Intent and Interpretation: What I meant was…

David J. Wyatt, CDT
When a contractor’s interpretation of a contract requirement differs substantially from the design professional’s initial intent, the assumption is often that he or she is mistaken, and will disrupt the project if allowed to continue uncorrected. To affirm this belief, specifiers will check the documents to verify they are consistent and correct.

If a conversation fails to put things aright and there is a need for formality, then an Architect’s Supplemental Instruction (ASI) is written up to clarify intentions.

The contractor might see this as damage control, keeping the issue open for dispute. In some situations, the ASI may be regarded as a concession of vagueness, and the determined stakeholder may exploit it in that light.

A vague or ambiguously expressed intent makes it difficult for design professionals to prevail in such situations. If a contractor can demonstrate his or her interpretation is a reasonable one, then a mediator, arbitrator, or judge might agree. The author of a document is normally blamed for any ambiguities it contains.

Requests for Interpretation (RFIs) during the project’s procurement stage provide clues to the strength of the design intent. Despite the inconvenience, document revisions will be far less disruptive at this stage than during the construction stage. The hope is discoveries of this sort surface no later than submittal review, when they may have only moderate schedule impact. However, once construction starts, interrupting the schedule to work out problems will likely have an acute effect on several project stakeholders.

Documents prone to multiple interpretations probably lack clarity. Although this problem may not rise to the level of ‘professional negligence,’ it certainly sinks to the level of ‘professional mediocrity.’ It is far easier to prevent this problem than to fight it and win. We can do this by narrowing what famed photographer Diane Arbus called “the gap between intention and effect.”

Pictures, diagrams, graphs, and tables deliver some types of information many times more efficiently than written words—this has scientific basis. It is well to consider when an image can do a better job of delivering information than text.

In non-business interactions, language is used in a less-than-precise manner, relying on other aspects of interpersonal communication—such as body language and tone of voice—to convey intentions. However, this leads to trouble when such habits are brought into the realm of document preparation, where the goal is absolute precision.

A statement requiring more than a couple of readings to understand may become problematic at a critical point. It should be re-expressed in a simpler, clearer way. To do this, it is better to adopt a style of ‘lists’ rather than ‘paragraphs’ when writing a set of requirements, making it easier to see the information, and to expose errors.

Inconsistencies lurk in long sentences and paragraphs where even the author does not notice them. It is a good idea to limit sentences to single lines and paragraphs to three sentences. To the most practical extent, paragraphs of more than three sentences should be divided into single-sentence sub-paragraphs.

A partially expressed requirement complements other special knowledge the author has, so it seems complete, but not so to other participants. Therefore, technical requirements should be expressed completely so one without special knowledge can understand the full intent. Authors must leave nothing in their heads.

When specifiers do not know what something means, they must either gain sufficient knowledge of it or take it out of the document. Problems occur when we rely on guide specifications provided by outside sources that do not account for a particular project’s special conditions.

Much has been written to tout the value of peer reviews, yet it is one of the most underused processes available to design professionals. (This is often explained away as ‘not being in the design budget or schedule.’) Many have observed an effective peer review can be done inside the design professional’s office as long as the reviewer is someone not involved in the project.

In The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. wrote, “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary lines, and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that each word tell.”

The commonality in most of this takes us back to the 4Cs of specifying—clear, concise, correct, and complete—as outlined on page 35 of CSI’s Specifications Practice Guide. The stylistic points of concision and clarity help us expose potential errors and ambiguities in our documents. In turn, they help us determine whether a document is complete and correct.

David J. Wyatt, CDT, is the specifications writer for TC Architects (Akron, Ohio), where he is responsible for product research, technical specifications, bidding documents, preparation of project manuals, construction contracts, construction bulletins, shop drawing review, and contract close-out for all project. With the late Hans Meier, Wyatt co-authored Construction Specifications: Principles and Applications. He can be reached at

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