Dealing with errors and omissions

Paul Potts portraitLAW
Paul Potts
The words ‘errors and omissions’ (E & O) are practically taboo in architectural circles and are rarely spoken—even in private conversations between architects, engineers, and their professional employees. However, errors and omissions in construction documents occur on every project. The unique nature and complexity of the building world is the common explanation for these mistakes. People make mistakes, and generally the more complex the undertaking, the more likely it is that errors will occur. However, the uniqueness and complexity of the undertaking is not the only cause of design mistakes.

A design error is an instruction (or lack of instruction) in the plans and specifications that, if followed by the contractor, will require replacement or correction at a cost (or result in a construction failure). The owner has already paid for the work once at bid time and now must pay for the replacement or correction.

For example, in the remodeling of an auditorium, the mechanical engineer showed new heating/cooling air terminal units above the lobby ceiling. The manufacturer, model number, and design criteria were on the drawings. The contractor purchased the equipment in advance so the project would not be delayed. When it came time to install the equipment, it was discovered the terminals would not fit above the new ceiling and the ceiling could not be lowered any further. Unfortunately, the manufacturer had no interest in taking back the original units.

Responsibility for this error fell to the mechanical engineer. The auditorium lobby ceiling existed before the mechanical units were designed—the engineer could have measured the space above the ceiling during a survey of the building. The owner also provided record drawings of the building. The contractor could have measured the ceiling height, but there was going to be a new ceiling at a lower height than the original, and the contractor assumed the HVAC equipment would fit above it.

In another example, an architect specified non fire-rated doors between classrooms and corridors of a school remodeling project. However, when the fire marshal came to inspect, she rejected the doors and required them to be fire-rated because the corridor above-ceiling space was a return air penum. The first doors were already painted and machined for hardware and could not be returned for credit. In principle, these are classic design errors, but variations on the facts are interminable.

An omission occurs when something required to complete the building or comply with the building codes is not shown on the plans and or in the specifications. For example, a sidewalk between two buildings is required for pedestrian traffic, but this is not shown on the plans. The contractor is entitled to a change order.

Costs for omissions are tempered by reasoning the owner has not paid for the sidewalk twice, as was the case with the heating equipment. For this reason, it can be referred to as a ‘value-added change order.’ However, it is not entirely accurate to say it does not cost extra, because contractors routinely overprice labor on change orders as much as 25 percent or more.

Origins of design mistakes
Most mistakes are caused by the complexity of the design coupled with human limitations. During the programming stage, the first step in the design process, owners discuss their vision and needs for the building with the architects. This stage is mostly conceptual and mathematical, and is managed by a few parties, allowing fewer mistakes. However, programming is followed by design development, and this involves more experts from a wide variety of professional disciplines.

The challenges of design development on large projects are enormous and prove the mettle and talent of skilled and experienced architects, engineers, and designers who perform this work on a daily basis. The task of exchanging hundreds of bits of verbal and written communications between many participants from different professional disciplines often results in mistakes caused by misinterpreted, dropped, or forgotten communications.

There are judgements and calculations made by the hundreds of people about:

  • physical spaces and the infrastructure;
  • building codes;
  • mechanical and electrical codes;
  • heating loads;
  • cooling loads;
  • lighting requirements; and
  • the development of the aesthetic ambitions.

Each verbal and written communication and each application of professional knowledge is subject to revision as the project develops.

This is not a manufacturing process that improves with every new model year, but rather involves a new design for each building. Hundreds of specialists, unique in their own knowledge, come together to provide these construction drawings to builders. Not only must the professionals have knowledge of the design requirements, but they must also understand the skills and talents of the trades building the project.

It is absurd to think putting this complex aggregation of information into equally complex construction processes can be done without mistakes, and not just a few. Failures arrive in the form of

  • engineering miscalculations;
  • lack of attention;
  • lack of knowledge;
  • inexperience; and
  • an overreliance on the trade contractor to finish the job.

This fits with the ‘unique complexity’ argument.

Unique complexity is not the only reason for errors and omissions. Professional miscalculation must also be added to the equation. Contributor’s mistakes in the documents include poor judgement in:

  • taking on projects beyond the experience of the firm;
  • lack of familiarity with the building codes;
  • lack of adequate field surveys;
  • inattention;
  • missed meetings;
  • vacations;
  • workers leaving the firm;
  • limited surveys of existing buildings; and
  • using interns instead of more expensive experienced staff.

Some of these causes obviously result from false economies.

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12 comments on “Dealing with errors and omissions”

  1. I strongly agree with the need to include a discussion regarding errors and omissions with the owner during negotiation of the design contract. I am a general contractor who recently completed a project where this did not occur. Though the total percentage of errors and omissions costs combined did not exceed 1%, the owner decided midway through construction that these costs were unacceptable, and demanded that the A/E reimburse them. This caused a nearly complete halt in A/E approvals of ongoing change requests, and attempts to revise changes that had been approved months in the past. A very bad taste was left in everyone’s mouth, and it absolutely could have been avoided by establishing a threshold of acceptable E&O costs from the beginning.

