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.

18 May 2015

What's the difference between drawings and specifications?

We all know what specifications and drawings are. Or do we?

In casual conversation, it's not unusual to hear someone say "the specs" or "the specifications" when referring to the project manual. Similarly, it's common for people to say "the drawings" when referring to, well, the drawings. In either case, it's almost certain that everyone's mental images are of documents in two sizes: 8 1/2 by 11, and 30 by 42, or some other large size.

What's wrong with that? Nothing - except that paper size has nothing to do with what's on the paper. Yet because of the way we have printed documents for decades, we suffer from a common preconception. I'm as guilty as anyone; I often have used the acronym SPDNORUTT - small paper documents no one reads until they're in trouble - when referring to the project manual. Again, what's wrong with that? Aren't specifications printed on small pages, and drawings on large sheets?

In short, no. What the information is has nothing to do with paper size. It's true that, until recently, what we call specifications typically has been printed on small paper, and what we call drawings typically has been printed on large paper, but even then the distinction was artificial. Let's look at what AIA has to say about the matter.

The A201 (and similar documents) defines the specifications as "that portion of the Contract Documents consisting of the written requirements for materials, equipment, systems, standards and workmanship for the Work, and performance of related services." Note there is no mention of where those requirements occur, or what size paper they're printed on. Drawings are defined as "the graphic and pictorial portions of the Contract Documents showing the design, location and dimensions of the Work, generally including plans, elevations, sections, details, schedules and diagrams." Again, there is no mention of where those things appear, or what the size of the paper is.

Even when the A201 used the term "project manual" there was nothing that prohibited specifications from appearing on large paper, or drawings from appearing on small paper. The project manual was defined as "a volume ... which may include the bidding requirements, sample forms, Conditions of the Contract and Specifications." (My emphasis.) Again, there is nothing that says specifications can't appear on large paper.

By definition, drawing notes that describe materials, equipment, systems, standards, or workmanship are specifications. And, though far less common, graphic images that appear on small paper are drawings.

Since 1911, the A201 and its predecessors have flirted with what I have called the "single document" concept. "The Contract Documents are complementary, and what is required by one shall be as binding as if required by all." Together with the definitions of specifications and drawings, it can be argued that the "instruments of service" are a single document that just happens to be printed on paper of more than one size. The coming of BIM, which can store information of many types without regard to printing format, pushes us past the convenient but artificial separation of information, and actualizes the complementary nature of construction documents.

This may seem a strange way of looking at our documents, but it's easy to show that it's nothing new. It's common, at least in this neck of the woods, to have structural engineers put specifications for concrete, masonry, and steel on drawings (large paper). Mechanical and electrical drawings (large paper) also frequently include specifications. If you think about the definition, many of the notes that appear on drawings (large paper) are, indeed, specifications, as they specify "requirements for materials, equipment, systems, standards and workmanship for the Work, and performance of related services." Furthermore, because it is permissible to include graphic images in specifications (small paper), drawings can be part of what is commonly referred to as "specifications." And don't forget "sheet specs"!

Of course, it is convenient to have simple terms for the small and large paper used for construction documents, even if those terms ignore their own definitions. In fact, even though the building model obviates the need to rely on any given size paper, our continued reliance on printed output means it's not likely the situation will change.

It's interesting that the AIA Commentary for the A201 states "The term Drawings does not imply representations only in paper format [but] are also found in addenda, change orders, construction change directives, minor changes in the work, other modifications in the work, or in responses to the contractor's requests for information" but does not expand "Specifications" at all. Even though it should be obvious, these definitions reinforce the need to ensure consistency between the notes that appear on drawings (large paper) and requirements stated in specifications (small paper).

If it's text and it says something about materials, equipment, systems, standards, workmanship, or performance of related services, it's a specification no matter where it appears.


  1. When the specifications are listed on the drawings, it makes it easier for the Builders (GC, CM, and so on. Not subs) to catch the conflicts between Specifications and Drawings. I was hoping you would address the age old question - what takes precedence, drawings or specifications? We can go back to the old days of the CSI MOP that gives the Architect the final say. However, with the new systems of building delivery, most of the time in 2015, the Builder has the ultimate decision in consultation with the owner. The other reality is that during the bid stage, for the subcontractors, paper doesn't exist. The "paper" size is determined by your monitor size. I can't tell you how many times I've had to blow the image up to 100%, double check the scale with a known size such as a door opening, and scale off of my monitor. You also are correct that the Drawings do indeed include all of the changes mentioned. And currently, 100% of those changes are sent electronically. Everyone has a different website to log into in order to observe the changes. Subs are responsible to hire someone to find the changes to the "Drawings". Someone has to pay for this, and no way a primary "Builder" is going to as it all rolls down hill.

    Very pertinent article.

    1. It's a standard joke in the industry, that no one reads the specifications until they're in trouble. I've often wondered if having them on the drawings makes a difference. If they're on the drawings, are bidders more likely to read them, or do they ignore those pages? I find them much easier to read in project manual form than on drawings.

      Using straight AIA documents, neither drawings nor specifications take precedence. However, many owners, especially government agencies, include an order of precedence. Without one, the bidders must ask the architect for clarification.

      If you have to scale the drawings, I'd say the drawings didn't provide enough information about dimensions!

      Thanks for the comments.

  2. I'm not an architect but I did get my BSs in both architecture as well as mechanical engineering and mostly what I've gotten from them is a hefty school loan. I thought I may add my own constructive thoughts??? hehe haha...

    Anyhow, I think this topic is relevant. I'm in the oil & gas industry. We produce offshore equipment and therefore we rely heavily on manufacturing drawings and documents to convey information related to parts/assemblies/processes etc... I have a coworker that is adamant in separating specifications and drawings. She's convinced that drawings are not specifications and it just blows me away. Drawings are specifications just as much as written specifications. Not to say they can't conflict (which happens alot). For our industry it boils down to what is called out on the purchase order. If it references a written spec and/or general assembly drawing, both are to be considered as specifications. They just typically detail different manufacturing requirements, performance characteristics, etc... Even the dimensions on the drawings are specifications. A dimension specifies a component's length, width, height and each of those dimensions can have a specified tolerance along with any additional notes that may be present on the drawing that specify some other aspect. In summation, a specification isn't defined by its medium: drawing, written document or paper napkin.

    1. Part of the problem is that the terms "drawings" and "specifications" typically are defined by general conditions. Even so, as I have explained, those definitions state that any non-graphic information is a specification no matter where it appears. Is a dimension a specification? Of course it is!