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.

22 August 2017

Where do bad specifications come from?

It's approaching ten years since I wrote "The Making of a Curmudgeon." In it, I reminisced about my decision to run for Institute Director and thinking, "Holy cow, when my term is done I'll be almost sixty!" Well, sixty came and went, and I recently celebrated my twentieth anniversary at my office.

Milestones like that tend to make one look back, to think about what has happened, to think about what might have been. During my thirty years as a specifier, I thought things would improve, that specifications would get better, that relations within the construction team would become more collaborative and trusting, that drawing details would gradually lose the pesky problems that lead to problems in construction, and that, eventually, the construction process would be a thing of wonder, with few difficulties. I thought that when it came time to retire, I could look back on continual progress and leave knowing that the world was a better place, due at least in some part to what I had done.

Unfortunately, I see now that little progress has been made. I see the same bad details, the lack of understanding of material properties, and specifications that show no understanding or, or confidence in, the basic tenets of writing specifications. One of the reasons is that there is always an influx of new people, who need to learn the trade. However, I find that an unsatisfactory answer; even the most recent graduates should know more than they do.

I often have blamed architecture schools for many of these problems, and I will continue to do so. I cannot understand why a professional school spends so little time teaching the things that require architects to be licensed, and puts so much emphasis on what amounts to art. But that's another matter for another time.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing to me is the nearly universal use of specifications that ignore CSI's Manual of Practice (later the PRM and Practice Guides). If this were the result of specifiers writing their own specifications it would be less surprising, but it's not. The problem arises from the widespread use of commercial master specifications that often miss the mark set by CSI.

When I was drafted into the Army, my only experience shooting a rifle was at Boy Scout summer camp, where we each shot ten or so rounds at a target. Even though I grew up in Minnesota, I wasn't a hunter. That lack of experience meant I had no bad habits to break, so I learned how to shoot the right way (or at least the Army way). I was one of only four who qualified as expert marksman in my entire company.

My experience with specifications was similar. Before taking my first job as a specifier, my experience was limited to copying specifications onto a drawing. Again, I had no bad habits to break, and I devoured CSI's MOP, learning how to write specifications the right way!

The office I worked in had office masters, which were, I believe, based on SpecText because of their brevity. As I gained experience, I began to question them, and I started rewriting them to follow the principles found in the MOP.

Later, I began writing articles for newsletters. The topics covered a wide range of subjects, but several times I wrote about how specifications could be improved simply by following the MOP. Not only did I write about it, but I made many presentations that highlighted the ways specifications could be improved by removing unneeded text. I thought I was doing some good, but I had no more success than Ben John Small, who had written about streamlined specifications in 1949.

In future articles, we'll look in detail at where specifications are needlessly complex and bloated. Some will argue, "If the reader understands them, does it matter?" Following that logic, it should be ok to include an encyclopedia in the project manual. It might have useful information that might be necessary, but it discourages readers from reading everything.

Do you have examples of unnecessary text in specifications? If so, please add your comment below.


  1. Amen. As a narrowly focused supplier I need to be acutely aware of the content of each spec and where I will and will not comply. My standards are probably higher than yours. I work only within precast concrete 03400 and it's close cousin, cast stone (04720). But I do not get involved with most of 03400 and would not consider myself competent to review a spec for precast I was not deeply familiar with (such as prestressed items, or pipe). I am at risk for serious dollar loss if I do not understand every line in the spec. Spec writers are held to a very different standard (and not unreasonably, how could they actually have knowledge that was both broad and deep and also applicable to the particulars of a project?). A typical concern for me is not the unnecessary text, but the applicability of the project-specific info. More often than not the spec was copied from another project, with for example fascia panels, and this one is planter walls, but the project reference is unchanged.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Leo. In a few sentences, you have addressed a number of the problems we have in communicating design intent to contractors, manufacturers, suppliers, and installers.

    Your comments suggest you deal only with architectural precast and cast stone, and that you limit yourself to bidding those things you are familiar with; I applaud your policy of limiting your work to those things you understand. This seems like an obvious approach, but too often we find suppliers and installers, and even prime contractors, bidding on things for which they are not qualified.

    The specifier's job is easy: Know everything about everything. Unfortunately, with the thousands of products used in construction, that simply isn't possible, as you acknowledge. There is no way a specifier can gain the knowledge you have from working daily with your products, from knowing and ordering the materials, from fabrication and installation of the product, and from correcting problems that have occurred. You live your product - you may even love your product - and you get your hands dirty.

    Specifiers rely on a number of things in their efforts to create specifications that adequately describe the work: Commercial guide specifications, codes, reference standards, manufacturers' specifications, manufacturers' literature, manufacturers' installation instructions and recommendations, manufacturers' representatives, advice from other specifiers, and experience. Note the frequent occurrence of the word "manufacturer" in this list, which could be expanded to include "installer."

    We do the best we can, and to do that we must contact manufacturers and installers directly to learn about the products, and, at the same time, to learn what they need to see in the specifications. Specifiers often do learn a great deal about a handful of things (usually because of problems during construction), but that extensive knowledge is limited to a specific aspect of a specific product.

    Many firms will tell you they start with master specifications for every project. In practice, it's quite common to do as you said, that is, copy from a previous project. As long as the specifier knows exactly what was in the previous project and exactly what is required for the new project, and edits the specifications accordingly, that should work. The problems frequently arise when what the specifier understood to be "just like the previous project" is something different.

    However, contractors and subcontractors can't simply ignore the specifications, which are part of the contract. They are responsible for understanding the drawings and specifications before they submit a bid, and, in fact, they typically sign a form that says they have examined the bidding documents and understand them. If they don't understand them, they must either get clarification or not submit a bid. Otherwise, they are required to comply with the documents. I understand your frustration with incomplete or incorrect bidding documents, and I believe the designer must do what is necessary to correct them. Not only that, but the designer must not try to force contractors to cover the costs of fixing problems caused by the documents.

    Architects are equally frustrated when contractors ignore the documents and say, "We didn't bid it that way because that's not the way we do it." When that happens, designers are entitled to require compliance with the documents and require the contractor to pay the costs of fixing the problems.

    For an interesting story of what can happen when specifications are recycled from a previous project, see