One reason that specifications are so immensely long is because they are elaborate preparations for a fight. And the ironic thing is, they don’t even do that very well

last winter, I took time off from walking the mean streets of South Kensington to attend an early morning site meeting with the contracts manager and agent of a firm carrying out a roofing job. Only they weren’t carrying it out. There’d been a disagreement about the meaning of the specification and work had stopped.

As I approached the site the two men were waiting outside. We shook hands and admired the bright weather. Then we turned towards the scaffolding tower fixed to the front of the six-storey building. The contracts manager led the way; in the old days, this was a young man’s job, now they all seemed to be like me, drifting into later middle age. I followed, and then came the burly, shaven-headed agent. By unspoken agreement we stopped to established base camp around the third floor. I’ve spent half my life climbing ladders and it’s given me the legs of Georgie Best: a 60-year-old drunk.

When we reached the summit the shiny white solar paint that covered the asphalt roofs around us created the illusion of standing on an Alpine ridge, surrounded by snow-capped peaks. Each of us produced his telephone-directory-sized copy of the spec and began to argue over obscure semantic points. From a distance, we resembled two mountaineering professors discussing semiology with a Welsh prop forward.

After a little while arguing about exactly what was and was not true about the lead flashings – the cause of the dispute – my attention began to wander. I could see in the middle distance the upper parts of Brompton Oratory and the Victoria & Albert Museum protruding above the surrounding buildings; the sun, horizontal with the roofline, was using them to throw long, corrugated shadows over towards Hammersmith; it was beautiful, and bitingly cold.

The contracts manager was pointing to the flashing around the edge of the roof and to the relevant lines in the document. I knew from previous experience that what we were saying was largely irrelevant. The roofers just wanted to get their point across because doing that made them feel better. The spec that they thought they were using to establish once and for all what was and wasn’t true was in reality a lengthy confession that language just can’t do that.

By unspoken agreement we stopped to established base camp around the third floor. I’ve spent half my life climbing ladders and it’s given me the legs of Georgie Best: a 60-year-old drunk

If my brief description of the view from a Kensington rooftop gave you a sense of what that morning was like, it’s because you were co-operating with me by imagining it for yourself. Specs are written for people who are not willing to help one out another in that way. The usual working relationship between clients, major contractors and subcontractors is a kind of armed neutrality, and the immense length of the spec reflects the lengths that they will go to prepare the battlefield for the time when that neutrality breaks down.

I guess you could take comfort from the thought that little is finally knowable. Jacob Bronowski, the polymath and biologist, said, “There is no way of exchanging information that does not demand an act of judgment.” And where’s there’s an act of judgment there’s an error of judgment. And this problem is not confined to messy and imperfect institution like the English language, or for that matter English case law, much of which is an endless series of arguments over what words mean. Many of the breakthroughs of the past 100 years have been revelations about what we can’t know or predict. Those of you who like to relax with books on Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, quantum mechanics, chaos theory and fractal mathematics will already be aware of this.

The reason we usually manage to get along with friends, colleagues and family in our everyday lives is because we act with good faith: the rules are unwritten, although no doubt they’d stretch to a few thousand pages if you ever tried turned them into a spec.

What happened in the end on the roof? I’d like to say that I produced a series of cogent arguments and won round the contracts manager, but that would not be true. Printed between the lines of each of our copies of the specifications were a number of fundamental truths. These were that the contractor was not prepared to go to court over some questionable lead flashing work, that it wanted to be payed for the work it had already done, and that it hoped to get more work in the future. So in the end, contracts manager was forced to accept my view of the work laid out in the specification. In the end, it doesn’t matter how detailed you make the rules, the logic of the stronger party will probably be more valid …