Per-SPEC-tives No. 253: New Year, Same Needs

by Ralph Liebing, RA, CSI, CDT, Cincinnati, OH

So why would a publication like ARCHITECTURAL RECORD, so replete with innovative, cutting-edge design and technology, see fit to publish an article about specifications?

No, not shear madness, but recognition that all the projects appearing in this issue and all other issues, before, and yet to come, become reality through a process that requires both drawings and specifications.


Look at the strides made by the design and construction industry in the last 35 years by the development of computerized operations-- CAD, 3-D, and BIM.

But, let’s get serious! NO construction project can be built without good, well-executed specifications—period!

It is impossible to use drawings as the only vehicle for communicating information and directions for construction. There are elements and pieces of information that simply defy graphic representation. There are descriptive information snippets, attributes, intangible comments,etc. that are not visual or graphic by nature -- they are “word products”.

It can be argued that one can place suitable [?] notations on drawings that replace specifications. But come on, those notes need to be so extensive and detailed that they are, indeed, specifications! Simply because they are located on the drawings does not take away their intent and impact. These notes are fully equivalent in intent to any Project Manual.

There is an inherent risk in drawing note specifications. . For a minute imagine how many drawing sheets would be required to display the pages in a given Project Manual. And, oh yes, by the way, do drawing notes retain legal status? How “attackable” are they by anyone intent on finding their faults, or twisting their direction and intent?

While the traditional language of construction is “plans and specs”, there has been a continuing diminution of the status of specifications. In large measure this has come, in fairness, from two sources-- design professionals and contractors. Surprising? Not really.

A strong underlying issue in every project is that the owner receives full measure for dollar paid. This can be easily translated into the premise that what is shown on the drawings and required in the specifications is exactly the—and the only!—solution. No comment required! The contained instructions to the contractor are “do it this way, and don’t ask questions”.

But of course, with documents resulting from a human effort, there are gaps and conflicts, which tend to confound the contractors. In addition are problems with indistinct instructions or depictions, and the lack of information necessary to faithfully complete the work. Even in face of this reality, too many design professionals have engaged in an unrealistic stance akin to [if not] “We don’t issue Change Orders! Just do the work as shown/depicted!”

So contractors have, over the years, become quite prickly. Many, if not all, have become adept at seeking, finding, and working with the shortcomings of project documents. Those who choose to be most unscrupulous even bid projects on the basis of “going in low, and making a handsome profit off overpricing necessary Change Orders”. While there is some justification for added cost to incorporate and adjust the work for changes, there is no justification for simply gouging the owner.

Contractors do have a case for looking down their noses at specifications. Being primarily skilled, hands-on personalities, they are not into word games, or written communications. This is not an attack on their intelligence or knowledge, but rather how they approach their work. Too often, contractors have been stung by specification wording that was either excessive or restrictive, or which was not all that apparent [i.e., the “hidden” requirements].

In trying to be most diligent in achieving the desired result for their clients, many design professionals have seen fit to create an array of specifications provisions, so complex, so convoluted, and so intertwined that they have really encumbered the trade workers in the field, and the contractors’ managers in the office. This is as much as a deterrent to good relations, and smooth running projects as the contractors “working” the shortcomings of the documents.

© 2013, Ralph Liebing