What statements below do you believe to be true?

1. I hate writing specs.

2. Specs are only used as door stops.

3. No one actually reads specs.

The first is generally true, especially for architects trained as designers. The second and third are commonly held beliefs by those in the construction industry. Recently a principal of an architect client firm admitted that they did not read the specs Conspectus writes for them. Amazing! Frightening!

Architects and engineers are obligated to deliver two instruments of service: drawings and specifications. Both instruments of service become legal documents of significant importance when the construction contract is signed. Drawings, as graphic information, and specifications, as non-graphic information, are given equal importance under the contract. Both are created, specific to each project, to ensure the construction outcome matches the owner’s expectations.

By providing the drawings and specifications to a contractor, the owner warrants the documents accurately represent what is required to be built. If the contractor builds what the instruments of service require, he has met his contractual obligation to the owner, even if the documents are wrong. The Spearin Doctrine, established by the courts, upholds this position and becomes one of the “tests” to determine resolutions, should a dispute between the owner and contractor arise during construction.

Would architects deliver drawings they never reviewed? Doubtful. Do architects labor extensively to produce the drawings? Absolutely! The vast majority of the design phase fee is spent producing only one of the instruments of service – the drawings. This was confirmed in a study of the construction industry about specifications conducted by the Alberti Group.  A majority of the respondents indicated less than 5% of the design fee is dedicated to specifications, and often specifications are allotted less than 1% of the fee.

So why the cavalier attitude toward specifications? Why are they hated, and why are they not read? Can it be the graphic (design) vs. non-graphic (technical) mindset? Undoubtedly, there is no single answer.

Drawings and specifications both have their own unique language that requires training and knowledge to understand. Architects are immersed in graphic design in school and throughout their careers. They constantly communicate graphically – sketching, drawing, rendering. They are rewarded with design awards. There is tremendous incentive to learn and become competent in drawings. Not so, specifications.

More importantly, what is the consequence of the attitude toward specifications? Risk! Risk for the architect and even more risk for the owner. Every word can affect cost, time, and quality. Specifications are a carefully orchestrated balance among all three. The specifications and drawings must be carefully coordinated. Both must accurately depict what is required to transform the owner’s project requirements into a constructed facility. With careful consideration and proper attention specifications will set the expected quality, within the available budget.

Where is the Pritzker Prize for specifications?