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Deciphering the Fine Print: A General Contractor’s Guide to Understanding Construction Specifications

Steven Peterson
Published Feb 19, 2024

It was that one line in the technical specifications that the estimator missed that ate up a big chunk of the profit.

It specified the use of a specific material — a type of cement powder that was unavailable locally and had to be specially shipped in from out of state. The request to use local cement was denied and the bid documents required the general contractor to bid on the project per the specifications, and the owner expected the GC to comply with every line.

The lesson? The project manual and technical specifications are just as important as the construction drawings and significantly impact the construction costs. To succeed in the construction industry, you must understand what goes into them and how they are used. Let’s walk through a basic overview of these documents.

Key Takeaways


  • Construction professionals need to understand how the project manual and the specifications are organized so that they can find information quickly.

  • The bid documents (plans, technical specifications, etc.) become part of the contract documents and define the GC’s responsibilities to the owner.

  • The specifications must be carefully read and understood because GCs must meet every one of their requirements.

The Purpose of Construction Documents

In the architecture, engineering, and construction industry, the construction documents communicate the design requirements from the owner and designers to the general contractor. These construction documents form the basis of the construction contract between the owner and the GC for the construction project.

The construction documents consist of the construction drawings and the project manual.

The construction drawings, sometimes called the “working drawings”, are graphical representations of the construction project. They show the location of the materials and are used to determine the material quantities required to complete the project. If you wanted to know how many doors or windows were needed, you would look at the construction drawings.

The project manual is a written document that supplements the information on the construction drawings. It provides information on how to bid on the project, the proposed contractual relationship between the owner and the GC, and the technical specifications for the materials used in the construction. You would look in the project manual if you wanted to know the procedures for submitting the manufacturer’s cut sheet to the architect for approval or the type of cement to use in the foundation. Because the technical specifications are often the majority of the project manual, it is often called the construction specifications or construction specs.

What is Included in a Project Manual?

As a construction professional, you need to understand what is included in a typical project manual to quickly find the information you need. It often contains the following:

Invitation to Bid

The invitation to bid invites GCs to bid on the construction project and contains the information you need to determine if you are interested in bidding on the project. It includes the project information (name, project number, and location), an overview of the project, the anticipated price range and duration, the owner’s information, the architect’s and engineers’ information, the bid date and time, the required bonds, required pre-bid meetings and site visits, other qualification criteria, and how to obtain the bid documents.

Bid Instruction

The bid instructions provide GCs with the information they need to submit a responsive bid that meets all the RFP requirements. In addition to the information in the invitation to bid, the instructions often include the following information:

  • How to obtain a copy of the bid documents.
  • The procedures for asking questions about the bid documents and getting clarifications.
  • The procedures for issuing addendums.
  • The time and place of the bid.
  • The documents that need to be included in a responsive bid, such as bid bonds.
  • How the bids will be submitted and the procedures for modifying or withdrawing a bid.
  • The time and place of the public bid opening and whether the GCs can attend.
  • The process for evaluating and accepting the successful bid.
  • The right to reject all bids.
  • The documents the selected bidder must submit after award and before the contract is issued, such as a list of proposed subcontractors.

We recommend that you carefully read and follow these instructions because many government agencies and some private owners will disqualify nonconforming bids.

Bid Forms

The project manual includes copies of the forms that you need to submit with the bid, including the following:

  • The bid form, which is used to submit the pricing and includes space for the bid or base price, pricing for bid alternatives, acknowledging the receipt of the addendums, the proposed time to complete the project if it has not been specified in the bid documents, and signatures.
  • The bond forms for the bid, payment, and performance bonds.
  • The schedule of values, which breaks down the project’s costs.
  • The list of proposed subcontractors.
  • Certifications declaring that your company is in compliance or will comply with the specified requirements, such as the Buy American Act.

We recommend that you carefully review each of these forms before submitting them to make sure you haven’t inadvertently left an item blank, as it may disqualify your bid. You should also make sure that you have included all the required forms.

Contract

The project manual includes a copy of the owner-contractor agreement, which requires the GC to complete the project per the contract documents. This agreement may be a standard agreement developed by an industry group (like the American Institute of Architects) or may be created by the owner, which is typical for government agencies. The contract incorporates the bid documents, including the plans, technical specifications, and the general conditions of the contract. You should carefully read the contract because it often contains provisions that require time and money to comply with.

General Conditions of the Contract

The conditions or provisions of the contract build on the contract. It defines the roles, rights, and responsibilities of the owner and GC and identifies how the contract will be administered. It addresses such topics as:

  • The completion time and liquidated damages for not completing the project on time.
  • The procedures for submitting progress payments.
  • The change order procedures for changing the project’s scope of work, completion time, and price.
  • The insurance and bonding requirements.
  • The process for handling contract and claims disputes.
  • The requirements for the GC to protect persons and property.
  • The quality control requirements include testing, inspection, and correction of work.
  • The owner’s right to approve the use of subcontractors.
  • The project closeout procedures, including submitting warranties and maintenance manuals.
  • The right to terminate the contractor for cause or convenience.

