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5 Things About Specs You Need to Know


By Bob Bailey, AIA, CCS

Last post, I wrote, “We can’t know everything about every material, product, assembly or system, and that’s where industry partners become essential.”

Similarly, I try to emphasize to our young staff that they need to know what they don’t know.

Sometimes it takes architects years to come to grips with this notion (being the possessors of large-than-average egos that we are).

Architectural documents
Wikimedia Commons

It may take years for new architects to know what they don't know.

But that understanding is important for the simple reason that it can prevent us from looking foolish in front of clients, contractors, manufacturers, and professional colleagues.

When it comes to construction specifications, most architectural graduates know next to nothing about what specs are, in terms of their intent and their importance.

It’s essential that these young professionals understand a few key points about specifications that they almost certainly don’t know coming out of school.

What You Don't Know That You Don't Know

1.  There is a starting point.  For those of you who have come of age having an app for everything, know that specs aren’t written from scratch and in prose like they were a century ago.

Swedish architecture
Tor Lindstrand / Flickr

Today's specs are not written from scratch. Master guide documents and software are available.

Time-tested and real-world-tested master guide specifications documents and software are available as a starting point, and many (if not most) offices have them. It’s a good place to start to learn the content that specifications include.

2.  Don’t expect to achieve your design intent without specs.  You who understand that great design runs the concept down through the details also need to realize that your drawings don’t show material quality or how to control it.

3.  Conflicts in the documents happen easily and often. Read the specs. You who have been familiar with BIM since college probably know that BIM is not always the panacea for avoiding physical conflicts between building elements and building systems.

And while there are specifications programs that coordinate with BIM, many do not. It’s up to the architect to read the spec based on knowledge of the design in order to ferret out possible conflicts.

Curtain Wall in Wuhan, China
Hawyih / Wikimedia Commons

No matter how many details you cover, you are likely to have overlooked something.

4.  Specs are more than just a material schedule or glorified shopping list for the contractor.  Even with what seems to be a solid specification, a contractor may come back to you and ask what specific kind of finish you want on a product, or some other attribute that isn’t covered among the many you have covered.

5.  You appreciate what you’ve drawn more if you’ve actually written the specification for it.  You who have the aptitude for detailing should also appreciate how to craft the written language that will support the details.

Young or old, it’s a sign of arrival to admit you know what you don’t know.

And in this case, correcting it begins by reading the specs.


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; Design

Comment from Sharon Campbell, (8/4/2016, 2:20 PM)

This is so true! Some of you do understand GC's.

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