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Breakfast with a Specifier


Breakfast with a Specifier

David A. Bishton, RA, FCSI, CCS, CCCA, SCIP

Breakfast? With a specifier? You may wonder about the wisdom of such an engagement, but it is a unique experience. It occurred to me today that there are some uncanny similarities between project specification preparation and the simple (or complex) task of preparing breakfast. In this case, breakfast for a crowd.

The first thing to know is that the Specifier comes to YOUR house, either in person or virtually or both, to help YOU plan and make the breakfast. So wait, I can hear you say, the SPECIFIER DOES NOT DO ALL THE WORK? In case you hadn’t noticed I use capital letters for emphasis – I learned it from this really smart 5th grade (I assume) kid I found on Twitter. Anyway, the answer is no, but the Specifier can be your most able assistant.

So how does it work? The first thing I as a Specifier want to know is more about what’s on the menu – what did you have in mind to serve this big crowd that you’ve invited over? Oh, it’s a pot luck! You have the main course and everyone is bringing something to the table. So how can I help – what’s in the frig?

I open the refrigerator door and what to my wondering eyes should appear? A miniature sleigh – wait, that’s from another story – a really large tray of the most beautiful eggs I’ve ever seen. And every nook and cranny stuffed with marked and unmarked containers of every size and shape. You are REALLY PROUD of those eggs! So how can I help? I can chop onions, garlic, veggies, make sausage, prepare a fruit salad, get all the herbs lined up, make toast, help set the table – I’ll even go to the store if you need something. Just tell me what you need. “First, look through this 150 page recipe and find the ingredients. Then figure out what’s in all these containers. I might be missing some things.”

OK, but funny you don’t already know…anyway, here goes. The first one is empty – what’s this for? “Oh, I’m getting ready to put something in it. I’ll let you know.” The next one smells a bit suspect – might be leftovers from another meal. In the recipe there seem to be the same ingredients called by different names. This container looks like a fresh and tasty ingredient that I KNOW is on your list. When I’m done preparing it I set it aside and move on. And how’s the big event plan coming along? “Oh, look how I’ve rearranged these eggs in the tray to make them look even better! And more functional.” OK, let’s keep going. More empty containers, more leftovers from other meals, some with great looking ingredients that are just past their expiration date. But it’s coming together. I really like the exploration and shopping and study and prep work. Times goes fast.

Are we getting closer to cooking time? It’s going to be so good! I think we can get it together just in time for everyone to arrive. “Hey, I’ve managed to find ANOTHER new arrangement for the eggs. The group is going to have to make a decision, though. But it Is less expensive.” And seeing the counter full of prepared ingredients, “Oh, one of the guests decided to bring a different side dish than they told me so we won’t need that.” And “That ingredient was just a placeholder. I decided to tweak the recipe and we’re not using that one anymore.” And “Didn’t I give this other list to you? We’re still missing some very important ingredients.”

Yes, yes, but they’ll be here any minute, won’t they? I’m here just to help you make this breakfast perfect! Shall I set the table?

“We decided to postpone breakfast until next week. We’re not ready.”

A delicious potluck breakfast with the help of your friendly neighborhood Specifier benefits from:

  • Timely decision making
  • Up-to-date and consistent recipe information
  • Full and current containers with the right ingredients
  • No leftovers from other meals
  • Establishing an end date to rearranging the eggs

We can do this.

Spec Writer’s View of Climate Change

By David A. Bishton, RA, FCSI, CCS, CCCA, SCIP

What? How does anything about construction drawings and specifications relate to climate change? Only a radical left-wing, I mean an independent, I mean a libertarian, I mean a conservative… oh, just a smug environmental whacko (are you listening, Rush?) would even consider such a thing.

Actually, I’m thinking of very practical, experienced, and safety-minded people that we encounter every day in the construction industry and built environment to warn us (good Lord, even require us) to avoid or remedy dangerous conditions before anyone gets hurt.

Trained fire fighters walk around our buildings saying inconvenient or radical things like:

  • “That 25 ft. light duty extension cord cannot be used to plug-in your refrigerator and toaster oven and portable space heater – get rid of it now.”
  • “You can’t stack boxes full of oily rags in your electrical room, even if it’s the only place you have – it’s dangerous.”
  • Or worse, “Your fire extinguishers are all expired. How are you going to put out a fire if there’s nothing in them?” We won’t even go to exit doors blocked or rendered inoperable.

They totally understand when you say, “Ah, don’t worry so much. Nothing has happened yet, and I don’t want to spend money to fix something that’s not broken. “

Code officials are annoying that way too when architects, engineers, and specifiers submit documents for review:

  • “Chapter 26, paragraph 26.03.whatever.01 states that there must be a fire ignition barrier over the exposed foam insulation in your crawl space. Submit revised plans showing compliance.”

