How to Spot Changes in the Specs, Schedules, and Details Before Work Begins


(Excerpted from Contractor’s Guide to Change Orders from BNi Building News)

It’s essential that every contractor check over plans carefully before work begins to find the hidden changes existing in just about every set of plans. It can be daunting, but here are some tips to help you find these hidden changes in the haystack of plans.

Fat” Specs

"Fat" specifications arise over a period of time at an architect's office. Every year more projects are completed, more battles are won and lost, more arbitrations develop, and more change orders are reluctantly given up. Each subsequent specification then attempts to "benefit" from the experience. With each success and failure, another clause, more boilerplate, and additional disclaimers are added to the specifications.

At first glance, a contractor who's confronted with a Fat Specification may become uneasy. After all, the specification with all its elaborations makes no effort to hide the fact that its objective is to nail the contractor to the wall. It seems so ridiculously stacked in favor of the owner and/or architect that it is hard to see how any businessperson in her right mind would sign off on such a document.

A Fat Specification presents a significant difficulty for the owner and architect. It is based on the proposition that all the extra baggage which was added in a piecemeal fashion was not coordinated properly with the existing documents. In all probability, the extra language was added as each individual piece was dreamed up.

The problem is that minimal or no effort may have been expended to see if the issue was already accommodated in some other fashion. Another kind of complication results from the new language being added to the specifications outside of the design context. For whatever reason, the intent of the additional provision is different from that of the persons who prepared the original design.

The net result is a complicated, cryptic, and confusing specification that is riddled with overstatements, contradictions, ambiguities, and impossibilities. While the architect thought he was building a thick protective coating, he actually increased the probability of a contractual error and additional change orders.

How to Deal With Fat Specifications

It is generally easy to spot a Fat Specification, particularly on a smaller project. The contractor should review the entire specification and should be intimately familiar with the project's requirements. The contractor must not be intimidated by the length of the specification or the architect's verbose writing style. Set forth below are several action items to keep in mind when reviewing a Fat Specification.

Quickly review the specifications for the following indicators:

  • General Conditions, Special Conditions, etc., that are longer than the technical specifications;
  • Extensive duplication in the general provisions;
  • Descriptions and instructions that are much longer and more labored than necessary (i.e., using a paragraph to describe a responsibility, when a sentence would be sufficient); or
  • The presence of many clauses describing requirements that are not normally encountered in specifications for this type of project.

Try to evaluate whether the architect, engineer, or owner seem to know what they are doing, or have prepared an overambitious specification to hide something.

Review the excess language for clues as to the attitude or perspective of the owner or the architect.

If the initial review of the specification reveals one or more of the indicators of a Fat Specification, make every effort to become intimately familiar with the specification's content. This will enable you to quickly spot any duplications, ambiguities, or contradictions. If you encounter any of these Fat Specification indicators, immediately proceed with their quick resolution.

How to Compare the Finish Schedule vs. Specification Index Description

A comparison of the Finish Schedule with the Specification Index can expose potential duplications and/or omissions. It can indicate whether or not the design process seems to have been completed in a coordinated manner, or if it was performed by different individuals who did not speak with each other. Any discrepancies discovered in this review will become fairly obvious.

The comparison of Finish Schedule to Specs may be as simple as comparing the schedule's headings against the categories included in the technical specifications.

During the comparison, the contractor needs to:

  • Confirm that each item is accommodated in the technical specifications, and that each item is only included once.
  • Upon the discovery of a discrepancy, duplication, or oversight, proceed with resolving the difference immediately.

Inadequate Level of Detail Description

Providing an inadequate level of detail in a design necessary to complete a particular construction is an attempt by a designer to:

  •  Avoid spending the proper amount of time necessary to complete the design; or
  •  Shift the burden of unresolved or incomplete design issues to the contractor under the guise of "coordination."

Missing design information can take many forms, and can range from obvious to subtle.

Some examples of missing design information include:

1. Missing mounting or fastening details. (Do you want stainless steel brackets or rubber bands holding up the limestone?)
2. Not enough dimensions to allow even an elaborate calculation to properly locate the work.
3. Incomplete descriptions. (Is the blocking to be continuous, 24" on center, or eliminated altogether?)
4. Vague descriptions of special shapes, angles, and so on. (What is the exact angle of the spandrel glass?)
5. Imprecise, incomplete or inadequate layout information. (What is the radius of the curved stone in the front of the building? Do you have to lay it out in the parking lot to find out?)
6. Shop drawings are returned with "By GC" or "GC to Coordinate" notes on them instead of the dimensions and details requested.
7. Job meeting after meeting goes by without definite and complete resolution of the deficient design issues.

These and other areas of deficient design eat into a contractor's anticipated profits because they require disproportionate amounts of time to resolve. Much time and effort is usually needed to convince the architect and the owner that the missing information is the designer's responsibility in the first place.

The most common effects of an inadequate or incomplete design are:

1. Field time is wasted each time a situation is encountered.
2. Unnecessary design liability is assumed by contractors who take it upon themselves to determine design and dimension solutions, in order to allow the work to move forward.

Both of these effects cost the contractor time and money. Further, as mentioned previously, the assumption of design responsibility exposes the contractor to unnecessary risks.

When faced with a situation involving an incomplete or an inadequate design, the contractor must:

1. Remember that the word "coordination" means moving information from one place to another in a timely manner, and that coordination does not mean inventing information—that is design.
2. Always get the missing design information from those who are responsible for providing it, even in the seemingly most obvious circumstances.
3. Immediately confirm the completed design in writing if the architect has failed to document the corrected design. Be sure to mention that it was the architect who ultimately provided the missing design information, no matter who originally came up with it.
4. Scrutinize "supplementary information," "clarifications" or whatever the architect chooses to call the document which contains the missing design information.
5. Determine if the supplementary information or the clarification includes any additional work or involves any extra costs.
6. Not be overwhelmed by documents, calculations or details.
7. Upon the determination that the "clarification" includes additional work, research the issue and apply any applicable recommendations.
8. Complete the process with the submission of the complete change order proposal.

You may not be able to catch every change in the plans, but if you follow the steps listed here, chances are that you’ll find may find many of them.

This is an excerpt from “Contractor’s Guide to Change Orders” by BNi Building News. “Contractor’s Guide to Change Orders” provides you with step-by-step procedures that protect you. It helps keep hidden construction delays and expenses from draining your profit. Here you’ll find detailed checklists, sample forms and model letters to help you save time and money on every project. Find out more at

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