Spec Writers Are Always in the Basement; A Case for Changing Specifications.
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Why traditional architectural specifications don't work and what to do about it.
Specifications (or specs as they’re referred to in the industry) may very well be the dullest, most mind-numbing part of architecture. The nature of specifications is really quite useful; they define the acceptable type, performance, color, texture, finish and sometimes construction method of materials being used on an architecture project. Which is great -all of that information is necessary to ensure a successful outcome. The breakdown, as it turns out, occurs with the presentation of specifications.
Conventionally, specs are prepared in black and white 12 point Times New Roman font on page after tedious eight-and-a-half by eleven page. For a typical residential project there can be hundreds of dreary pages, for a decent size commercial or institutional project, thousands of monotonous pages. A typical spec package for an entire building has enough tiresome bulk to make Ayn Rand’s complete anthology seem like a bedtime story. So while a spec package contains all the useful DNA of a project, it really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because nobody reads them; the architects on a project don’t read them, the general contractor doesn’t read them, we’re not even convinced that the spec writers read them. For anyone who claims they read them, we’d assert that type of reading is actually called “skimming”, and that they’re “skimming” only bits anyway.
In a nutshell, specs are a nightmare.
Here’s a typical excerpt that relates to steel framed walls:
Load-Bearing Wall Installation: Install continuous top and bottom tracks sized to match studs. Align tracks accurately and securely anchor at corners and ends. Squarely seat studs against webs of top and bottom tracks. Space studs as indicated, set plumb, align, and fasten both flanges of studs to top and bottom tracks.”
Snoozer. This information is common knowledge to a builder; the information here serves no purpose other than to cover someone’s arse.
And another on anchor bolts:
Anchor Bolts: ASTM F 1554, Grade 36, threaded carbon-steel hex-headed, bolts and carbon-steel nuts; and flat, hardened-steel washers; zinc coated by hot-dip process according to ASTM A 153/A 153M, Class C or mechanically deposition according to ASTM B 695, Class 50.
15 Minutes of this and you’ll want to gouge your eyes out with a #2 pencil. Multiply that by 500 pages and a career change is inevitable, or severe abuse of ________ (fill in your favorite vice here).
Which brings up the folks that write these things. Spec writers are professional architects whose job it is to write specifications; at a larger firm, that’s all they do all day, five days a week. It’s never been determined whether spec writers were born dull and subsequently write superbly boring specs, or if years of writing specs makes them dull. It’s a chicken and egg conundrum that modern science simply hasn’t taken on yet. In our experience, spec writers are not only fun-suckers, but they also spend a great deal of their day being grumpy. We know this from our time working at a large corporate firm, whose name shall remain… well NBBJ. The spec writers were always holed away in the basement, probably because nobody wanted them pooping all over their great story about what they did last weekend. The only reason for a young optimistic architect to venture down to the basement and visit the spec writers was self-flagellation. So there they were, in the basement writing specs all day. No daylight and no office talk around the water cooler –probably because they knew they’d just poop all over each other’s stories. But we digress, where were we? Ah yes, specs are boring and nobody reads them.
To us it doesn’t make any sense to generate something that no one will ever read. Producing a document simply to CYA (cover your ass) isn’t a very effective use of resources either –we’d rather just solve the problem before finger pointing becomes an issue. So for residential projects and small commercial projects we’ve been using a different system over the years; and after 10 years of designing and building, it works. Here’s our system:
1. Get the critical information on the drawings; this includes materials, structural sizes, and connections. When the information doesn’t fit on the drawing, it’s typically an indication to us that the design is too complicated.
2. 3-Dimensional drawings communicate volumes more than words on paper. When needed, break out of the 2D protocols and explain the design assembly in axon. The drawing below explains the assembly of a simple cabinet box. It would take a small book to accurately describe this assembly with only words.
3. Spreadsheets are easier to read than specifications. For details like finishes, we like to make a simple and straight-forward spreadsheet that becomes part of the construction documents. A spreadsheet matrix like the one below allows the builder to compare and reference the finishes from one part of the structure to another with ease.
4. Collect specifications as cut-sheets and organize them into a binder. The binder is organized with the same system as Suites and Master Spec. The photos, graphics and diagrams common with most cut-sheets make the information much easier to sort through and get answers from. Avery makes numbered dividers that can be used with a 3 ring binder (we like to use recycled binders from ReBinder). A well organized binder also makes a good reference for the next project.
5. Work closely with the general contractor – schedule regular site visits to answer questions and work through issues. Be available to review shop drawings for things that are more complicated and need to be communicated back from a fabricator to the Architect and Builder (which by the way, spec writing doesn’t alleviate the need for shop drawings further supporting our case here). This might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many architects simply drop off drawings (or specs) on a job site and expect the GC to “figure it out”. We like to refer to architects like this as “kid’s playing”.
There it is. If it sounds useful, use it. If you find holes in our system, call them out. If you’ve got a better system, share it. A rising tide raises all boats.
Cheers from team BUILD.