Putting Pen To Paper: A brief course in spec writing

bigstock_Inside_of_a_filing_cabinet_wit_16555112By Vrej-Armen Artinian, CSC, CSI
Some would argue specification writers are an endangered species. Over the years, it has become apparent fewer people are showing interest in this area of design, leaving architects and engineers (or the technicians working for them) attempting to write specifications themselves in-house.

As a specifier with almost two decades of experience, this author has seen how doing so can produce difficulties at every stage of a project. This article is a guide for creating a specification document. While it cannot replace the expertise gained by experience or through taking an academic course, it can help design professionals visualize the length, breadth, and especially the depth of spec writing, which has evolved to become a sophisticated undertaking. However, before delving into the details of this evolution, let us begin with the definition of specification.

The basics of spec writing
A specification is a written document, as opposed to a drawing. The specification, or rather the project manual, forms the contract documents when coupled with drawings. These documents are used to obtain a bid from a contractor, acting as the guide to build according to the client’s requirements as interpreted by the consultants (i.e. architects, engineers, and other specialists).

The question that immediately comes to mind is the purpose for writing a spec. Are drawings, with appropriate notes, insufficient to meet that end? The answer is yes, they are not enough, although it is not unusual for small projects (and sometimes medium-sized ones) to be issued with notes on drawings and nothing more. However, in most cases, a separate project manual is necessary, as there is rarely sufficient space on drawings to include all necessary information for a successful project.

With complex projects, specifiers must ensure certain information concerning selected materials, products, assemblies, and systems is obtained from manufacturers, and then make certain it is included in the project manual in an easily comprehensible, recognizable format.
With complex projects, specifiers must ensure certain information concerning selected materials, products, assemblies, and systems is obtained from manufacturers, and then make certain it is included in the project manual in an easily comprehensible, recognizable format.

It is not practical to have pages and pages of specs on A0-sized sheets. Specs complete the drawings and provide a well-structured and coherent document to communicate with the client (i.e. owner), other consultants, and contractor(s).

In Construction Specifications Handbook, Hans W. Meier writes:

We try to ‘communicate’ clearly to a wide variety of people just what we want constructed and how we want it constructed. The role of specifications in a construction contract today is to define the quality and types of workmanship and materials upon which the contract is based.

In The Specifier and Building Science, Mervyn W. A. Jones writes:

The ‘specification’ generally includes not only the description of materials, but also directions as to method of tendering on the project and the legal implications of the contract.

Finally, what is the specifier’s task in all this? Generally speaking, he or she acts as the bridge between the design team and the builder, at the same time ensuring the client’s requirements are met. The spec writer must make certain information concerning selected materials, products, assemblies, and systems is obtained from manufacturers and included in the project manual in an easily comprehensible way and a recognizable, conventional format. He or she follows all aspects of the project, brings in the required modifications, and ensures what is executed reflects the specification. At the end of construction, the spec writer may summarize the executed project in the final  ‘as-built’ version, if requested.

A properly prepared project manual ties everything together, ensuring all design professionals involved understand the intricate relationships that go into the creation of a structure. Photos © Jacques Frenette
A properly prepared project manual ties everything together, ensuring all design professionals involved understand the intricate relationships that go into the creation of a structure.
Photos © Jacques Frenette

Creating the specification 
Several considerations ought to be kept in mind when writing a specification document.

Basic language and style requirements

  • express ideas in a clear, simple, and concise manner, with an appropriate and coherent vocabulary, avoiding contradicting or differing interpretations;
  • keep descriptions short, precise, and specific;
  • use a uniform, consistent style (i.e. write the same thing the same way throughout the document);
  • do not include several ideas in the same paragraph;
  • reduce the use of verbs as much as possible for concision’s sake;
  • use numerals when specifying quantities;
  • employ the correct symbols for units of measurement;
  • use upper or lower cases correctly;
  • use acronyms or abbreviations only when a legend is provided in the document;
  • use the imperative tense in English, the infinitive in French;
  • avoid terms such as ‘shall be,’ ‘to be,’ ‘must be,’ etc.—every statement in the document must have the same force, unless there is special importance to be given;
  • use the affirmative, rather than the negative;
  • address instructions to the contractor, independent of the given trade—in other words, do not use terms like ‘general contractor,’ ‘sub-contractor,’ or any specific contractors, such as ‘roofer,’ ‘plumber,’ etc. (if necessary, refer to the discipline [e.g. mechanical or electrical] for the work description);
  • give each instruction once at the appropriate place (and always at the same place if it has to be included in different parts of the manual);
  • avoid repetition;
  • refrain from using vague and ambiguous statements like ‘as required’ or ‘as needed’—if using the term ‘as shown,’ ensure it is indicated somewhere in the specs or the drawings (using ‘first-class’ or ‘high-quality’ should only be included where they are clearly defined categories in standards or manufacturers’ data);
  • avoid superfluous words, such as ‘all,’ ‘any,’ or ‘carefully;’
  • never use ‘or equivalent’ or ‘approved equivalent’—rather employ terms such as ‘alternative product’ or ‘substitution;’
  • when mentioning inclusions or exclusions, be careful not to exclude or include items unintentionally;
  • when unsure, check grammar and orthography; and
  • wherever possible, use tables or schedules.

ResourcesMethodology

  • adopt a creative approach—spec writing can be challenging and stimulating;
  • follow a certain order and methodology when preparing a spec—establish your own step-by-step approach in compiling information and assembling it into the project manual;
  • use established formats, but adapt and modify (with caution), according to project requirements;
  • never reuse a previous project spec without revising it to suit the current project, even when the two are almost identical;
  • carry on continuous research in order to follow the evolution of old materials and the marketing of new ones, including installation procedures and new product developments;
  • always check the appropriateness of a product required by the designer for the intended purpose;
  • double-check the information received from manufacturers, colleagues, clients, or others before incorporating a product into your specs;
  • learn from executed projects and update your master or typical specs accordingly;
  • update references to standards annually or on a continuous basis;
  • always ask the project architect or engineer to review a spec; and
  • have manufacturers and other experts read and provide feedback on your typical specs periodically, updating the document where required.

Methods of specifying
There are various ways of specifying a product, the most common ones being:

  • prescriptive—describing products and systems, referring also to applicable standards;
  • proprietary—naming trade models; and
  • performance-based—referring to standards and required results.

The choice of the product specification method depends on many factors, such as its complexity or the functional and esthetic results expected. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. (A detailed description of these methods is found in the Canadian Handbook of Practice for Architects [Chapter 2.3.8].)

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