The untimely demise of the "Performance Spec" for landscape and erosion control projects should have us all concerned. Content to specify the materials to be used, there is too little regard for the end result. Did anything grow?

To differentiate, the " Performance Spec" is primarily concerned with results, placing little emphasis on the materials and processes used to accomplish the intended result. On the other hand, a "Material Spec" dictates which materials are to be used, in which quantities and the methods by which they are applied. The contractor has no responsibility for the final outcome, only the delivery and application of the materials.

Let's look at a real world example of the two specifications on a jobsite and the differences become more apparent:

Twenty miles of a newly constructed highway median strip are to be stabilized for dust and erosion control. From past experience and to match surrounding highway sections, the state engineer has determined that a contract should be let out for establishing native grasses and shrubs in the median strip.

The Material spec for this job would specify the desired plants, the quantity of seed required, the amount of hydraulic mulch to be applied per acre, the amount of tackifier, fertilizer or other additives, and some allowance for the time required to complete the task.

The Performance spec is about RESULTS. It would also identify the plant varieties to be used, but would be more concerned with what the completed project looked like farther down the road. Plant counts and densities may be specified. This spec too, would have a time component or even a window, within which the intended result will have been attained.

The contractor bidding the Material spec will shop and choose between several products and suppliers to find the lowest possible prices for materials that just meet the bare minimum requirements of the spec . If one product produces better results but costs more, there is no incentive whatsoever to use it because results are not a part of the contract. Just as seed mixes vary tremendously in terms of purity, germination and actual surviving plants, not all mulches, tackifiers and fertilizers are alike, except in the case of the imprecise Material spec.

The problem may be further compounded on the jobsite. How many times have you heard the unsuccessful bidder exclaim in disgust that "this or that contractor bid the job for less than the materials would cost me!" Unfortunately the material spec breeds an environment ripe for "going short" on the required materials. Too often, jobs are not inspected at the time of application or even immediately following "completion." Once completed, it is virtually impossible to verify that the correct quantities of seed or mulch specified were actually applied.

The results of a Material Spec are often underwhelming. Nothing grows, dust blows and eventually, the taxpayer funds another attempt the next season.

The highway median job contracted with a Performance Specification results in an entirely different thought process from the bidding contractor. Price is still a consideration in his selection of materials, but certainly not the controlling factor. Instead, the contractor is motivated to select the materials that will produce the intended result the first time.

Inexpensive, inferior quality (purity and germination) seed will not save this contractor any money because he knows that more of it is required to satisfy plant counts. Bare minimum mulches and tackifier products will not save him any money because he will have to come back and replace them when they wash or blow away. Avoiding callbacks and costly touch-up inspires the contractor to apply more materials and higher quality materials the first time through. If the plants don?t grow, he is still responsible because he has contracted to provide the end result , not simply to apply a list of materials to a site.

Some element of the Performance spec is present in the other related trades on the same jobsite. You wouldn?t think of paying for an irrigation system before testing its performance. Boxed trees and container plants are commonly sold and installed with a time guarantee. After a specified period of time, the project is turned over to the owners for their ultimate care and maintenance. Up until that time, dead plants, trees, washouts, care feeding and watering are the contractors responsibility.

Perhaps the main reason that the Performance Spec is disappearing, is the difficulty of applying a set of standards to the finished result. What constitutes a "Full stand of grass"? Subjective evaluations become difficult when large area and large sums of money are involved. Too often, we see 15 and 20 year-old specs re-uses each year. Can we expect an agency that hasn't revisited its material spec to have the manpower and expertise to develop a performance spec?

Another limiting factor is time. Few contractors are willing or in a financial position to wait long periods of time until the outcome of a planting job can be known. In the case of fall erosion control planting of non-irrigated plant varieties, the outcome may not be visible until the following spring. If nothing grows because no rain fell, there is still a good chance that something will grow the following season. The entry of new, under-capitalized firms has also fueled the switch to a material spec. Many long-standing experienced and financially secure contractors tell me that they have no fear of a return of the performance specification as a means of "separating the men from the boys".

Necessarily, the work would appear to be more costly, allowing for better quality materials, as well as the time and the cost of money tied up on a job, but, ultimately the cost to the taxpayer would be lower. Agency care, maintenance, management time, inspections, material testings and the cost of doing the job over again, not to mention the damage to the site and perhaps to the public, outweigh the slightly higher costs of doing it right the first time.

Many public and private agencies have found happiness in a Combination Spec, one that specifies crucial guidelines as to materials, but ultimately keys on performance and production of the desired result. Contractors are responsible for the finished result but also compensated for watering, care and maintenance until such time that the finished project is turned over to the contracting entity. Some portion of the payment (retention) is withheld until satisfactory results are produced. The highway department gets the result they contracted for, without paying two or three times to have the work performed on a bare minimum materials basis.

Simply put, it all comes down to, "Do you want to buy a chicken or buy an egg?" The concept applies equally well to golf course construction, erosion control treatments and fine turfgrass plantings.

Editor's Note: Data on erosion control performance, compiled annually by the Texas Department of Transportation, is available at no charge to interested parties through: Paul Northcutt (email), Texas Department of Transportation