Laying Groundwork for Successful Specs

I wholeheartedly believe that no student will graduate from college knowing everything they need to know for their first job. This certainly holds for specifications in the construction industry, where so much learning happens on the job. We might get a light introduction to MasterFormat in colleges of Engineering, Architecture, and Construction. We get a deeper dive when we walk into our first job, and even deeper when we have to use specifications for the first time! But we don’t really learn how to write specifications or how to put together a project manual until, well, we have to!

Whether you only have to do it once or are thinking about making spec writing your career, I want to share a few tips for giving yourself and your specs the best chance for success.

Format and Organization: This goes beyond knowing what specifications are and what they are used for. It is imperative to understand how specifications are organized both within a project manual and within a specification Section, using MasterFormat and SectionFormat. You should know what an outline spec looks like and when to use them, the different phases of construction, and which words need to be capitalized and why. These are basic specification concepts.

Even deeper is understanding administrative processes such as warranties, substitutions, project closeout, contracts, and so on. If you are coming from an architecture or construction type background, you will have been introduced to some of this education already. If not or even if you have and need a refresh, Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) covers the basic mechanics well in their CDT certification. I would also invite you to check out my free video on Industry Standards at If you’re looking for more detailed information, I have paid videos on Material Classification and Section Organization.

Contract Documents: Contract Documents include both drawings and specifications. Specifiers need to know who is responsible for which portion of the documents, and make sure that all materials on the drawings are covered within the specification.

Some projects might have 5,10, or more consultants on the project. Each discipline is typically responsible for providing a specification for their respective work, but this is not always the case. In these rare instances, this can leave missing pieces in the documents. The structural engineer is notorious for asking the architect for Sections to modify, and the acoustic consultant or building enclosure consultant may have eliminated specs from their contract which lands those specs onto you as the specifier also. Knowing up front who is writing what will help you as the specifier budget your time accordingly.

Knowing how to read drawings is essential to allow you to identify materials and understand how they are used in the project, generate the table of contents, and communicate with the architect. Specifiers are often asked to resolve disputes or answer questions about the project, and to help people make the right decision. We need to know how to interpret the information from every angle.

Technology: The improvement of specifying software over the last 10-15 years has saved spec writers huge amounts of time. It is well worth your time investing in a software system that can efficiently take care of the minor details that can be incredibly time-consuming, such as the tedious task of changing the headers and footers of every section. In many ways, today’s software systems have the ability to not only expedite your work but also improve the quality of your product. I would highly encourage you to have your company invest in a software system if they haven’t already.

Network Network Network: Product representatives and manufacturers are your best friends. I know from experience: they make you look smart! Even if you aren’t using their product right now, you might later. Your client may be looking for a material for a specific task or to achieve an aesthetic and “that” might be their solution. As specifiers, we keep our eyes and ears open to new products and have a handy list at our avail to help. Remember many product representatives carry 4 or 5 different lines of product, sometimes in the same vein of material. If their contract with a manufacturer runs out they may switch to a competitor line. What an incredible resource this is for us! They have knowledge of their product, their competitor’s product, and know if their product will work in our situation. Keep the lines open when a product representative or manufacturer calls.

Materials: Specifications describe materials in detail, giving the contractor the information needed to order and install products and assemblies. It is pretty difficult to describe a material when you don’t know what it is! Get familiar with the inherent characteristics of materials, their use, and their interaction with other materials. The research can be engaging and you will become more valuable to your client.

You won’t be alone: In addition to the Internet and the huge world of knowledge for a product rep, you are surrounded by people willing to help. From the time I started writing specifications, there was always someone to turn to when I had a question.  I have been in online forums where someone has asked for a material specification, and within a short period of time, received several versions of it. This is the atmosphere that has truly been great in this profession. We are open to sharing our knowledge and want to help others grow and be successful.

Humility: My final tip is that you really need to understand that you don’t, won’t, and simply can’t know everything about construction. After 30 years, I still walk out of the office at the end of the day having learned at least one thing. New materials and assemblies are introduced all the time and the science around building enclosure performance is constantly being improved. There is no way you will ever be able to prepare for every question that comes up on a project, which is what makes it fun!