Are Outline Specs Necessary?

A very good question. By searches on this blog, it is one question that definitely wants to be answered. Something must be necessary, but is it really an outline specification?

Contractual Obligation
If you are working on a design project under the AIA standard Owner-Architect agreement, AIA B101, then you are obligated to furnish an outline spec as a design deliverable. The contract requires the architect to produce an outline specification during Design Development (AIA B101 § 3.3.1) "that identify major materials and systems and establish in general their quality levels."

This is the only mention of outline specifications in the entire agreement. There is no additional description or definition of what the outline specification should be. So, it seems architects may have a wide latitude in what will satisfy this contractual obligation.

What is the Purpose?
We have seen a lot of different types of "outline" specifications. The information detail ranges from "virtually nothing" to "everything, including the kitchen sink." It is important to consider the purpose of the document and limit the information to suit the purpose. Outline specifications exist to convey the quality of the materials and installation shown on the drawings.

Estimators require three pieces of information: the number or quantity of products, the quality of the products, and the quality of the installation. The quantity is shown by the drawings. The quality is defined by the specifications. If any one of the three is missing, the estimator must guess. The guess will be conservative, and the price will be high.

What Is Used as Outline Specs?
Section List: Some project outline specifications are a simple table of contents. The list includes section numbers and titles of all sections that are expected to be written for the project. Sometimes this section list is expanded to show a bullet list of major materials and system will be included in the specifications.

Short Form Specifications: Of all the types listed here, these most typically will be considered outline specifications. The emphasis is clearly on describing the basic products that will be used for the project. The documents use specification section numbers and titles. They are arranged in an hierarchical outline structure resembling construction specifications. They may or may not contain the CSI standard 3-Part titles.

Master Guide Construction Specifications: Yes, it is true. Some design teams use the entire office master guide specification, unedited, with every imaginable choice remaining. I can only imagine the purpose of the document is to show the building owners how much work it will take to edit the specifications before issuing for construction. These documents are useless for helping to define the current project and should never be used as a design deliverable.

First Draft Construction Specifications: Some projects attempt detailed estimates at Design Development (DD). We have produced first draft construction specifications for DD. These should never be considered outline specifications. The difficulty with these documents is that the specifications are too far ahead of the drawings and design decisions. They pretend the detail has been firmly decided, and document the design as for construction. Then the specifications are revised again, and again as the design progresses through each iteration - sometimes by being discarded or completely replaced.

What Does AIA Suggest an Architect Produce?
Interestingly, AIA's The Architects Handbook of Professional Practice (2008) lists outline specifications as a Schematic Design document. The Handbook states the purpose of outline specifications as:

"a general description of the work that indicates the major system and material choices for the project and provides the information necessary to communicate the appearance and function of the building."

The Handbook indicates that the Schematic Design outline specifications should be a "general outline, or bullet point list, briefly describing each primary building system." For Design Development the specifications should be short form specifications, briefly describing primary materials and building systems. These short form specifications are not to include installation requirements.

Does CSI Agree with AIA?
Generally, yes, CSI does agree with AIA. CSI discusses the importance of outline specifications as a communications tool to help accomplish other tasks during the design process including

  • making product selections,
  • creating cost estimates,
  • coordinating construction documents, and
  • writing the final project manual.

The example outline specification format that CSI publishes in the Project Delivery Practice Guide closely resembles the description of short form specifications described above.

Write Outline Specifications - If You Must
Start with your office master guide specification. Delete (most, if not all) of Part 1 - General and Part 3 - Execution. Delete, delete, delete. Remove excessive detail, especially content in lower level paragraphs. Retain only what is required to set basic product and installation quality - everything needed by the estimator to determine the project cost.

List each product that will be identified on the drawings in a separate paragraph. This will allow quick editing to suit a particular project. The product is required, or it is not. The paragraph stays, or it does not.

Outline specifications need not include many reference standards. Preliminary estimates assume the project will be following industry norms. Do include unusual and optional requirements that will affect the product or installation costs.

We like to keep portions of Part 1 and Part 3 when needed to define quality items that cost money that the estimator might not otherwise include. Mockups, lab testing, maintenance stock, extended warranties, and field testing are primary examples.

We keep the Part 1 Summary Article to help define the project scope. Often the location or extent of where a product is used may not be clearly shown on DD drawings. When possible, we let the specifications set the scope in a simple sentence. Each sentence describes What products are required, How the products are installed and Where the products are installed to explain what the drawings do not. See a sample outline spec showing this example.

Consider an Alternative Design Document
Outline specifications are not the only method to convey product and installation quality. There is no need to follow the same format as construction specifications to convey the required project quality.

Preliminary Project Descriptions (PPDs) also describe project quality. They can identify required products and materials when these are known. More importantly, PPDs describe systems and assemblies - the same elements that estimators use for preliminary project estimates. Coordinating the quality descriptions with the cost estimate will help ensure each element is accurately priced.

AIA B101 requires preliminary building systems and materials to be identified during Schematic Design (SD). PPDs can serve as the SD documentation. Then during Design Development the PPD can be supplemented and expanded to show the current design iteration. If need be, it can even show the decision progression as a design record.

PPDs will eliminate the need to create a new document in a new form just to convey the same information, differently. Consider efficiency. Consider PPDs as an outline spec alternative.

Without an outline specification or a PPD, how do you convey project quality to the estimator and owner?

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