An Architect's Introduction to Specifications - 8 Steps to Simple Spec Writing

The average person knows that an Architect is responsible for the design of buildings. But one of the things that’s often lost on most is that the path to get from initial sketch to final product is much more complicated than that.

Before I started practicing, I was of the belief than an Architect created a set of drawings, gave those drawings to the Contractor, and the Contractor built the design. The one key ingredient here that could get overlooked is a project’s Specifications.

What are Specifications?

In a nutshell, Specifications are a part of the Contract Documents that define the scope of work for the Contractors. They are written, rather than drawn, documents that define the technical information of products and their installation procedures.

In simpler terms, the Drawings act as a graphic representation of the work, while the Specifications are the instructions of what pieces need to be purchased and any associated installation requirements.

Why do Architects Hate Specs?

There seems to be a common misconception among younger, emerging Architects and designers that the Specifications are somehow less important than drawings.

I think this probably has to do with two key factors: (1) Most schools don’t teach their architecture students how to write specifications and (2) Specifications are complicated and not as ‘fun’ for most creatives.

Let’s break this down further.

In my own experience, I didn’t go to school to write specifications. I went to school to become an Architect. Now that doesn’t mean that specifications ever did anything to me personally. I think I’m just more wired to convey information through sketching and a creative drawing process.

The kicker is that you realize very quickly on ‘real’ jobs in a ‘real’ office setting, that the Specifications are just as important as Drawings to the success of a project. In fact, they’re weighted equally with drawings in terms of their importance to a set of Contract Documents. This is both the case for their importance in a Court of Law and in terms of how the information is conveyed to the Contractor.

Chicken and Egg

Let’s look at this from a different angle. Say you’re working on a restaurant project and you need to design a series of bi-fold doors that allow for the seating areas to extend to the outside spaces.

Your first move is likely to sketch an elevation of what the overall building will look like where the doors will go. You may have even drawn a sketch in plan.

But now that you have the sketches, what type of door are you using?

Sure, we’ve assumed a bi-fold door, but from what manufacturer? What type of material will it be? What sizes does it come in? Are there any special power requirements? Does it require additional structural support? Does it have any special hardware or locking requirements? And so on...

Depending on what some of your answers are, you might find that the original design you had intended could end up looking much different. In fact it may deviate so much in the end that you need to find another product type altogether.

Knowing what product is in your design is just as important as the drawing you use to articulate the design intent.

Specification Structure 101

Alright, alright - specifications are important. Where do we start with them? What are they comprised of?

Fundamentally, a specification is made of three distinct, but equally important ‘Parts.’ Each part deals with a different aspect of the product being specified.

Part I is called ‘General.’ This is the section where you define the administrative procedures and list any related Specifications that deal with the product you’re specifying. Think of this as the introduction.

Part II is called ‘Products.’ This is the section where you define the quality and components required. Think of this as the technical information of the product itself.

Part III is called ‘Execution.’ This is the section where you define the preparation and installation requirements for the product. Think of this as the instruction manual of how the product must be installed.

8 Steps to Writing a Specification

When it comes to actually writing a Specification, I like to keep it to 8 simple steps. Once you finish all 8 steps, you start at the beginning and write the next section, then the next, until you have a full Specification book for your project.

Some steps will be easier than others. Some steps will take longer. But none of the steps are particularly difficult on their own. They only require you to be engaged with the task at hand.

Step 1 - Clearly Define Scope Intent with the Owner.

Step 2 - Assess What Products Might Be Required on a Job.

Step 3 - Find Preliminary ‘Basis of Design’ Products and Review with Owner for Approval Based on Performance and Cost.

Step 4 - If Working on a Private Job, Continue to Step 5. If Working on a Public Job, Find Two More Competitive Products.

Step 5 - Write Part I - Determine What Quality Assurance, Submittal, Warranty Requirements, Product Has.

Step 6 - Write Part II - Determine Performance Requirements of Products and Accessories.

Step 7 - Write Part III - Determine Execution Requirements Based on What You Specified in Parts I and II.

Step 8 - Have Some Coffee and Do It All Over Again.

My Specification Confession

I used to hate writing specifications. They can be boring and uninspired if you look at them as simply another task to check off of your project list.

But the more that I write them, the more engaging I find them to be.

In some ways, you learn much more through the proper writing of specifications than you will in refining your creative design through drawing alone. The lessons you learn from addressing each Specification as though it’s the crux of your design are invaluable. 

Don’t take them for granted. Specification writing can be the key to unlocking your potential as a designer and as a well-rounded Architect.