And of course, you respond, “Oh, come on, that toxic smoke stuff is all exaggeration and the chance of a fire starting down there is very remote. Besides, if a fire starts it will melt the plastic water pipes and there will be plenty of water to put out the fire. Problem solved, nothing to do!”

And those terrible and costly special inspections in Chapter 17.

  • “Why do I need some overpaid engineer to inspect and make a special report for all the welds and bolted connections on my high-rise framing? My low bid contractor has done it a million times, and says it’s the same way they’ve always done it before.
  • Nothing has fallen down yet (that I’ve ever heard). That is a burdensome regulation, Mr. Building Official!”

And specifiers, the worst of the lot.

  • “That is indeed a beautiful ornamental screen for the building façade, Ms. Designer. It looks to cover about the same surface area as the Hoover Dam. I strongly recommend specifying a corrosion resistant metal, a high-performance coating, or both so that it doesn’t fail and need replacement in a few years. And I’ll make some recommendations for your details too.”


  • “The Owner does not want to pay for that or take any more time getting this out to bid. We’re willing to take the chance.”
  • “Good suggestions for better performance and longevity for such an important part of the building – please give us your recommendations.”

Point of all this is that we depend on experienced people to tell us when something may be dangerous or may prematurely fail. We don’t (or sometimes are not even allowed to) dismiss their experience, rules, or recommendations because they are inconvenient or based on an unlikely scenario (in our minds). We don’t often get the luxury of saying in the construction world, “Well, my expert says you and all the other fire fighters, code officials, inspectors, etc. are wrong. I’m going by these other alternative facts.”

A planet that prematurely fails due to preventable causes is generally unhealthy for everyone. A built environment that puts people in elevated risk, with the only defense being, “We can’t afford the health and safety stuff,” is unreasonable.

Climate scientists continue to overwhelmingly inform us. It’s urgent to act on the evidence they present. People might get hurt.

The Late Great Product Show

PROBLEM    The traditional product show with sleek manufacturer-designed displays or tables filled with literature and piles of samples is becoming a relic of the past for many professionals. It can be seen in sagging attendance, especially with the critical younger audience. These things can be intimidating for the newbie, as well as uninteresting for veterans who have seen all the stuff (or at least the same displays) over and over. While there are many components of a successful show that include the venue selection, advertising, floor layout, food & drinks, etc. there are some important elements that need rethinking about why people should come to these things in the first place.

CLIMB ON    A recent trade show I thoroughly enjoyed was the 2014 ASLA convention in Denver where there were many opportunities to interact (physically) with the products. Yes, this was a national convention which has its advantages. CONSTRUCT could also learn from this. Static observation was not the rule. Playground equipment and outdoor athletic course mfrs. set up displays where both adults (and their children, which was a really interesting dynamic) could do things. Landscape, vegetative roof, and fountain suppliers had gorgeous presentations where you could touch and get wet. Deck and patio cover mfrs. had full scale representations that later served as buffet dinner and party venues on the show floor. These were places where you could see people hanging out for long periods of time, and talking both in-depth and casually with the reps. This was an event, as well as a show.

SIZE DOES NOT MATTER    No, this approach may not work for sealants and waterproofing, but a little creative thought should be able to liven everything up a lot. Yes, there were some of the same small tables at this show with piles of literature and samples, but there was a LOT more variety and visual interest distributed throughout the convention hall. “If we (simply) show it, they will come” is not working. In case you were wondering, size does not matter. Quality and social/visual stimulus matter a lot more. The 2013 AIA convention in Denver made a big deal out of social interaction at the displays with impromptu mic time, video, and other (probably well planned, but seemingly) spontaneous events.

TRUSTED ADVISORS    If we are trying to create more Trusted Advisors, perhaps we don’t need towering product line displays and massive amounts of material crowded into booths. One of the first 2 things I almost always ask a known or potential Trusted Advisor is “What do you have to solve this unique problem…?” or “What do you have here that you haven’t shown before?” Point is I often may not really care what else they have on their table or in their booth. I care more about how they can help me, and give me something really interesting to consider for the future. Armed with that I am much more likely to call on them in the future to talk about more mundane and yet perhaps more valuable products they offer.

BROWSERS    When I’m not familiar with a mfr. or product, a large display of a few (very interesting) products is far more able to attract me for deeper conversation about a product line than small samples and literature racks whose sight or access can be blocked by a single person standing at the booth. Interactive electronic displays also have great potential, but so much of the time they are limited to a small laptop on the crowded table that 1 or 2 people at most can stoop and squint at. And basically have a “don’t touch this” appearance.

AN IDEA FOR CHAPTERS    This is all leading me to suggest that chapters and regions with product shows should provide a service (at no cost) to reps about how they can present their material better to a CSI audience in all its variety. Gasp! Could AE’s also be Trusted Advisors to manufacturers?  If architects must be the main target of the displays, the service can focus on that – but I have a dream that the full range of CSI membership that we brag about can attend and influence our shows for the better. It is now common for many chapters to have only 50-60% of members as manufacturers and architects/specifiers. If half the members automatically think there is no reason to attend, we’re setting events up to be behind the proverbial 8-ball from the start.

