I have rarely read a construction blog post with as much power and impact as this recent Procore Blog post: Inside theRisks of Construction Drawings: The Case of the Hourglass, by Bridget Johnson.
The story is simple, but incredibly significant, citing a legal case: Goodrich Quality Theaters, Inc. v. Fostcorp Heating and Cooling, Inc.
Subcontractors working on an IMAX movie theater were at odds with the architect and general contractor over structural steel assemblies. Project documents included a copy of the Steel Joist Institute Manual which directed that any joist girder that is nonstandard should bear the mark “SP.” Certain joist girders on this project were not standard as they required HVAC to pass through them. According to a Barnes & Thornburg LLP’s Construction Law Update e-newsletter, the architect used “a broken or dashed line in the shape of an hourglass on top of the joist girder with the word ‘opening’ and a dimension to show where ductwork was to pass through the girders.”
I think you can guess what went wrong here.
The sub responsible for the structural steel ignored the mark and showed standard joist girders on the shop drawings. The general contractor and the architect approved the shop drawings, so the fabricators built the girders. As the girders came on site, the architect cried foul saying the girders needed to have non-standard openings.
It gets worse.
The steel sub asked for the project to get shut down until a resolution was reached. However, the general contractor and the architect decided the project should proceed. Since the girders didn’t have the required opening for the HVAC installation, the HVAC sub was delayed. This cascade of events led to non payments, and both the steel sub and the HVAC sub filed mechanic’s liens against the project.
Over a few years, the case spawned a series of suits and countersuits until a trials court ruled the hourglass marks were meaningless. The Court of Appeals agreed saying the symbol was not industry standard, was not included anywhere in the contract documents, and was not referenced in a legend to the drawings. They also noted the absence of elevation drawings showing a cross section or side view to illustrate a special joist girder. Finally, the court absolved the steel sub of having to notify the general contractor of the ambiguity in the drawings, saying that as a steel contractor there was no reason it should know the meaning of the hourglass symbol.
Wow — a simple variation in the original drawings from standard practice resulted in a massive project and litigation mess. (To be fair, I think this could have been caught at various stages along the line but the problem had to start somewhere.)
I’ll continue stretching Procore’s copyright by posting the rest of the blog post as written, because the message here is so important to the industry.
DRAWINGS DON’T EXIST WITHIN A VACUUM
There are many pieces of documentation that support the drawings and each of those pieces come with their own risks–chief among them being time. Requests for information and submittals exist to address ambiguities within the drawings, or to delineate specific materials and processes. The problem is that, many times, these documents aren’t acted upon promptly–either because of poor document processing systems or bottlenecks in decision making and review.
Other times, especially in the case of RFIs, the original purpose of the documentation is sidetracked to favor another purpose. This happens when project participants start finding too many instances of faulty, ambiguous, incomplete, or conflicting design in the drawings. So instead of supporting the process of addressing design issues, RFIs become a process to justify claims or to guard against claims.
HOW TO MANAGE THE RFI PROCESS
When you start seeing RFIs submitted for problem items that should have been identified before bidding or an RFI for a large number of items that support a claim, you know there’s more going on than just the desire to get a clearer understanding of design.
This quickly escalates to a lack of trust among participants which becomes especially evident when the owner and designer begin to reply late, or worse, never reply at all. At this point, it becomes more likely a dispute will emerge that will require a legal solution. Because RFIs are such a contentious aspect of construction documents and drawings, the Construction Institute’s Claims Avoidance and Resolution Committee, released a guide to help project stakeholders manage the RFI process efficiently.
Submittals too, often cause disagreements and long-term project ramifications. These documents add to the project drawings by specifying more clearly what material or process to use. Major problems with this documentation include slow response times and incomplete or unfinished responses.
Construction drawings and other supporting documents are only as good as the intentions of the parties who create and use them. Having clearly defined instructions is one way to reduce misuse and lower disputes.
This is an example of a blog posting that really communicates some important messages. A review of other posts indicates much more of similar quality. Procore, a construction management software provider, understands what needs to be done to create an effective blog: Provide highly useful, well-written and designed (and original) content of direct relevance to readers — without pushing a sales pitch. In my opinion, this blog certainly is a worthy contender for the 2016 Best Construction Blog competition (if it can get enough popular votes, that is.)
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