Why are Specs So Long?

It seems a relatively simple building. There are only 50 drawings. So why are the specifications 800 pages? It does seem absurd. Let's take a critical look to see if there is a better way.

Starting with a Master
Where does a specifier start? Never from the last project - we all know that! No matter who is writing the specification - the project manager, the project architect, an in-house specifier, or a specifications consultant - each project spec starts from a master.

The master most likely has its roots in a commercial master system such as Speclink, MasterSpec, or SpecText. Some may be home grown. Regardless the basis, all masters represent the collective corporate memory with every tidbit learned from all previous project experiences.

All-Inclusive Masters
First, think about how commercial master specifications are written. These masters are "all-inclusive" for the majority of a perceived group of project types and common materials and systems. The goal is to write a master that will contain 80-90 percent of what will be required for every project. The remaining requirements will be so project specific that master systems cannot imagine what they may be.

Now, imagine having the task of writing a master specification suitable for every architectural firm, designing every project, and including every system and material. Daunting, isn't it? The writers for master specifications attempt to provide a specification that responds to this need. The result is masters with many pages, often 20, 50, and even more.

Specifications Are Deductive
Masters include everything and rely on the specifier to decide what must be deleted. However, architectural firms - even your firm - do not need everything. You only need what is germane to your typical practice. You need a master that recognizes that you do not design every building type and do not need to specify every available system and material.

When faced with editing one of these commercial masters, just where do you start? Start by deleting large blocks of text that do not apply. Usually, this means deleting Part 2 articles including products that are not needed. Recognizing the primary product information to delete is straightforward. The product is not on the job; so it is gone.

Consider the tiling specification organized by the variety of tile types: ceramic, mosaic, porcelain, glass, quarry, and stone. It is easy to recognize and delete products that are not required, just by the basic tile type.

Applying Construction Knowledge
Recognizing the related portions of the specification that no longer apply because particular products were deleted requires knowledge and experience as a specifier. The related and unnecessary administrative and installation requirements may not be obvious. Masters usually give no instructions about coordination within the individual specification section. So the specifier must figure it out.

Staying with the tiling section example, deleting organic adhesives and mortar beds requires deletion of other accessories like reinforcing mesh, cleavage membrane and deletion of the corresponding setting methods. Instructions about this coordination within a single section rarely exist.

The response may be: If in doubt, let it be. After all, what can it hurt to have extraneous text in a specification? Considering specs are supposed to be specific, it may be a problem. Extraneous text may create ambiguity at best and direct conflict at worst. Both cases expose the specifier and design team to the dreaded RFI to clarify the intent.

The more appropriate response must be: If in doubt, take it out. If you don't know what a specification requirement means, how will you ever explain it to the contractor and all the subs when they put you on the spot during a project meeting? And more importantly, how will you ever enforce it? Of course, the best alternative is research to improve understanding of the subject so the edits will be appropriate.

Applying Specifying Skill
Only with careful consideration, knowledge, and skill can all the words of the commercial master and even the office master, be distilled to the essence of the specifications.

Simplify the text, using direct statements as instructions to the contractor. More words do not necessarily make for better understanding. More words do give attorneys more to argue while trying to decipher intent. Few, select words in well constructed sentences are the best method to specify the architect's intent. Think haiku, not epic poem.

I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead. - Mark Twain

Writing succinctly requires skill and time. Specifiers tend to rely on the master text, deleting entire blocks of irrelevant text rather than reconstructing the text to suit specific project conditions. This approach fostered by masters allows specifiers to produce "acceptable," lengthy specifications in a relatively short time.

Strive for Clear, Concise Specs!
Pretend you are talking to your children when writing specifications. Give direct, indisputable commands such as "Clean your room," without further explanation. Let there be no mistake about intent. Remove every ambiguity by choosing words carefully and including only words that are essential to convey the intent.

Measure your success, but not in pages. Count project RFIs and Change Orders (COs) stemming from specifications. Consider carefully how to improve the text causing the RFI or CO. Then strive for zero RFIs and COs with every future spec.

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