Perhaps we start by offering a seminar a month in advance to which everyone could come, or it could even be one-on-one counseling. We want these events to be successful so that our reps return. And to create a buzz among attendees that fosters even better attendance in the future. I know there are requisite manufacturer displays and logos to be used in every booth, but there is opportunity for much creativity that does not always have to add cost to the reps.

DO OVER    We all know the saying about doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. It may take some time to re-convince the larger AEC population that a product show can again be a cool and valuable thing. Our manufacturer members can only do so much. No time like the next event to start.

How Does Spec Writing Work? Would You Like to Supersize that (Change) Order?

I sometimes wonder what goes through the minds of those composing construction documents when they decide that they are complete. A recurring discussion in the first office I worked in considered whether the CD’s were done or were they finished? Same thing, right? Not exactly.

Done meant that you decided to stop working on the CD’s. Often this was because the project ran out of fee or time. Just as often it was that you were just plain sick of noodling them over and over again due to never-ending reconsiderations of details, which led to new materials being added to the project, which led to a global search for incorrect notes, which led the product rep or spec writer to say, “You can’t use that material in that way,” or “Do you know you just toasted the budget with that little change?” which started the whole process all over again.

Finished meant that you had actually completed your final redlines, checked your notes, cross-checked the specs and drawings, and decided that, until someone brought up a new question you hadn’t thought of, that there was no reason not to (yes, I’ll admit) put down the pencil and typewriter and publish the dang thing. Finished did not mean perfect; it did mean, however, that you felt you had exercised your best judgment and thought the project was ready to be released to the waiting construction industry. By that I mean the horde of frenzied estimators, subcontractors, product reps (again), plan rooms, and public authorities – the dreaded AHJ’s. But that is another story.

A little publicized fact and seldom known to clients is that architects come to hate their projects during the last few weeks before the deadline. Of course, like good parents they come to love them again eventually. During those last few weeks the project can turn from a docile pet whose appearance and company you enjoy and which is easily directed by a few simple commands, into a monster that relentlessly consumes your time and patience and always finds new ways to elude you when you most want to corral it.

I often want to ask the authors of construction drawings during those last weeks before the deadline, “Would you like to consider this question now, or would you rather consider it along with a change order request?” That sometimes puts into perspective the really critical issue of communication that is at the heart of successful construction. How often do design professionals, including specifiers, consider that their nearly completed documents (never mind the design intent at this point) are about to be critically disassembled and interpreted by hundreds, if not thousands of people whose primary concern is to find everything there is to know about each individual material, and then try to make their house payments and feed their kids based on purchasing and installing what they think you communicated? A little humbling.

Change Orders can get supersized when:

  • Remodel and addition drawings are not clear on which materials are existing and which are new. Kind of like being in the hardware store guessing at what you wrote on your home project list – you’re inevitably going to buy too much or too little.
  • Specifications contain “just in case” materials and clauses, mainly because it was too hard to get answers in a timely fashion. It’s why the airlines charge extra for heavy bags.
  • When the “cut and paste” method gets out of control. Master Yoda would say something like “If end your CD’s now you decide – and choose you the quick and easy path as Vader did – an agent of evil will you become.”
  • Large assumptions are made without investigation of new products or combinations of materials. One of my favorite Star Trek interchanges went like this:

Scotty: Due respect, sir, but photon torpedoes run on fuel. Now I cannot detect the type of fuel that’s in the compartments on these torpedoes, because it’s shielded. Now I asked for the specifications, but he said…[he points to the torpedo security guard behind him]

Torpedo Security: It’s classified

Scotty: It’s classified. So I said, “No specs, no signature!”

    It was all I could do to not shout an emphatic “YES!” in a crowded theater.

  • When drawing and specification terminology are not coordinated. It still happens. Or when important requirements are vague like the use of the infamous …as required clause. From a larger script allegedly found near the Tower of Babel decrying the lack of progress, we hear:

“O Great and Merciful King, the Makers of Engines give us scrolls of materials for to purchase. But, verily, no man knoweth what the scrolls signify, save the Makers of Engines themselves. For they call not a spade a spade, but call it here a delver and there a digger and another place an entrenching tool and yet another a geovolvometer, so that the scroll of material agreeth not with the design papyrus. And strange to behold is their numerology.”

