The Twin Hazards of Architect General Notes, and Owner Work: Ten Ways in Which Both Can Be Toxic

“General notes aren’t always intended to inform. dg

Architects like to believe that their blueprints are caveat emptor: that a contractor is on the hook to pay obeisance to any detail or general notes, no matter how absurd, once he signs on the dotted line.  This phenomenon of misinformation is a close relative to when a contractor believes an architect is accountable for outcomes, once he approves shop drawings. For this reason few architects ever use an “Approved” stamp anymore: it’s thought to be a liability. Both practices betray an ignorance of contract law, and do little to benefit stakeholders.

“Do stakeholders always win when they try to take the “control” element out of project control?

Let it be said that an architect’s general notes are no place to bury nebulous and contentious language: he’ll have his chance at the job meetings to argue. Such language sets an unfriendly precedent for prospective projects – a disservice to the stakeholders, yet the practice perseveres, and contractors continue to be pushed back on their heels.

Design professionals often like to use their drawings and general notes as an instrument for insidious purposes: chiefly, to try to exculpate themselves at every turn, at the expense of some rube contractor, to make themselves shine in front of the stakeholders. These general notes tend to be pretty boilerplate across the industry. The most common being when they state that by reviewing the drawings and visiting the site, the contractor takes responsibility for design errors and omissions, as well as unforeseen conditions and discrepancies. Furthermore, the contractor is to verify all of the architect’s measurements. Really?

Such language has no place in construction drawing or general notes, where they are often disregarded out of hand by estimators, and excluded in their qualifications. Better yet, such nebulous language has no place in the industry – period. It sets a contentious tone for work before they are even shovel ready. The proper place for language pertaining to existing conditions is either in the contract, or at worst – in Division 1 of the specifications: which trump the drawings in most cases.

“In effect, design professionals who practice this deception are mere dilettantes when it comes to interpreting contract law: for the most part, a judge won’t give such language any more credence than a contractor would.

Another general note that I frequently see is “contractor to confirm existing dimensions,” thereby assuming responsibility for assuring no extra costs will be incurred for any discrepancy thereof. The implication that should the designer’s survey turn out to be inaccurate, the contractor would be on the hook should he fail to point out discrepancies before mobilizing. It’s hard to take this note seriously, as it implies that somehow the contractor should do the architect’s survey work for him, for free, as well as master the art of clairvoyance.

“FBO is indeed a four-letter expletive in the industry. There’s usually little incentive to carry on work and not be paid for it.

“Furnished,” or “Provided by Others,” (FBO/PBO) is the ubiquitous blueprint general note schedulers and estimators always greet with foreboding, and loathing, because it only promises coordination issues that the contractor assumes – usually without compensation. It also infers that the stakeholders are impecunious: looking for ways to save a buck. Stakeholder’s jaws always drop when they are apprised of coordination fees for material and labor they provide. They simply can’t justify them.

Owner provided material and labor requires the prime contractor to incorporate the work into his scheduler’s timeline, and finally the build out. Some owners are more experienced than others in building, some less so – such as homeowners. It is only proper and fitting that a contractor is paid for his extra efforts to coordinate work that is not under his aegis. This fee invariably surprises and annoys stakeholders, and that’s the point: to try and discourage the practice.

I have attempted to try to and track and model forward-passes for owner work, and found them to be unwilling pupils –  generally illiterate in CPM. It’s hand holding and scolding all the way. It’s a real nuisance to a scheduler to be asked to track owner work, when the owner refuses to cooperate, or more often is incapable of providing timely and accurate information.

“An owner should take more care in taking all the meat out of a contract, leaving the builder with only high-labor, low-margin work. He can count on a barrage of change orders down the line to level this disparity of wealth in the contract.

There are a few ways to gauge coordination fees for owner work. The less experience the stakeholders have in building, the higher the rate for soft-costs, as a contractor draws no profit from the material and labor cost. It is the promise of owner equity that induces stakeholders to bleed out of the contract scopes of work where they feel they can save money by purchasing items such as fixtures, and FF&E directly. In so doing, they cut away at a contractor’s margin until only high-risk/low-margin work remains. I have rarely seen an owner perform his responsibilities in such arrangements. For our troubles, we used a 15% fee on FBO work, + incidentals.

There are several reasons why it’s almost always a bad idea for an owner to “stick his beak in” the works, to save a little money at the expense of his builders:

  1. Contractors aren’t dumb: they will either charge a coordination fee, or pad their bids under such conditions. When the owner has problems, he’ll end up spending more money and sweat equity than he ever thought possible.
  2. Stakeholder decisions are often made by top-level muckety-mucks, who only know dollars and cents: i.e., all dollars, and no construction sense.
  3. Stakeholders may employ work-forces without proper skills, or workers without proper insurance. Such practice creates a liability for a prime contractor.
  4. Only bad things happen when FBO non-Union forces show up on a Union site. Yet, this does little to discourage the practice.
  5. FBO sets the tone for poor contractual working relationships, that trickles down to blunt morale in the field: field personnel prefer not to work alongside FBO forces, or worse: scabs.
  6. Stakeholders simply don’t have the know-how to work directly with, and coordinate their own forces: they invariably cock things up.
  7. Stakeholders don’t share professional relationships with their vendors, nor do they enjoy trade discounts. If there is a change or restock for an item, it may as well be put in the punch-list.
  8. Carelessly implemented FBO forces pose a liability to adjoining work, and work that must be coordinated by the builder, because it isn’t subject to the same rigorous quality controls: Unprofessional FBO forces can make mistakes that can be felt down the line.
  9. Stakeholders will forego the crucial submittal approval process, and become clueless de facto specifiers – a calling for which they have no qualifications. The foregoing of this process can yield myriad coordination problems.
  10. It’s well nigh impossible to gauge and evaluate the impact of FBO work. In lieu of a fixed rate, savvy contractors will state up front that they reserve the right to assess each circumstance, and upcharge accordingly.

At the end of the day, it always turns out to be a poor return of investment for stakeholders to engage their own forces and direct purchase programs. In fact, FBO often turns out to cost stakeholders more money, as well as wasted sweat equity trying to negotiate the channels of the industry upstream, Better to listen to their builders who strongly advise against FBO work. It’s not that they are in such a hurry to make a meal out of their buy-out, they are also trying to protect the stakeholders from their own worst enemy: themselves.

Written by

Derek Graham is a Primavera 6 scheduler and schedule oversight consultant for public and private sector projects with four decades of construction industry experience. He has been an active construction expert witness in over 30 cases - both nationwide, and Federally, since 2006, when his book Managing Residential Construction Projects, was published by McGraw Hill