Drawings Versus Specs in a Dispute

When the spec says one thing, and a signed shop drawing shows something else, who's right? March 26, 2010

We just finished a big, money losing job that turned out beautiful. New, expensive house. The owners are moving in and discovered that the closet cabinets I built will not handle double closet poles. I had vague and inaccurate info to build from, so I made a shop drawing and got the architect and owner to sign off. The drawing clearly shows only one closet pole in each cabinet section. There is a spec sheet that says "8' high double hanging, 8' high single hanging" from the contractor. The specs do not jive with the drawings from the designer in many ways. I do not make 8' cabinet doors, and I told them that, so I put a row of smaller doors on top. The owner emailed everyone and asked "Can someone find a way to correct this oversight?" The blame game is about to begin. There is only a small balance owed on this project. Where do I stand?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor W:
Sounds to me like you are covered by the signed drawings, unless there was some question about the 8' doors that you only addressed verbally. Did you provide a drawing with interior features as well as exterior, which showed the single poles as well as the smaller doors?

I would bet that you will get screwed on the remaining balance, unless you can get the designer or contractor to cover your costs on satisfying Susie Homeowner (if that would be possible, at this point).

From the original questioner:
The drawing showed the exterior elevation with the doors, heights of the doors, and a dashed line to show one closet pole in each section with the words 'Closet Pole' written on the drawing with an arrow pointing to the closet pole. The details and dimensions are very clear.

From contributor M:
If you have the signature on the drawing, I would say you are good. Just make copies and email it. Be careful not to piss off the other designers or GC. It does take some politics to get through this kind of thing.

From contributor T:
If you have physical proof, either on the drawing itself as you described it or via e-mail specifically referencing that drawing, of a sign off by the architect and the owner, you will not be the one paying for a fix. You are covered. Remain pleasant and helpful.

From contributor W:
With the clarification, sounds to me like you are covered, with the possible exception of the small remaining balance. It would not be unusual for that to be withheld, if only in an effort to try for some leverage toward a solution.

One thing I have done in similar situations is to attempt to come up with a compromise solution that will ease the designer's and contractor's pain with Ms. Homeowner - performed at your cost - if such a fix is even possible, and if you want to salvage the relationships - and keep it in my back pocket to propose if necessary. Might make it possible for you to come out looking like the hero and also get paid your balance, assuming all the other stars align.

From contributor J:
They'll certainly be a lot of blaming going on, but with the signed drawings you should be in good shape.

There's an old saying about too many chefs; this situation illustrates why. I think it's always good to go over the drawings in detail with the homeowner beforehand. The average homeowner can't see the project as we can, especially when faced with the many decisions going on with a whole house build. Not sure if it would have been possible in your situation, given the politics of working with designers and contractor. But it would certainly have nipped this problem in the bud and kept everyone happy.

From contributor B:
I'd say, "Sure, I can make the change you'd like. The cost will be X." No blame involved, just money.

From contributor C:
You need to think about this problem in terms of what the contract shows. Specifications should supersede the drawings. Shop drawings are not the contract. If you do not have a RFI that is an amendment to the contract then you should be out of luck. The only good thing is that most people are unaware of the contract terms so the signed shops may work.

From contributor K:
Whoever signed off on your drawing is responsible for it. Signed shop drawings, along with approved change order, are good enough to cover you. In most cases, owners and designers cannot read or understand shop fabrication drawings, so clear notes on the plans or sections or elevations stating: single hanging pole, or double hanging pole, or something like "this and this by others" makes it clear for them.

From contributor A:
Explain to the owner that you cannot afford to lose money on others' mistakes. You are obviously the guy with the least money, out of the customer, architect, and builder. However, the work to remedy this unfortunate situation rests solely upon your shoulders. Up front honesty with the customer can be an asset. You have no idea what the other guys are saying behind your back.

Do not hesitate to inform the customer of your concerns. They will either say "just bill me" or they will be really ticked off and say "someone else is paying for this mess." That person will be you if the contractor has anything to do with it. If the blame game starts, you need to get all of the players in the same room at the same time.

From contributor O:
This is exactly the type of situation we try so desperately to avoid with our shop drawings. If we cannot avoid it, we try to protect our customers from the blame game as you might be experiencing. I agree that you should be safe. This is a perfect example of how good detailing and well written notes can be a real lifesaver.

From contributor K:
I 100% agree. As professional draftsman and engineer, I hear many times from many shop owners that they do not need to waste money for shop drawings; they can build out of architectural plans, out of their head, out of napkin drawings. Detailed and proper drawings are a must.

From contributor I:
I think you should be covered, but I am not the architect, contractor, or end customer. While I do not think that you should lie down and accept responsibility for this, you have got to decide how hard you are willing to fight if the need to defend yourself arises.

Will fighting this do more to limit your possibilities for work in the future? If so it may be wise to do what you can to fix the problem. I would determine a plan of action to remedy the situation and have it in my back pocket. Chances are, no matter who pays for the fix, it will be done.

Architects and contractors do not forget! Not to mention what one bad review from a customer to some of the people who see your work and want it for themselves could mean: good reference from customer, you get another job; bad reference from a customer, you are out of a potential job.

From contributor R:
I believe you are okay based on your description, but I would take the high road and try to remedy the problem at my own expense if necessary, if it isn't too complex, before all the backstabbing begins, because once it does, they will only remember you as the problem. An act of good faith on your part will be worth a lot more in future work than getting in a war over fault and principal will ever be.

From contributor N:
What contributor C just said. No amount of finger pointing is going to make this customer happy with what she's got. Not sure I'd be happy with single hanging.

I do feel that we need to be very clear with our clients when things start to deviate from a spec that was provided at some point (for whatever reason), and not just rely on the client to pick up on these little details in the drawings. In the future, consider providing a short summary page with your drawings, outlining any changes you have made and why. This should only take a minute or two, but could head off some of these situations early on.

Don't let the fact that you have lost money on this job cloud your judgment. It sounds as though the homeowner is otherwise pleased with your work. If you handle this wrong it will not matter - it will be what she remembers. If you handle this right, you may get a chance to make some money on the next one through the GC or architect.

As I see it, this is a perfect opportunity for you to flex your creativity, and be the one to step forward with a solution.

From the original questioner:
It turned out different than I thought. The client seems to be taking the blame for signing the drawings, which surprises me. We met with the architect and figured out a fix that will cost around $700.00. I developed a good relationship with the owners early on, and the cabinet work is awesome; I have their confidence. Not sure if I will even charge for the fix, and I think I will see to it that the clients have a big stack of my business cards to hand out to friends. I'm sure I will be able to photo the place without a problem. Very good input from you guys - a lot of "take the high road" replies.

From contributor M:
Your experience has led me to get more serious about sign-offs on drawings. Thanks for sharing this with us.