If the documents are not clear, the bid will not be right. If the bid is not right, the project may be dead before a shovel hits the dirt.

  2. As a writer, I appreciate the plug for clear communication — the “C” in the ABCs of journalism – “Accuracy, Brevity, Clarity.” Good job, Liz! Roald Dahl also wrote the screenplay for one of my favorite James Bond films — 1967’s “You Only Live Twice.”

    • I came across it again yesterday, and I retweeted it because I loved it so much!
      My son is 9 now, and we’re reading different (trendier) types of things together right now, but I hope to start introducing some classics again, so maybe I’ll find more parallels!

  3. I often tell architects and drafters (to their utter shock): When you issue this project for bid and construction, stop looking at your computer files as if they have any meaning to the project. They don’t matter anymore – what matters are the written documents that you issued on a given date.

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