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19 August 2014

More specifications history

In the last post, "Where have I heard that before?", I used several excerpts from a 1920 edition of the American Architect magazine. The comments showed a general concern about the importance of specifications, and about the absence of specifications in architectural education, stating "the preparation of specifications receives less study and attention in proportion to its importance than any other phase of architectural or engineering practice."

While investigating the history of specifications, I was surprised to find references like this, as I had learned next to nothing about specifications in school (I think the word was spoken the first day of Professional Practice class, never to be mentioned again). It wasn't until I became a specifier that I understood what specifications are, thanks to my local CSI chapter. However, as good as the education and certification classes were, my understanding was that CSI pretty much invented specifications.
Until the advent of CSI in 1948, it was AIA, the Illinois Society of Architects and similar organizations, the American Architect magazine, the American Specification Institute, and similar sources that discussed the preparation and use of specifications. In this post, we'll look at the ninth edition of The American Architect Specification Manual, published in 1927, and the Specification Record of the American Specification Institute, Volume 4, published in 1931, with a few quotes from each.

The American Architect Specification Manual

Most of the book's 353 pages are used for a collection of specifications. Primarily produced by manufacturers, they are more like a Sweets catalogue than guide specifications as we know them today - this despite the claim that "material that rightly belongs in a catalogue or that could be construed as advertising, has been excluded from the Manual."
"In an endeavor to assist the person unaccustomed to writing specifications in a methodical manner and in the hope that those more hardened to the exigencies of the work might find some additional profit in the Manual, the following articles, which have been published in previous editions are again presented: THE SPECIFICATION WRITER; THE CONSTRUCTION OF A SPECIFICATION; and RULES FOR CHECKING DRAWINGS."

"The specification writer must be known, in his office, as a compendium of information relating to all productive, executive, and constructive processes of the organization."

"It is unfortunate that in architectural curricula so little attention is devoted to the earnest consideration of specifications as one of the essential fundamentals of correct construction."

"After several years spent in the drafting room the specification writer will find that supervision of construction work will open his eyes to many things he did not understand clearly or was not familiar with when working on drawings. A good training can be gained in two or three years of construction supervision, after which the specification writer should return to the office organization and enter the executive work of the office."

"Bear in mind always that if the specification is written so that the activities described therein are in sequence as they occur in the actual construction work, the dearness of the specification will not fail to be evident, for then the building will actually grow in the mind of the reader and the contractor will do his work in a satisfactory manner."

"In the writing of specifications, the language used should be clear, accurate and exact."

"Don't confuse damp-proofing with waterproofing."
The book included AIA's "Filing System for Architects' Offices", and "Standard Documents of the American Institute of Architects", which contained the fourth edition of the AIA general conditions.

For organizing information, it offered "The Specification Checking List", with forty-eight "Sections" for filing, plus an "Index to Major Divisions" with forty Divisions for specifications.

Forty-eight Sections and forty Divisions; isn't that interesting? The Checking List had eight Sections for mechanical and electrical information, while the Index had five Divisions for specifications. How did they later get squeezed into Divisions 15 and 16?

The American Specification Institute

The American Specification Institute produced four volumes of the Specification Record. With about 500 pages, it included both the AIA and EJCDC general conditions, and a list of ASTM standards.
"The specification should be clear, concise and complete."

"The drawings, in general, should show the quantity, extent and layout of the work, and ordinarily do not state the character, make or manufacturer of the material or equipment. It is therefore necessary that the specification describe in detail the character of the material or equipment, otherwise the cheapest material or equipment satisfying the description shown on the drawings may be furnished."

"Clear, concise, complete, and well coördinated drawings and specifications should secure fair and intelligent proposals, should eliminate vexatious extras and should eliminate also the necessity for verbal or supplementary written instructions."

"Eliminate all clauses that reflect indecision or lack of knowledge. Do not put anything in the specifications that will not be enforced to the letter."

"Use simple words. Do not use big words. Use nouns. Do not use pronouns. Use short sentences. Do not write long and involved sentences. Make the language a clear and concise expression of just what is meant. Give directions, not suggestions. Tell the Contractor what shall or shall not be done."
And then there is CSI

Does any of the above sound familiar? It's clear that CSI's founders didn't start from scratch, and it's likely at least some of them had references such as these in their offices. Even so, there seems to be a common thread of simple, practical reasoning in all of the specifying guides I've seen, and I suspect the rules did not originate in the construction industry. They are logical and reasonable, perhaps not for writing a novel, but for any type of technical writing used to convey information about a design concept to make it possible to build.

Even though CSI didn't create these rules, it expanded and clarified them, bringing a consistent, coordinated way of writing and interpreting specifications, based on AIA and EJCDC documents.


  1. Thanks for an interesting post. In real life it is clearly impossible for a single human to be able to "Eliminate all clauses that reflect indecision or lack of knowledge. Do not put anything in the specifications that will not be enforced to the letter." As a precaster I found that it took years to gain the knowledge needed to fully understand a single spec. I would panic if expected to competently read and understand the entire division 03. " A good training can be gained in two or three years of construction supervision, after which the specification writer should return to the office organization and enter the executive work of the office." is beyond understatement. Doesn't it drive specification writers crazy that they have responsibility for writing on technical subjects where they lack knowledge? How do spec writers feel with the disconnect?

    1. Yes, Leo, it does drive us crazy! That was one of my favorite parts: several years in the drafting room, then a few years in the field. There's a reason there aren't many young specifiers.

      Many manufacturers' representatives, after telling me they have a hard time keeping up with their own products, ask how I can possibly know everything about everything in a project. Obviously, I can't. Specifiers rely on advice from reps and installers (I call them my go-to guys), and from each other. The longer I've been doing this, the more I realize I'll never know everything I need to know, and the proliferation of new products, new standards, code updates, and new regulations bring new challenges every day.

      Thanks for the comment!

      By the way, nice blog, at

    2. Well once again this festering sore of the industry has it's scab rubbed off by your excellant article and rightly so ( I first saw it republished today in the San Diego CSI Chapter newsletter). My personal hope is that "Technology" (and publicity of large lawsuit payouts) will allow us practitioners to transfer enough time from other parts of the construction "Process" to meaningfully address this issue in more than a piecemeal way. The schools know they need to do it but most of the knowledgable profs have died or retired, but that's another discussion. See you in Baltimore.... THX
      Thanks for keeping your sharp stick handy

    3. I think a couple of my profs were knowledgeable, but even so, there wasn't much technology when I was in school, mostly planning and presentation. However, I do not think the schools are aware of what they're leaving to chance.

      Look what Odysseus did with a sharp stick!