Just What Are We Specifying?

Products delivered to the site Products delivered to the site

Products, right? Specifications document the thousands of product selections the design team makes for each construction project. The specifications tell the contractor what products to buy and install.

Install? That's right, install! Specifications also include all the requirements about how the selected products are installed so the building will actually work as intended. Products are not installed in isolation. They must work with adjacent products to form complete building assemblies. For example, there is no point of installing a roofing membrane if the flashings are not properly integrated to complete the weather barrier assembly.

Work Results

Really? Do specs stop at products and installation? Many specifications do. The work result is what both the specifications and drawings are meant to convey. The work result - the constructed, functioning assembly - is the expression of the design intent. If specifications can actually describe the required work results, the benefit would be tremendous.

If you opened a specification and found:

1.1    SUMMARY
A.  Section Includes:
1. Face brick veneer with CMU backup and insulated cavity at exterior walls.


Wall Detail Courtesy International Masonry Institute Wall Detail Courtesy International Masonry Institute

Did you get a picture? The design team will understand what assemblies are described by the specifications. The estimator will understand how and where the named products will be used. The manufacturers will understand how their products will be used and what performance will be expected. The better the understanding the better the result - and ultimately the happier the owner will be when the contractor delivers what was intended.

By specifying work results - What, How, and Where - the specifier created a mental image for the reader. The reader instantly knows from experience what other elements are expected to complete the assembly and what should be found in the specification.

So why are we content with specifying products and installation?

Master Guide Spec Influence

Master specifications are written to be valid for the majority of projects and for the majority of project conditions. Commercial masters and office masters both approach specifications the same generic, "make it work for the majority" way. Statements such as the one about the exterior wall will not exist in masters because they are project specific.

Instead of work results, specifications include a simple products list without any hint of how the materials are used or where they are used.

1.1    SUMMARY
A.  Section Includes:
1. Face brick
2. Concrete masonry units (CMU).


With this summary statement the reader has no clue what to find in the specification section, except for the two listed products. Is the brick installed as a veneer, on the exterior or the interior? Is the CMU a backup for the brick or is it used for masonry partitions?

This approach to writing masters is easy to understand. The writers have no idea how the specification will be used and what project conditions will be described. So providing a simple product list is safe for the majority of projects. The products are easily deleted when not required.

A simple product list does nothing to explain the work results and the design intent.

Make the Effort - Help the Team

As a specifier, my first step in the process is data gathering. Reviewing drawings and interviewing the design team allows me to verify each building system and infer the design intent. I document my findings as work results answering these three questions in a single statement for each system:

  • What products are installed?
  • How are the products installed?
  • Where are the products installed?

I add these work results statements to the project table of contents for the design team review. This becomes the first test to know if I understood the design intent. If I missed, the design documents may need some work. Confirming the design intent by stating work results allows me to proceed with the specifications, confident that the first draft will be very close to what is ultimately required.

Plus, specifications that state the work results will help the construction team understand the design intent, too.

Learn more at CONSTRUCT2013. Register to attend Session W04 - "But That's Not What I Meant" for the encore presentation of the top rated program in 2012. I hope to see you there to continue this discussion.

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