Sometimes this is a standard template document that is used on all the owner’s projects, but note that it is modified by the special conditions to the contract that address project-specific conditions. We recommend that you carefully review these conditions as they are just as binding as those in the contract.

Technical Specifications

The technical specifications identify the materials to be used in the project’s construction. The Construction Specification Institute’s (CSI) MasterFormat™ is often used to organize the spec, with separate sections for each narrow scope of work. Many construction companies develop their work breakdown structure and job cost coding around the MasterFormat.

Division 01: General Requirements

Division One of the MasterFormat contains the general requirements for the construction project and applies to all other sections. The general requirements consist of several sections addressing such topics as:

  • Pricing of allowances and alternatives and unit pricing.
  • Coordination of the work, including project meetings, progress reports, and project management software.
  • Submittals and requests for information (RFIs).
  • Safety and health.
  • Quality control, including mockups, inspection, and testing.
  • Temporary utilities.
  • Temporary facilities, including staging areas, site access, parking, barriers, enclosures, site security, storage, and stormwater pollution prevention plan (SWPPP).
  • Contract closeout and commissioning procedures.
  • Surveying and layout.

We recommend that you carefully review the general conditions early in the bidding process, as they will affect the project’s costs. Sections describing alternatives will also explain how you will need to separate the construction costs for the base bid from the alternatives.

Divisions 2 through 49

Divisions 2 through 49 of the MasterFormat include the technical specifications for the different materials. There may be several specifications for some divisions, and other divisions may be left out.

The specifications may be performance specifications that set the performance requirements or operational requirements for the project’s work. Alternatively, the specification may be prescriptive specifications that establish the construction process used to construct the work.

Designers often used standard specifications in construction documents. The Construction Specification Institute (CSI) has developed standard specifications for many scopes of work. Some manufacturers have developed proprietary specifications for their products, hoping to exclude the competition. Often, government agencies, such as departments of transportation, have written standard specifications for their projects. These specifications are frequently modified to meet the project’s needs.

Specifications from CSI are divided into three parts.

  • Part 1 – General provides general information about the specification, such as the scope of the work covered by the section and the submittal requirements.
  • Part 2 – Products includes information about the type of products the section covers, including approved materials and manufacturers and material testing requirements.
  • Part 3 – Execution describes how the work is to be performed, including the method of installation, the quality of workmanship, and testing requirements.

We recommend that you carefully read each specification. As you read them, find the materials covered by the specifications on the plans to gain a better understanding of the extent and impact of the specifications. Many problems in the field stem from failure to identify, understand, and comply with the requirements of the technical specifications.

When using subcontractors, check each bid and verify that it has everything included in the specifications that the sub is bidding on. This is easy when the sub bids on entire sections without exceptions or exclusions. You should carefully check exclusions as they may exclude some of the requirements of the specification, which the GC will be responsible for.

👉🏼 Check out our guide to bid leveling.

Other Inclusions

There are some other items that are often included in the project manual based on the specific project’s needs. Some of these items are physically contained in the project manual, like a soil report for the project site. Other items may be included by referencing the document. These include local codes and regulations (like building codes), manufacturer’s recommended installation procedures, standard utility, and government agency specifications (like standard design for public sidewalks), and other readily available standards (such as ASTM and ANSI).

These documents contain requirements that affect the construction costs. We recommend carefully reading these documents and understanding their implications when preparing your bid.

Addendums

Although not part of the specifications, addendums become part of the contract documents. They are issued after issuing the bid documents and before the bid date. Addendums modify the bid documents to clarify information, make corrections to the drawings and specifications, provide additional information, approve substitute materials, answer bidder questions, and make other modifications. You should carefully read all the addendums as they often affect the project’s cost. The bid documents require bidders to acknowledge that they have received and included the addendums in their bids.

When using subcontractors, you need to verify that they have seen and incorporated all the addendums into their bid, as the addendum’s provisions often significantly change construction requirements and costs.

Final Thoughts

Carefully reading and understanding the specifications is time-consuming. However, it takes much less time and certainly is much less costly than having to replace work that used the wrong materials or materials that were incorrectly installed, or ended up in litigation because the work didn’t comply with the specifications. Dealing with these issues can consume your time and distract you from focusing on winning and completing profitable jobs and satisfying owners.


Author
Steven Peterson

Steven taught construction management, estimating, and accounting at Weber State University for 22 years. Before teaching, he spent 10 years working for small and medium-sized general contractors and now works as a consultant. Steven is the author of Construction Accounting and Financial Management, Estimating in Building Construction, Construction Estimating Using Excel, and Pearson’s Pocket Guide to Construction Management.

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