Good vs. bad specs—why architects should care about the difference

building materials

Providing thorough, specific details in your specifications can help save time, avoid confusion—and ensure your design is being executed as you envisioned.

Bad specifications can lead to lost time and increased confusion while jeopardizing your design vision. AIA partner Deltek + Avitru explains three easy ways to improve your specs.

The BIM looks great, but does it have all the information in it that the contractor needs to construct the project? Most often, it doesn’t. That’s where a well-coordinated project manual with product level specifications can make life easier for all stakeholders in the building project lifecycle.

From architect to contractor to the manufacturer or the building owner, and everyone in between, specifications matter. Good specs provide pertinent build and material information and make life easier for all parties by providing clear and concise information about product attributes, performance and more.

So, what exactly makes a specification “good” and how does it improve workflow from design to build?

Consider these two examples:

Example 1: Alternative Spec Tool

Example 2: MasterSpec

1. Good specs are specific

This may seem obvious. After all, it is called a specification for a reason. But not every spec spells out material. Let’s compare two real-life specification examples, shown in Examples 1 and 2, both specifying corner guards.

Corner guards are made in a variety of different materials: PVC, PVC-free plastic, acrylic, polycarbonate, stainless steel (Type 304 or 316), aluminum, or brass, all of which have different sourcing and installation costs. Imagine you’re a contractor reading the spec in Example 1. With no indication of material, you will likely need to submit a Request for Information (RFI) to get clarification from the designer in this case.

Now look at Example 2. This designer used MasterSpec, a product of AIA and developed by Deltek. In this spec, the material is clearly listed, and it’s specific. Stainless steel, Type 304. No guessing and no RFI required. This saves time and ensures the contractor will purchase and install the specific product you envisioned.

2. Good specs are accurate

If an element of your design is based on a specific product, it’s a good practice to name it. But it is still important to spell out the product characteristics to ensure that the design intent is realized. This will not only help the contractor make the right purchasing decisions but also reduces the risk of an RFI coming back to your desk. In other words, providing the correct information in the spec saves everyone time and frustration.

In Example 1, it appears the designer had a certain product in mind (BCGUS3S), but a quick search on the Babcock-Davis website shows us that there is no product with that model number. A smart contractor is going to use this as a chance to submit an RFI. The designer was most likely referring to model BCGS, which we can see is properly specified in Example 2, having been pulled directly from MasterSpec content and confirmed on the manufacturer website.

In addition, if the contractor wants or needs to make a product substitution, Example 2 provides enough information to safely and accurately make that swap. In contrast, the Example 1 spec leaves too much to the imagination and can lead the contractor to make design decisions that should be made by the architect.

3. Good specs are instructive

In addition to product-specific information that speaks to the aesthetic characteristics of a product, there are other requirements that aren’t typically covered in BIM. Installation and mounting instructions are a prime example.

Continuing with the corner guard example above, the specification in Example 1 is ambiguous in terms of installation. After reading the spec, we don’t know if the product is intended to be held in place with adhesive or screws. Not only does this leave the contractor unsure of what materials to procure, but it also doesn’t allow him or her to gauge how much time and labor this will entail. It’s very likely this lack of detail will result in an RFI.

The “good spec” in Example 2 paints a clear installation picture, identifying the mounting mechanism as countersunk screws through factory-drilled mounting holes. By requiring factory-drilled mounting holes, we know the architect is going for a very clean, finished look. The contractor can plan accordingly and go straight to the manufacturer to purchase supplies while knowing exactly what this will entail for labor during the build.

Realizing your vision

Because of the lack of detail explained above, there are two potential outcomes once the contractor sees the specification in Example 1. An RFI is likely and will ask you for clarification on material, thickness, installation, and more. The second option is the product gets substituted for another that does not meet your original design intent.

Contractors aren’t mind-readers. Their job is to make the intangible tangible and bring your design to life. Building specification documents are crucial to ensure what you envision can be easily understood and executed, without delays in the project due to miscommunication.

Writing specifications isn’t hard, but it is easy to fall into the traps seen in Example 1. The demands of design firms are ever-changing and finding time to research new products and write thorough specifications can feel like a juggling act. At Deltek, the exclusive developer of MasterSpec, we specialize in that work so you don’t have to. Whether you need specification content, spec editing software or specification writing services, you can rest assured that we’re doing our best to provide you with the resources you need, when you need them.

AIA does not sponsor or endorse any enterprise, whether public or private, operated for profit. Further, no AIA officer, director, committee member, or employee, or any of its component organizations in his or her official capacity, is permitted to approve, sponsor, endorse, or do anything that may be deemed or construed to be an approval, sponsorship, or endorsement of any material of construction or any method or manner of handling, using, distributing, or dealing in any material or product.

Image credits

building materials

istock.com/enviromantic

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