The focus of this blog is construction-related topics. The purpose is discussion, so please feel free to comment! See Specific thoughts for thoughts from the daily life of a specifier.

01 December 2014

Manufacturers' specifications don't follow CSI's Practice Guide; why are you surprised?

That spec is a real turkey!
CSI's practice documents - MasterFormat, SectionFormat, and the Practice Guides - present a unified and consistent approach to preparing and interpreting construction documents based on AIA or EJCDC general conditions and related documents. They also are applicable to documents produced by most other organizations, though some modification may be necessary. When teaching CSI classes, I emphasize the overall organization of these documents as a first principle; with that in mind, it's easier to understand why things are organized the way they are, and to see how they all work together. This sometimes leads to comments and questions, such as, "That's not the way my office does it!" and "Why don't this manufacturer's specifications follow those rules?"

Together, CSI's practice documents provide a firm but adaptable framework for preparing construction documents. They provide enough structure so, as the old adage says, there is "a place for everything and everything in its place." On the other hand, they are sufficiently flexible to allow one to specify just about anything imaginable.

Although these documents create a fairly complete framework, they do not go into great detail about how to address all matters: there is no standard specification for concrete; a number of optional methods are offered; there is no boilerplate text for any part of a specification beyond article titles, and even those are suggestions. The specifier, following the principles of the practice documents, is left to supply the remaining detail.

Obviously, this leaves a lot to be done. If a specifier were to start with nothing more than access to products, it would take a long time to assemble a set of master specifications. The widespread availability of reference standards is of inestimable help, making it possible to easily define performance testing methods and properties. However, even with these standards, writing even a simple section could take many hours, and the amount of research that would be required for a complex system or assembly could be overwhelming. (Reference standards are not without their own problems; see "Faith-based specifications.")

Fortunately, a few entrepreneurial people, and later, manufacturers themselves, saw an unfulfilled need and began to produce master guide specifications for a great variety of construction products and systems. Unfortunately, the results typically have not followed the rules established by AIA and CSI documents. Even worse, guide specifications often are used verbatim or with only minor changes, and without much concern about how well they are written. A common excuse is that they are incorporated late in a project, but it's not unusual to see them become office masters with little change.

Manufacturers have a defensible position; they are in business to sell products, and they have a tendency to stack the deck any way they can in their own proprietary specifications. I'm not saying it's right, and it definitely doesn't comply with CSI practice guides, but it's understandable. How many times have you seen a manufacturer's guide specification that requires the product be produced by only that manufacturer, not once, but two or three times? From their viewpoint, it makes sense to identify the manufacturer under Section Includes, Quality Assurance, Manufacturers, Components, Assemblies, and a few more times under Execution. Some manufacturers also like to include a variety of restrictive specifications that have little to do with performance or quality. I won't be surprised if some day I see a manufacturer's specification that includes something like, "Label: Must include the words Acme Widgets, Inc."

Still, I can't get too excited when a manufacturer writes a specification that eliminates the competition. They still offer useful information, and the price is right. The sad thing is that some designers apparently don't realize what's going on, and leave all of the proprietary provisions in place - and then call it a competitive specification!

Regardless of how guide specifications are written, the designer should modify them so they express what is needed by the owner and the project.


  1. While you accurately describe the flaws of many guide specifications issued by manufacturers, let's recognize that other firms issue guide specs that do not "stack the deck"

    A case in point is a guide spec I wrote for East Coast Lightning Equipment. It references applicable consensus standards and adds only the text necessary for administrative requirements and to assist a specifier make choose between options such as [copper] [aluminum].

    The section can be downloaded from Construction Specifier at

    1. Although I did not state that all manufacturers' guide specifications are bad, I could have made that clear. I occasionally am surprised when I receive a well-written specification from a manufacturer. I haven't kept score, but the fact that I consider it surprising suggests they are in the minority. I am familiar with some of your specifications, Michael, and I appreciate your work.