Architects and Specification Writers: Part 1

This article, the first in a three-part series, aims to give the reader a general idea of specification writing, along with the relationship between specifiers and the rest of the project team.
Photo © BigStockPhoto

Looking at a complex relationship

By Cyrus Kabeer, CSP, NCARB, AIA, LEED AP

A senior architect tells the technician the deadline for issuing a package is next week; the firm has most of the drawings ready, but does not have the specifications. It contacts an independent spec writer who, of course, wants to keep this important client happy. The specifier temporarily puts aside all other jobs, and takes up the nearly impossible task, working 18-hour days to prepare the package. Unfortunately, the architect who has issued the working drawings/construction documents for bid does not have the time to read or co-ordinate the specifications; instead, the architectural specifications are issued as an addendum.

On seeing discrepancies and inconsistencies between the drawings and specifications, an opportunist contractor bids low and makes up the difference (plus a lot more) through change orders and extras. This eventually costs the owner much more than if the specification writer was involved from the beginning of the project and if the architect had planned for ample time to co-ordinate the construction documentation.

Does this sound familiar?

In more than one instance, this author has heard an architect tell a specifier something along the lines of “You want 250 hours for specifications? I have only budgeted 70 hours.” A project manager once told me, “We provide specifications only because the client requires us to do it—the contractor does not look at the specifications until there is a legal issue.” This is a dangerous line of thinking because it eventually has negative impact on the architectural firm and its reputation. I have seen requests for clarifications from subcontractors who constantly refer to the specifications before the bidding stage.

In my experience, very few architects get a specifier involved from the design phase. A specifier should be an integral part of the design team, helping in the preparation of Preliminary Project Descriptions (PPDs) and Outline Specifications.

Many factors come into play in deciding when to get the services of the specification writer, including:

  • project size and complexity;
  • use of innovative and specialized products; and
  • whether the project or material used requires little or extensive research.

Provided the job captain has done adequate research on the materials and kept extensive records, the specification writer should be involved no later than when the working drawings are at a 40 per cent stage. This is when the architect has made major project decisions and the materials have been selected. In case a project is seeking certification under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, the specifier should be involved immediately after the architect has decided on the LEED points to be pursued.

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Qualifications of a specification writer
A specifier primarily communicates the construction documents in the written form to the contractor. A good specification writer is someone who:

  • can interpret and understand graphic representation, schedules, and tables on drawings;
  • has a good command of the language to describe the information in written words;
  • offers good knowledge of construction materials, systems, and methods;
  • has field experience and knowledge of how work is done onsite;
  • can do proper due diligence in research;
  • is organized;
  • can manage time;
  • has a fair knowledge of construction laws, applicable codes, standards, ordinances, bonds, and insurances in the construction industry; and
  • boasts general knowledge of construction practices along with sustainability and LEED requirements.

The role of the specification writer differs from firm to firm to freelancer. For a small firm of less than 15 people, the principal or a senior architect may co-ordinate the specifications with an independent specifier, whereas medium-size firms may employ a full-time spec writer and larger practices may have separate specification departments. (Of course, any size of architectural firm may deploy the services of an independent specification writer at any time.)

What are the specifications?
Specifications go hand in hand with other construction documents, like working drawings and schedules. It may be in the form of notes on drawings for smaller projects to additional booklets in several volumes (i.e. Project Manual) for larger projects. A simple definition of the specifications is they are written descriptions that, in addition to the administrative requirement, describe the qualitative requirements of materials, product, workmanship, and services. Specifications are complementary to construction documents, and take precedence and supersede other documents.

A Project Manual includes procurement requirements in addition to specifications. These consist of contracting and bidding forms, standard conditions of contract, supplementary conditions, insurance requirements, and security and bonds. The procurement requirements should be prepared in co-ordination with the owner’s legal counsellor or attorney, the insurance agent, and the surety advisors.

Specifications may also include illustrations and the drawings. Graphics may be employed when it is difficult to describe the product in text and written description may cause misunderstandings.

Irrespective of when a specification writer is involved on the project, the architect or job captain should keep a folder and file catalogue cuts, information from websites, and memorandum notes in the appropriate divisions of MasterFormat, filing the minute notes separately. This information could save time and give a more co-ordinated construction document, as the specifier would know the product and the requirement of the design.

The architect’s contributions
During the schematic design phase of a project, the architect should describe the systems and assemblies for the project in the Primary Project Description—specifiers can use this as a reference while preparing the project specifications. The spec writer can also participate in the preparation of Outline Specifications identifying the materials to be used on the project.

Notwithstanding the specifier’s role, it is very important (especially at 60 and 90 per cent completion stages and just before final submission) a designated professional from the architect’s office proofreads the specification and co-ordinates the specifications of other disciplines, along with the full sets of drawings to avoid discrepancies.

This article, the first in a three-part series, aims to give the reader a general idea of specification writing. However, it does not offer a detailed explanation encompassing all aspects of the subject. Construction Specifications Canada (CSC), of course, offers several education opportunities and certification programs at the national and local chapter levels. This author strongly suggests architects who intend to write specifications check out the resources found at www.csc-dcc.ca.

Part 2 examines language and specification format.

Cyrus Kabeer, CSP, NCARB, AIA, LEED AP, is an independent specification writer with an undergraduate degree in architecture and a master’s in urban planning, with over 35 years of experience. Now based in Vancouver, he has worked as an architect in the United States, Canada, the Middle East, and India, providing design, working drawings, specifications, and contract administration for institutional, transportation, industrial, military installations, commercial, and residential projects. Kabeer has been doing specifications since 2006, finding his passion for spec writing. He can be reached at cyrus.specifications@yahoo.com.

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2 comments on “Architects and Specification Writers: Part 1”

  1. Cyrus,
    I share all your concerns, strongly urge colleagues to work with the specification writer as early as possible, that is at the concept stage, even if the client wants to skip specs or written documents so early in the design process. PPD can be used as an internal tool to assemble info concerning contemplated materials and assemblies as well as to remind designers of all required items to look after.
    Thanks for your illuminating article.
    Vrej-Armen Artinian

    1. Ahhhh, the old conundrum. As a full-time Spec Writer, I know first hand, the huge reduction of risk in having the spec writer involved -***not early***- but at every step of the process. Knowledge is power and when everyone has full knowledge, the project as a whole, is empowered, and therefore runs more efficiently. Spec Writers should follow up on projects during construction, closeout, and warranty etc. as well, to see what can be improved upon on future endeavours.

      Firms with a dedicated staff Spec Writer, know this to be true.
      Great read!!

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