How Perfect Must Specifications Be?

I would like to produce perfect documents every time. However, I remember Hal Barcus, one of my architecture professors saying, "Architecture is never done; you just run out of time, patience, or money." As a student, I didn't appreciate the valuable insight. Now, many years later, as a business owner, it is all too clear. I suppose that is why there are addenda.

Specifiers are in the business of communicating. Communication is greatly simplified when how you communicate is standardized. The search for the perfectly standardized specifications is the specifier's quest for the elusive Holy Grail.

Formats to the Rescue
Fortunately, the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) came to the rescue for most of the standardization. MasterFormat, SectionFormat, and PageFormat, all make finding information reliably easier and quicker than before the standards existed. The 50-Division MasterFormat dictates the order of standardized specification numbers and titles so the right section is found easily. The 3-Part SectionFormat with standardized part and article titles helps arrange each section so the information is found quickly. And PageFormat standardizes the specification presentation so the published documents are easy to read.

But, What about the Text?
The actual text of specifications is an entirely different matter. The formats are clear and can be applied universally. But the text, like any other text, is left to the author. CSI publishes the Construction Specifications Practice Guide, a manual of practice about how to write specifications. The Guide carefully describes the way to craft specifications text using imperative mood and streamlined style. The Guide even includes examples of phrases that should be avoided.

It should be easy. Just follow the Guide and the result will be perfect.

Enter the Human Element
Amazingly, architects have opinions, and architect clients have their favorite text that no spec can be issued without. Some of these opinions and favorite text are not necessarily consistent with CSI's ideal practices. Imagine that!

Seeing prolific "the contractor shall" phrases sprouting up everywhere or extraordinarily lengthy and complex paragraphs in a specification will not make the spec technically wrong. If some sentences start with "the contractor shall" and others do not, it may imply a special emphasis or mandate for some requirements compared to others, which is never the intent of specifications.

These breaches of CSI principles will not help the readability or enforcement. But they will give the impression that the specifier is less than perfect. It's tolerable - neither right nor wrong, but tolerable because the technical content remains intact.

Pick Your Battles
Incorporating client requested technical errors like locating information inappropriately, listing discontinued products, or knowingly specifying what is not possible are another matter. Contractors must be able to find information and rely on its accuracy. These have liability implications for the architect and specifier and cannot be ignored.

Identify and address technical errors, immediately when found. These cannot survive to become part of the contract documents. Strive to keep the architect and yourself out of trouble, before trouble has a chance to happen. Notify and advise the architect of serious breaches with recommended solutions. Succeed here, and the project is a success.

The Specifier May Not Control the Final Result
Just because the specifier published the document does not mean he authored the text. I have published specs that I will never admit - not because they are technically wrong, but because they do not meet my own quality standard.

Somewhere during the design process, we approach the end when we have already run out of money, our patience has been stretched thin, and the deadline looms. We make concessions for the sake of finishing the project - concessions that maintain technical accuracy, but damn perfection.

And now I am reminded of another teacher, one from grade school, who commented on my report card, "Strives for perfection where perfection is not possible." I took the comment as a compliment, my teacher did not. Was that the portent of my fate as a specifier?

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