So I, Abibarshim, gave certain orders to try to keep the Makers of Engines from creating their own language, saying, “How did it come to pass that those who have such swiftness of mind, even as the gazelle, lack the sense of geese?”*

  • Important information is hidden in the CD’s as well or better than in a game of Where’s Waldo? Oh sure, it’s there alright. We’re drilled to answer that the plans and details, specs and drawings, etc. are complementary, so that what is required by one is required by all. But who really likes a 2-day search not only to find Waldo’s smirking face, but also those of all his relatives and friends also hiding in the CD’s, each one with a clue to the full bidding information.
  • Use of the bait and switch tactic in the bid documents. You know how annoying it is when you walk into a salesroom (the drawings) looking for a specific item you evaluated online or in the media (the specifications) and get sidetracked so that you almost forget why you came? And maybe you even found out that the original item you were looking for doesn’t work for the application and you end up doing a lot of extra work to resolve a problem you didn’t create?

Would you like that Change Order with fries? Or would you like it supersized? Either question may make you lose your appetite when you have to explain it to an Owner. Me? I’m trying to go on a diet, man.

David A. Bishton, RA, CSI, CCS, CCCA

*Beware the Wrath of Abibarshim, Paul Pendragon, Translator

How Does Spec Writing Work? Chapter 6: What’s With All These Questions, I Need Answers! (or is it the other way around?)

What’s With All These Questions? I Need Answers! (or is it the other way around?)

David A. Bishton, RA, CSI, CCS, CCCA

The life of a specifier, technical consultant, and manufacturer’s representative is consumed with the need to ask and answer many questions. Most of the time we enjoy being challenged to figure out something new or to work with the exception to the rule instead of the norm. As long as we have enough time to fully understand the issues and get our questions answered. Yes, I can hear you laughing. It’s a rare specification completed or call made to a manufacturer rep that wasn’t at the last desperate hour (or minute). Every manufacturer’s rep and specifier already knows the answer when they ask, “When did you need that information?” Altogether now…YESTERDAY.

If there was an accurate way to track it, manufacturer’s reps and specifiers could have a monthly award contest based on who gets asked and solves the most problems during the week before the bid documents are to be turned in on Friday. Winner gets to help write the first addendum. Maybe that’s not a good incentive. Everyone knows they are supposed to be done on Friday, but everyone also knows that no one will look at them until Monday so everyone may as well keep working all weekend. Especially when the answers you get on Friday change a whole lot of things you worked on the rest of the week.

So what are some good questions that I’ve considered lately?

  • After wrestling with the disruption factor in an existing building for tile removal and floor prep that is just for aesthetics, the tile expert asks “Do you really need to remove it? There is a TCNA spec for tile-over-tile that you could consider.” 
  • “Yes, the coating product you’re looking at for this application is top of the line and it will stand up for at least 20 years. Do you have the budget for a per gallon cost of $250-300 and coverage of 80 S.F. per gallon?”
  • “Have you considered whether the continuous insulation behind the veneer may create a second vapor barrier in the wall that could trap moisture?”

These are questions that expanded my view of a more limited issue I thought I was trying to solve. It’s what every good specifier and manufacturer’s rep should do. Good questions can be worth far more than the fastest answer. But they do take time.

Examples of questions/answers that no one wants to hear (that I’ve heard)?

  • Question: “I’m sure the answer to your question is in the specification – did you look for it?” Answer: “No, I was hoping you’d just remember it.”
  • “I won’t have details completed until right before the deadline but I need the final specification finished at the same time. Here, I’ve got these canned specs from a similar project a few years ago. Can you just edit those?”
  • “Here are the floor plans showing all the doors but I haven’t completed the door schedule. Do you need that to write the hardware spec?”
  • Question: “Can I visit the project to give you a recommendation on the (you name it) problem?” Answer: “No.” Question: “Can you send me some pictures?” Answer: “No. I just need a fix to get the contractor off my back.”

The common thread? Lack of (or delay in) critical thinking about complexity. Kind of like when your kid says, “My science fair project is due tomorrow. Can you help me build a working scale model of the solar system tonight?” Or you and your significant other agree, “The kitchen remodel can’t start until after Thanksgiving but we can still finish in time for Christmas, right?”

I have an idea! We used to have this project phase called Design Development (definition: critical thinking about complexity). Maybe we could get a whole lot more questions answered during that phase and maybe have time to coordinate them throughout the project. I don’t know, I was just thinking… 

How Does Spec Writing Work? Chapter 5: “…As Required” by Whom?


David Bishton, RA, CSI, CCS, CCCA

The ranks of the great overused and often misapplied phrases in architectural and engineering drawings/specifications include gems such as:

  • Per Manufacturer’s Recommendations
  • See Specs (See Drawings)
  • See Structural (See Mechanical, See Electrical, See Architectural, see almost anything else except if it’s incorrect or missing or not coordinated – then see here)
  • Field Verify
  • Or Equal
  • Comply with Geotechnical Report
  • Every material and procedure expressed passively using the phrase “shall be…” See the response you get when you tell your kids, “This room shall be cleaned to a professional level.” Or better yet in Yoda-speak, “Cleaned to a professional level this room shall be.” Less doubt when you say, “Clean this room and I’m going to inspect it in one hour!”

