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By Missy England
March 29, 2016
During the construction of an IMAX movie theater, the general contractor hired Wilson Iron Works, Inc. for structural steel and roof decking, including joists and joist girders.
The architect intended to have HVAC pass through openings in the joist girders, but instead of using the proper labeling for the nonstandard joist girders–SP–(as designated by the industry standard, Steel Joist Institute Manual) the architect used his own demarcation of a dashed line in the shape of an hourglass on top of the joist girder with the word “opening” to show where ductwork was to pass through the girders.
Because this symbol held no meaning to Wilson Iron, they ignored the mark and submitted shop and erection drawings requesting standard joist girders. The general contractor and architect approved the drawings and a subcontractor to Wilson Iron fabricated standard.
When the first set of joists was delivered to the project site, the architect informed Wilson Iron the girders were supposed to have nonstandard openings. Wilson Iron requested the project to be shut down until a resolution was reached, but 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, Fostcorp, was delayed.
This cascade of events led to non payments, and both Wilson Iron and Fostcorp 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 Wilson Iron of having to notify the general contractor of the ambiguity in the drawings, saying that as a steel contractor, there was no reason they should know the meaning of the hourglass symbol.
There are many pieces of documentation that support drawings and Requests for Information (RFIs) and submittals exist to address ambiguities within drawings, or delineate specific materials and processes. However, 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 in favor of another purpose. This happens when project participants start finding too many instances of faulty, ambiguous, incomplete, or conflicting design in the drawings. Therefore, instead of supporting the process of addressing design issues, RFIs become a process to justify claims or to guard against claims.
When you start seeing RFIs submitted for problems 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 vital to reducing errors, disputes, and rework.
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