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You Can’t Specify ‘Exceptional’


By Bob Bailey, AIA, CCS

When I was a graduate architect just out of college and working in my first architectural firm, I was amazed to find out that such a thing as Sweets catalogs existed.

(For you Millennials, Sweets catalogs were printed and bound compendiums of all kinds of building product literature, published annually, that were the forerunner of the online Sweets database offered by McGraw-Hill.)

U.S. Department of Labor

Most architects still design with standard fabricated components. That makes the manufacturer's guide specifications critically important.

I was amazed because, at the school where I received my B.Arch., there was no discussion of specifications and product research.

Who Knew?

The only products that I knew were fabricated/manufactured were things like doors and windows and some structural elements like glued-laminated timber, because we looked into those in Materials and Methods class.

But aluminum storefront? I had no clue that you could go to Sweets and select a storefront system.

Now, some of the great architects in history and some of the star-architects of today design their own assemblies to be custom-fabricated, as I was to learn firsthand when our firm had the opportunity to team with a very high-profile European firm.

But designing with standard fabricated components is still the norm for most architectural firms. And many, if not most, manufacturers provide guide specifications on their website.

Exceptionally Vague! Easy to Misunderstand!

This is not to say that most manufacturers’ guide specs are good ones. Many are not.

The Construction Specifications Institute and ARCOM have helped many manufacturers improve their specs, but there are still many out there that are problematic.

Concrete floor
©iStock / InCommunicado

It's shiny! It's pretty! It's tough! And as a specifier, I still don't have the information I need!

Why? Because manufacturers tend to write their specs like sales literature, rather than procurement documents.

Phrases like exceptional resistance, easy to use and specially formed are sales language—not technical information that enables an informed procurement decision. 

Even in a proprietary specification—another aspect that spec writers don’t like that manufacturers are often guilty of—those kind of terms mean nothing and have no place.

Show Me the How

Is your product really heavy-duty? Tell me how. Steel doors, for instance, have classifications such as standard duty, heavy duty, and maximum duty, but the Steel Door Institute qualifies those classifications with a certain gauge of steel.

So your product is long-lasting? Aren’t they all? Again, show me the how.

As an example, overhead doors are designed to operate for thousands of cycles and are rated accordingly.

Specifications need to include specific qualifiable and/or quanitifiable properties, not vague general assertions about the product.

Data, Data, Data

You need to be able to back up that adjective with some data. Remember: The spec is going to be used in a procurement scenario.

OSX / Wikimedia Commons

Specifications need to include specific qualifiable and/or quanitifiable properties, not vague general assertions about the product. That means more data and fewer adjectives.

Even if you list only one product and you know that’s the one you want, the supporting data of properties and characteristics can help you get that specific product.

Some manufacturers make more than one version of a trade name, so you have to ensure that you get the one that you want—the one with a certain thickness, or a particular additive, or designed for a specific application.

If you’re willing to entertain substitutions, then product data become even more important as the procurer solicits potential substitutions. There have to be criteria by which said proposed substitution can be measured against the specified product.

In a performance specification scenario, properties and hard performance data are of optimal importance, as no products are given by actual name.

So, just the facts, please, manufacturers. We can take it from there.


Bob Bailey, AIA, CCS

A full-time specifier for more than 25 years, Bob Bailey, AIA, CCS, CSI, LEED AP, is Specifications and Constructability Specialist for IKM Inc. of Pittsburgh, PA. An award-winning specifications writer, Bob is the founder of the Pittsburgh Specifiers' Roundtable and immediate past president of CSI Pittsburgh. His professional passions: continuing education and internship development. Contact Bob.



Tagged categories: Architects; Good Technical Practice; IKM Inc.; LEED; Specifiers; Building materials; Design

Comment from Kevin Hahn-Keith, (4/25/2014, 8:07 AM)

It is probably not a surprise, but I had the same experience (in both school and work) as an engineer when I had to create specifications.

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