To this list we must add the ubiquitous and often redundant phrase “…as required.” A further aside on instructions to kids: “Clean this room as required“ may lead to somewhat unsatisfactory results.

Many times I have reflected on the possibility, after wrestling through a problem in the field, that one extra phrase or even a word added to a drawing note or specification might have prevented the problem from occurring. The phrase “as required” has never been associated with such reflection. Musing in my previous chapter, I wondered if a slightly longer version such as “…AS REQUIRED BY ANY SANE PERSON WITH HALF A BRAIN THAT OBSERVES THIS CONDITION” would be more helpful. Recently I began to wonder which other technical/scientific fields or even everyday endeavors regularly use this term with success when providing instructions.

What if this term was used regularly in cookbooks? You’d list all the ingredients like 2 oz. vodka, 1 oz. melon liqueur, pineapple juice to taste…wait a minute, that’s the recipe for a Pearl Harbor. What else do you need after you have the ingredients – ice and a glass? Let’s try something more complicated. Say it’s an extra special dinner to impress your family at a holiday. Something liked the filling needed for a Stuffed Boar’s Head. You have your 2 lbs. cooked ground pork sausage, 7 cups boiled long grain rice, 5 tbsp. melted butter, 2 cups chopped onion, 1 lb. coarsely chopped walnuts, and on and on. After all that work the last thing you want to see is “Boil boar’s head in a large stockpot, scoop out head meat, stuff and bake as required.” Or even less “Prepare and cook per manufacturer’s instructions.” And yes, the full recipe actually exists in Joy of Cooking. I’ve never tried it.

OK, that was extreme. Let’s move on to open heart surgery. One of the last instructions in the textbook is to “Attach all disconnected plumbing lines to each chamber of the heart as required.” Perhaps with a closing instruction to “Field verify life of patient and provide a test and balance report.”

I know, rocket science: “13, we have one more item for you when you get a chance. We’d like you to stir up your cryo tanks as required.” OK, the last 2 words were not in there but were certainly implied. Soon to be followed by “OK Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” Or imagine a short specification to “Visually inspect O-rings on external fuel tank as required prior to launch.” Do you think that spec eventually got expanded a bit? Perhaps you’re a weapons manufacturer following the specification, “Connect fissile material to primary detonator as required to ensure full thermonuclear explosion.”

Finally an example in the spirit of election year politics and effective congressional bill writing. After 97 pages of whereas, wherefore, be it enacted, and the honorable representative from the great state of…you get to the heart of the legislation. 569 more pages of specific provisions, enforcements, penalties, oversight, and reporting. And finally the catch-all “Comply with the Constitution of the United States of America as required.” Only 666 pages.

So maybe the instruction, “Install surface mounted accessories using expansion anchors as required for gypsum drywall or masonry substrates” does not need more detailed explanation for your toilet tissue dispensers. But most times that you want to use just these 2 words with no other modifier or condition, you might at least consider:

  • How important is the topic to which you are liberally applying this phrase? Is it one that carries high risk of failure or liability exposure?
  • Have you ever seen or read about a ridiculously wrong work result with this product or its installation?
  • Do you absolutely trust that anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of craft can understand what “as required” might mean for a particular topic?
  • Is your “as required” statement a specific instruction, or does it leave on the table a lot of unknown options? Some of which you might really care about if the wrong option is picked by the installer.
  • Are you prepared to answer the question, “As required by what? It works fine!”

I believe it’s now time to “combine all ingredients with ice, stir or shake as required, and enjoy.”

How Does Spec Writing Work? Chapter 4: Whose Intent Is This Anyway?


David Bishton, RA, CSI, CCS, CCCA

Every design has an intent, right? It might represent the intent of the client, the architect, engineer, acoustic consultant, landscape architect, whoever. Every drawing and specification is meant to convey that intent, whatever it may be. But how the heck does a contractor or supplier or installer of materials know what the intent is when they are bidding or building a project, unless it is carefully explained?

Has anyone tried to quantify this elusive “design intent” in a clear, overt manner? Or does the intent only come up when a design professional comes out to the project under construction and exclaim forcefully to someone, “That 4-inch wide caulk joint is clearly not the design intent of the drawing note ‘SEALANT AS REQUIRED’.”  Or when an RFI is generated or change order requested that get a reply something to the effect of, “The intent of the drawings and specifications is clearly that this question (claim) sucks.”

Design Intent can be as simple as this: THE OWNER’S/ARCHITECT’S/ENGINEER’S/CONSULTANT’S INTENT FOR THIS DESIGN IS THAT IT BE EXECUTED TO PERFECTION. PERFECTION IS DEFINED AS THAT WHICH THE OWNER/ARCHITECT/ENGINEER/CONSULTANT DESIRES. PERIOD. (Editor’s note: Spelling out the word “period” adds emphasis to any statement, and is meant to conclude all further discussion. Try it sometime.)   