  2. “§ 2.2 The Architect shall perform its services consistent with the professional skill and care ordinarily provided by architects practicing in the same or similar locality under the same or similar circumstances. The Architect shall perform its services as expeditiously as is consistent with such professional skill and care and the orderly progress of the Project.”

  3. “If architects and their insurance companies believe any dialogue between the architect’s representative and the contractors will invariably lead to a perception that the design is open-to-interpretation” It’s hard to get past this patently false mischaracterization of architects’ receptivity to dialog. Need to make changes due to field conditions? OK, let’s put our heads together. Want to subsitute inferior products for those specified? Sorry, not at liberty to agree to that.

  4. “Responsibility for this error fell to the mechanical engineer.” Not so. The contractor ordered the mechanical equipment in advance of submitting shop drawings for the engineer’s approval. Such drawings were required by the contract to ensure that the contractor had performed his contractual due diligence of verifying field conditions to ensure that the installation, i.e., means and methods could be performed. The owner’s record drawings did not provide measurements for the plenum clearance, which, in any case was the contractor’s duty to field verify. Did he? No he “assumed.” What is the old adage about the word “assume”?

    1. Stourley….using the old “you didn’t discover and prevent my error from becoming reality, so it’s your fault” defense, kind of hollow.

    2. The shop drawings were approved before the contractor ordered the equipment. Sorry, I didn’t make that clear. Thanks for your comments.

  5. Irrelevant if they were approved or not. The designer sole sourced the particular equipment and as a matter of implied warranty the designer is responsible for the omission.

    Asking the GC to act in the capacity of a professional engineer or architect exceeds reasonable and prudent expectations

    1. Hi Jonathon, Some how we are not connecting. I said in my article that the “mechanical engineer” was at fault. The mechanical engineer was on the architect’s staff. Yes, the architect-engineer was responsible for this error. It is not an ommission under the description provided in the article, this is an error, an ommission is a value added change order, an error is an outright loss. The architect, did not ultimately pay for this error, because there had been a precontract agreement that the owner would pay costs of errors and omissions if the total did not exceed 3-percent of the construction cost. Thanks for p[articipating in this conversation. I truly appreciate your interest and comments.

  6. Heres a scenerio I am dealing with: We are building a custom home and once our plans were submitted to county for approval we hired our builder. There have been some major errors our architect made thus far such as designing a driveway only 18ft wide (we would not be able to get into garage), moving the position of our house without our knowledge and the latest is he never designed the house with an HVAC. Due to no HVAC in mind with the design of the home, our builder has been having to go back to find where to put the ducts and the systems. He finally presented a system that would have 1st floor vents on the ceiling-the issue is most of our great room is pitched to the 2nd floor so the heat would go straight up and we would be left with a cold room. Further, I told my architect we wanted vents on our floors (I have it in email as well). The major issue is now the builder has to go back in, take out the floor joists and excavate and dig in order to get an under floor system. This will cost an additional $10-$12K. The architect is not taking any responsibility for this. To note he did design two homes next to us with a similar floor plan but “remembered” to keep the design in mind with an HVAC system, their vents are on the floor. Shouldn’t he be responsible for this? 

    1. Sorry to hear this Jean. I think you have a strong argument against the architect for failing to provide reasonable Duty of Care in the development and design of your home. Did the builder or architect provide you with a Schedule of Values for the cost of the new home?…typically this document is called an A.I.A. G703/G702. This is essentially a shopping list of all the projects costs, line item per line item. If this were provided, a line item cost for HVAC would have been indicated at $0.00 cost. Sounds like this document wasn’t provided by either the builder or the architect. Your email sadly fell on deaf ears. Moreover, the architect did not perform a constructability review with the contractor…though this is not very common among a designer and builder.
      Keep a well documented and itemized list of the costs associated with the corrective work should you pursue damages.

    2. Hi Jean, I am very sorry to hear your story. I cannot really make recommendations because I only have your side of the story, but I would like to ask you a few open ended questions. Do you have a contract with the architect? Does the contract decribe the services to be rendered by the architect? In what climate was your house built? Would the climate require residentail heating and cooling? Did the contractor ever comment to you, before completing construction, there wasn’t any heating or cooling equipment. Is there a basement? Could you install infloor circulating hot water heat. The additonal 12K you refer to is not an extra cost, you did not pay for the HVAC system in the first place. Please reply. Have you paid the architect?

  7. We have a new school project where on one of the drawings the scale was listed as 1/8″= 1′ but it should have been 1/16″ = 1′. This drawing is only for a cable tray system so there is not any other systems or dimensions provided. Do to the size of the project it resulted in our takeoff being 510′ short of cable tray. We submitted a change order and the engineer called declaring we should have caught the mistake and they are not responsible. I agreed that we should have caught the mistake but we did not as well as the suppliers who quoted the cable tray also only had half of what is needed. Our position is the design team listed the wrong scale and just because we did not catch it does not mean it becomes our responsibility. I have been an estimator for 28 years and have never had this happen.

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