Walter Scarborough FCSI, SCIP | Architect/Specifier

To almost everyone involved with the construction of buildings, specifications seem to be a strange and mysterious world: massive amounts of technical information, references to obscure standards, and no graphics, just thousands of incomprehensible words. Architectural designers focus on the aesthetics of a project therefore, they tend to not appreciate, care too much for, nor even want to understand specifications. The architects and engineers that produce the construction drawings know that they have to contribute technical information to the specification efforts, but they simply do not know how specifications work, and they also seem to not want to know. Contractors tend to believe that the only functional role of specifications is to serve as door stops in the job trailer. However, when things go wrong, there is a mad, ruthless and every-man-for-himself race to the specifications to see what was supposed to have been provided, erected, applied, or installed.

In spite of all the bad attitudes that seem to be prevalent, specifications matter. Specifications serve an important purpose as one of the two instruments of service (the other being drawings) prepared by the architects and engineers that are required, necessary and essential to the proper construction of a building. Since it is not possible for the notes on the drawings to include sufficient amounts of the technical information that is required to perform the work, specifications are needed and they should be the repository of technical information. Drawings and specifications are complimentary of each other, and what is stated in one is as stated in the other.

If specifications are not included on a project, and the terms on the drawings are generic, then the contractor gets to select whichever product they want to select for a building component without regard for quality, or if it is even the right product for that application. Without specifications, there are no submittal requirements, no special warranties, no manufacturer and installer qualifications, no preconstruction or field testing and inspections for quality control, no preparation provisions for the substrate before something is erected, installed, or applied, and no performance requirements. If there are no specifications, will the owner really get the project they are paying for?

There are specific amounts of technical information that is necessary to properly construct a project. Architects and engineers are charged with the responsibility of producing the information necessary, and the only way of doing so is to provide both drawings and specifications. Drawings alone are not sufficient to construct a project. Specifications are essential to the success of constructing projects. There is simply no way around it, specifications provide the required technical information that cannot be put on the drawings.

While there are some owners, developers, and architects, who do not believe in having specifications, there is a group that depends on them for their livelihood: subcontractors. Good specifications provide the necessary technical information to the subcontractors so that accurate bids can be developed and submitted. In the absence of specifications, there is a large amount of written and verbal information that is exchanged between the architect, owner, and the constructor. The subcontractor is not privileged to this information; all the information they have in order to submit bids and do the work is either what they are told by the constructor or what they can speculate about from the drawings (think guessing).

Where did the attitude of not needing or using specifications come from? Some constructors, not subcontractors, believe that specifications impede the progress of the work. There are also some constructors that tell their clients that the project will cost more if specifications are included in the scope of work. One reason that constructors do not want specifications is that specifications do not let the constructor do what the constructor wants to do with the project. Another reason is that constructors believe they know better than the architect and engineer about what needs to do done for the project. A third reason is more societal, people just do not like to read. But the reality is, the constructor now has control of the quality of the project, and quality will always fall victim to pre-conceived budgets and increasing profits. The project loses and the owner loses.

Owners and developers who construct buildings without specifications are actually handling a time bomb that, when it goes off, will result in significant damage, deterioration, or failure to an owner’s property. In addition to possibly violating state licensing laws, architects that produce construction documents without specifications are not rendering the kind of professional service to their clients as has come to be expected from the architectural profession. Ask any building forensics specialist, constructing a building without specifications is a bad decision.

So, the point is, specifications matter.

Mr. Scarborough is an architect, registered in Texas, an independent specifier, and has 40 years of architectural experience. He is a vice president and regional manager for Hall Building Information Group based in Charlotte, NC. He is a fellow of the Construction Specifications Institute and the update author for the forthcoming second edition of The CSI Project Delivery Practice Guide. He lives in Allen, TX, with his wife and can be reached at 214-491-7385 and wscarborough@hbig.us.

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