Something about that note “…AS REQUIRED.” Is there another drawing note with the potential to cause more argument in the field that that one? (Editor’s Note: SEE STRUCTURAL or FIELD VERIFY might be right behind) Wouldn’t a modifier for this note like “…AS REQUIRED BY ANY SANE PERSON WITH HALF A BRAIN THAT OBSERVES THIS CONDITION” be much more helpful? Or “AS REQUIRED BY THE ARCHITECT, IF YOU CAN’T FIGURE IT OUT BY YOURSELF IN PERFECT ALIGNMENT WITH THE ARCHITECT’S OPINION.” Not that this phrase “AS REQUIRED” has no use in a drawing or specification – it’s just that everyone might benefit with a little more specificity.

Specifiers want and need to know the designer’s intent for why material decisions have been made or why certain manufacturer’s products are preferred before plunging into a morass of compatibility research, equivalent manufacturers, and technical analysis for a given product or assembly of materials. The last thing they want to hear after the fact is “That’s not going to work. The intent is that…” I notice that MasterFormat does not have a section titled 00 00 00 DESIGN INTENT – which would have the obvious intent of “Before you read one single thing in this Project Manual, read this.” Nor does SectionFormat contain a PART 0 DESIGN INTENT. So where are you going to explain this important aspect of the project or product that everyone wants to understand? (Editor’s Note: It’s also possible that no one other than the designer wants to know this, but everyone sure get annoyed when “Design Intent” is thrown at them when   they least expect it, and as it they should have always known it)

It’s also possible that Design Intent may be one of the hardest things on a project to quantify in a way that everyone understands before they start. It may be best summed up by the phrase, “I’ll know it when I see it.” Or that line you have to sometimes use with your kids, “You know that‘s not what I meant!” And they look innocently at you, “but you said…” Working with Design Intent is the polar opposite of “If I can’t find it on them plans or speks, I ain’t doin’ it!” Maybe designers need to think a little harder about the things they write on their “plans and speks” and ask themselves, “Is this exactly 100% of what I want, or does it mainly express my design intent and I’m willing to talk about alternatives or even better ideas?” Maybe contractors and subcontractors need to ask a few more good questions (there are always a lot of good questions that should, and don’t, get asked) before they throw a number or a crew at a given work result.

I know – it’s the GENERAL NOTES! More on those later…

How Does Spec Writing Work? Chapter 3: Integrate This!

Everyone is talking these days about this great new construction innovation called Integrated Project Delivery. This is where the entire construction team can work together in joyous and profitable harmony from the onset to completion of the project, then join in a day-long celebration of the success with great libation, music, and festivity, finally riding off together into the sunset whistling “Happy Trails…” That last part about the sunset I made up, I’m sure you noticed. 

So IPD can be that good, huh? According to the AGC of America “Integrated Project Delivery is the highest form of collaboration because all three parties (Owner, Architect, and Constructor) are aligned by a single contract.” Most impressive. Side note to all 3 parties – the engineers, who are not mentioned in the above, are laughing offstage because they are the ones who will probably get the best deal in the end. And, of course, one of the main topics of any presentation of this methodology deals with risk and insurance. The kinds of things we all like taking time to contemplate in the midst of our 50,000+ project decisions and ever-changing deadlines, right?

Maybe it can be that good. But, you know, just a few more times in my professional career, I’d like to experience some really successful integrated project delivery among the traditional parties to an architect-engineer-consultant arrangement. You know, this kind of stuff:

  • Timely and meaningful communication – vs. – “I haven’t heard anything from the MEP in at least a month, have you?” and “What do you mean you’re just getting started? The deadline is next week!”
  • Regular project coordination conference calls or meetings – vs. – 750 e-mails each dealing with a single topic such as “Where do you want the hose bibs?” and “FYI, I’m changing the directions of all the floor joists.” And the famous, “I thought you were working on that.”
  • Everyone working on the same base plan or model at the same time – vs. – “We changed all the room numbers 3 weeks ago – why are you using old base plans?” or “So can your ductwork be structural, since it cuts right through the roof beams at every unit?” My personal favorite,”Can you send that background again?” (making it at least 8 times you’ve sent it).
  • Joint discussion of important project data like geotechnical reports and existing site/building conditions – vs. – “I’m just about done with the structural drawings – has the Owner gotten a geotech yet?” and “Have you noticed that large radius arc that cuts through your building? That’s the radius for the gas well on the property across the street.” This happens after you’ve gotten the Owner buyoff on the plan and the landscape architect is 50% complete. Another personal favorite, “Do I need to go out and check the existing conditions or can I just depend on the old drawings?”
  • Meaningful use of backgrounds provided by members of the design team – vs. – wholesale dumping of data into the drawing file. “What is all this crap? I can’t even read the architectural site plan.” The common answer? “I don’t know, it was on the survey.” or “Oh yeah, I forgot to turn that off.” And the best one, “It looked fine on the screen.”
  • Finally the poor specifier. Honest assessment of completeness of the drawings before handing them to someone who will look at them with deadly seriousness and make significant time commitments to good specifications based on the decisions illustrated – vs. – “Oh, we changed all those details – didn’t I tell you?” and (as the project deadline nears) “Here are the Owner’s spec requirements. We haven’t read them yet, but let us know if you see any problems.”

