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Writing Specifications in a Vacuum

FRIDAY, APRIL 21, 2017

By Bob Bailey, AIA, CCS


A 19th century Scotsman said, “Do not isolate yourself. Be among men and things, and among troubles, and difficulties, and obstacles.”

The quoted individual was never involved in building design and construction, but the essence of his statement is a good admonition for those of you writing construction specifications—especially you full-time scriveners.

It’s easy to get consumed by writing specifications to the point of seldom getting out to jobsites to see construction and participate in construction issues.

©iStock / andresr

Meetings can be useful for a specification writer to attend, particularly if time has been spent working through the requirements of the specification with the project architect.

Sure, we can read technical publications, attend seminars and talk to product representatives, but there’s no substitute for watching the materials or products you specify being installed on the job site: to see how the product is shipped and handled, how installers work with the product, and how the interface with other materials occurs.

These observations give insight into what really happens versus the sometimes idealistic and/or overwrought language of the specifications. They help you to avoid the “Ivory Tower School” of spec writing.

Working Together

I was reminded of this recently. I was onsite to review proposed detailing solutions that were going to vary from the construction documents because of the way construction sequencing was occurring.

The primary concern was the air barrier. The GC’s project manager had called a meeting that included the subcontractors whose work touched the air barrier, the air barrier installer, the air barrier manufacturer’s technical rep and the architect. What was particularly gratifying was the willingness of each of the subs to cooperate to ensure a successful outcome.

We’ve all been on jobs where the subcontractors were contentious, preferred to point fingers and disavow responsibility, and/or waste time rather than work together for the best possible outcome.

©iStock / NicoElNino

Sure, we can read technical publications, attend seminars and talk to product representatives, but there’s no substitute for watching the materials or products you specify being installed on the job site.

The air barrier installer could have complained to the GC’s project manager about letting the sequencing of abutting products occur the way it did. Instead, there was a concerted effort to make sure a continuous line of protection would be in place.

Seeing the various subs spell out how they were adjusting their work to make this happen was valuable. It reinforced the things they are thinking about that we may gloss over as we are editing the specs. It also pointed out the need to involve technical reps in the conversation as you prepare the specifications, so that you are not writing requirements into the specs that are never going to happen because the project details and application will dictate otherwise.

Many products and materials are conducive to pre-installation conferences as complexity and scope warrants. These meetings can be useful for a specification writer to attend, particularly if time has been spent working through the requirements of the specification with the project architect. And, of course, walking the job with the GC before or after a progress meeting is usually beneficial to observe the prosecution of the work.

It can be tricky to arrange, but a specifier should try to see every job that they’ve done specs for at least once. Seeing construction taking place keeps a spec writer grounded, and it can help produce better, more meaningful specifications.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER

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.

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Tagged categories: Architects; Good Technical Practice; IKM Inc.; LEED; Specifiers; Architecture; Asia Pacific; Contractors; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Latin America; North America; Subcontractors

Comment from Robert Aird, (4/24/2017, 6:32 AM)

Bob, thank you for this sage advice. It is all too uncommon for effective pre-con meetings to take place to coordinate scopes, ensure material compatibility, and that the end product will perform as intended.


Comment from Ross Spiegel, (4/25/2017, 11:09 AM)

Bob, great insight. I share your sentiments having spent a good deal of my career not only writing specifications but doing contract administration. Nothing makes you realize the importance of what you write more clearly than a day in the field.


Comment from Michael Halliwell, (5/14/2018, 11:41 AM)

Good post, Bob. Real world experience is sometimes critical in understanding what is going on from the office. It's why all of our junior people start off in the field doing, so that when they get to the office and start planning, they know what has to happen for a successful outcome.


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