Yes, we can strive for excellent integrated project delivery long before we experiment with more exotic contract formats. Most of us know the principles (also known as the forest), but the avalanche of information, ever-changing project circumstances, and overlapping project deadlines (trees) keep sucking our time and energy. Project managers, do you ever feel like guy at the beginning of the Mission Impossible movies? “Your mission, should you decide to accept it…” (in reality, you may have no real choice). And then there’s the part about how the secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions if you are caught or killed. In spite of that, Ethan…

Let’s go out and kick some butt on the next mission!


How Does Spec Writing Work? Chapter 2: Magic Shortcuts


David A. Bishton, RA, CSI, CCS, CCCA

Many architects believe in keeping words to a minimum when writing specifications, mainly because they so fervently detest the whole process. If a spec can’t be composed quickly with CAD software, it just doesn’t have the same relevance for how to spend project time. How does a project manager have time to write a project specification when there are always so many aspects of the design to revisit and details to change?

Seriously, there are an infinite amount of things to check about the design of any project, whether the project cost is in the thousands or a gazillion dollars ($1 with a gazillion zeroes, to be precise). Design is never a “once and done” prospect, and usually the more input you get from consultants and other members of the project team, the more you need to tweak the design to make it work better. I have heard many times from architects, however, that specifications and project manuals are “just not my thing” or “I don’t know, but that will be covered in the specs.” When asked “Have you read the specs?” the answer is often “Not yet, but I will” (this usually occurs when the project is already 25% completed and at least 15 RFI’s have been received). So it is small wonder that many architects postpone seriously thinking about specifications until every other possible project topic is contemplated. Engineers, however, have no worries. Their vast unchanging spec boilerplate can be assembled just as easily after SD’s as after CD’s.

Bad idea, Indy. Spec writers are like the kid in Indiana Jones: The Temple of Doom who often had to comment on the “just wing it” approach of the protagonist. Usually just as they were going down a road into great peril or about to plunge into a bottomless pit. And while we’re talking about movies, just who wrote the specs for the Emperor’s Death Star in Star Wars? Did they get a new door schedule at the last minute with 10,000 doors, each with varying kinds of security hardware? And who had to talk to Darth Vader when the Division 01 change order procedures were not followed by the contractor or enforced by the design professional? (ack…ack…) But I digress…

 When I am given the task of writing specifications at the last minute, I still throw caution to the winds and just start asking a ton of questions about the drawings. For example:

  • Do you have the Owner’s General Conditions or insurance requirements
  • Do you have cut sheets on any of the products on the drawings or in the schedules?
  • Are you going to detail any of these intersections of multiple materials and trades? Will you be satisfied with the imagination and the “I was here first” approach of the subcontractors?
  • Have you talked to the Owner about putting a membrane roof on the addition when the rest of the existing building is built-up roofing?
  • Have you talked to the fire marshal about how the existing fire department connection will be inaccessible during construction of the addition?
  • Are you just pulling my leg about 90% completion?
  • Are you serious about this deadline?

Usually the answers to all such questions are a resounding NO, except for the last one, which is an emphatic YES!!!!!!

 So what’s a specifier or project manager to do to speed things up? Shortcuts, that’s what.

 What are magic specifier shortcuts? Ever seen any of these?

  •  Part 1 – General. See Drawings for… “See Drawings” can be the specifier’s version of the drawing instruction to “See Specs.” Both phrases omit the second part of the instruction: “I hope.” It is already understood that, of course, everyone should see the drawings when they are reading a spec. They are part of the contract. Indiscriminate use of this phrase often reveals that the drawings really aren’t very clear or coordinated with the spec for a given work result.
  • Words you hate to hear: “We couldn’t find that material/product listed anywhere on the drawings, so we just didn’t provide it.” You put every possible gypsum board finish type in the spec – wasn’t it obvious on the Drawings where they were required. Or how much of the specified grass seed and sod are required for the areas simply labeled “lawn” on the plans. And where exactly are the gold plated plumbing fixtures? (there’s that dang cut and paste thing again)
  • Part 2 – Products. Just pick ‘em and move on. It’s too much work to compare all the features listed in the spec master with the generic products/manufacturers selected. Just pick something under each category with an ASTM number after it, and they’ll figure it out in the submittal, right? Or delete all the subcategories, and just go with a single product I.D. and a list of manufacturers.
  • Ever get into an argument that starts with “We don’t make it with that feature, but we based our bid on the fact that you approved our product”?  Usually this is followed by the friendly offer, “We can price a change order for that.” which is pure music to an owner’s ear (something akin to the soothing melodies of Megadeth).
  • Part 3 – Execution. Install per manufacturer’s recommendations. First of all, what the heck does “per” mean? Every architect knows it, so it must be taught in school. Is it like “my RV gets 6 miles per gallon” or is it something else? The origin is Latin (Mrs. Lange, my HS Latin teacher, would be proud), meaning “through,” “by,” or “according to” – with its common use going back at least to the 14th century. Perhaps it was a newspaper headline “1/3 of Known World Perishes per Black Death.” Or not. 

When someone uses the words “per manufacturer’s recommendations”, the unwritten following words are usually “whatever the h*** they are.” Architects think that this is a safe way to pretend they know exactly how to do anything and just don’t want to repeat the obvious. They also know they are enforceable if you have to get into it. And no doubt they will, when the recommendations have options or are anything less than absolute for every possible condition.   

Point is, every spec shortcut comes with a potential consequence or cost. The word ASSume comes to mind when the specification is required in days (hours) after the drawings are produced in months. If only specifications were as simple as “Provide products, workmanship, guarantees, and complete satisfaction as per architect’s (engineer’s) design intent.” That topic will have to wait for ano

How Does Spec Writing Work? Chapter 1: Lightning Quick Documents


David A. Bishton, RA, CSI, CCS, CCCA

We have the technology, we have the financial incentive, we have the basic instinct of “why should I put any more thought into this than absolutely necessary?” What does that all mean? It means “copy and paste” is the preferred manner of not only writing specifications, but also assembling construction drawings, writing contracts – heck, even constructing buildings when we can manage it.

Come to think of it, wouldn’t that streamline the hated submittal process significantly? We wouldn’t have to understand the technical product and assembly details at all – we would only to have make sure the right thing got copied before it got pasted into the building. It would be hard to explain to an Owner with a budget why the lobby stairs had the same gold plated railings as the Saudi prince for whom you last designed this same stair. Or how there ended up being a giant overhead door on the front of the building simply because your copy command accidently included one too many door types from the last airplane hangar you designed.

It just wouldn’t fit, would it? It was so easy to hit those keys for “copy” and “paste”, but it ended up being just plain (plane) wrong. If you were lucky, you got an RFI about it before it was installed. Yet I think we all suspect that some unscrupulous subcontractors don’t mind installing obviously wrong products and materials, simply because they know they will eventually also get paid to change it. And at your expense, the copier and paster.

Imagine if the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution had been assembled using the copy and paste command of the local print shop? We might have seen “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting (1st Amemdment) excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments.” (whoops, copied from the 8th Amendment). Or the Ten Commandments hastily completed due to the looming deadline of the hunting season starting for the stone tablet inscribers: 8. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor’s ox, nor his ass.” (dang, it was so similar to #10). Might make you think twice about using terms like “dumb***” when talking about your latest jobsite visit.  

I learned a copy and paste lesson the hard way some years ago. An overhead door operator works the same way however you install it, right? Wasn’t it great to cut and paste the overhead door details from the last metal building project into this new one? All we had to do was change the extended lift track to a standard lift configuration. Even the spec for the door and wall-mounted jackshaft operators didn’t have to change. Perfect!

Or not. Turns out that side-mounted jackshaft operators, while they are very reliable and heavy duty, need a bit of extended lift to operate reliably, as that downward pressure helps keep the door in proper alignment when the jackshaft operator starts its operation with significant torque on one side of the door. Doors kept getting jammed especially during the closing cycle. A later check revealed that no overhead door manufacturer I could find said anything about this on their website or in the product literature. At any rate, Owners are funny about not wanting their doors stuck in the open position during the winter, or when the service department manager is there alone trying to close up shop. No amount of field fixes solved the problem and eventually the operators had to be replaced.

But wait…there’s more! Turns out the installer had been verbally warning the general contractor all along that these doors would have problems. Didn’t say anything in the submittal process, of course. Even went so far as to write a memo to the GC stating that he would not be responsible for making service calls on stuck doors. The GC was already tired of dealing with this guy because his first submittals were late and poorly prepared, then rejected, then resubmitted at a point when it was going to affect the project schedule. A paraphrase of an imaginary conversation: “Just shut up and get the products on site. The Architect doesn’t need to hear your complaining.”

You can guess the happy sharing we all did in replacing motors on 14 overhead doors.

Spec writers and project architects, be assured that “cut/copy and paste” can work just as well for you when hurrying to get that spec done at the eleventh hour. You too can copy paragraphs, pages, and even whole sections in no time at all, all to the amazement of your co-workers and employer who will proclaim you to be the Master of Specs (apologies to MasterSpec). Your DD drawing set can be impressive in just the same way as you willy-nilly pull schedules, notes, and details from catalogs and previous similar projects, and hurl them onto the waiting sheets. “Aren’t you going to check it?” the question meekly nags at you. “No, that’s for the CD phase,” you calmly answer.

Or not.