Why are construction specifications so long and wordy?

Why are construction specifications so long and wordy?
specifications in construction

Why are construction specifications are so long and wordy?


If you’ve become accustomed to reading and editing lengthy project specifications in construction, you’re probably a seasoned design professional with years of experience. The length of your specifications usually encompasses years of lessons learned, fixes from job site visits that went wrong, and updates that help to create the office master into a work of art.


Sooner or later you’ll start to see that maintaining all the knowledge, and repetitive editing of the office master has become a burden. We often hear design professionals complain about how long it takes to edit the office masters. More importantly, emerging design professionals question whether a 35-page specification section on paint is really necessary.


The problem lies in our preconceived ideas of what specifications in construction need to be. We’ve questioned why specifications have grown ever so wordy, and agree with emerging design professionals, that something’s got to change.


First, let’s explore some of the reasoning behind the long-form legacy specification we still see in use today.


Legacy specifying continues

In the early days, the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) CSI 3 part specifications had to include things like a list of reference standards, related sections, section includes, storage and handling in Part 1 – General.


But, why would you specify a list of reference standards and titles, when you can easily look up the tiles and requirements on the internet. This was a good idea in the 1970’s, when the information was only available in costly book subscriptions, but the internet has made standards easily accessible.


Related sections are easily located on the table of contents. Storage and handling is specified in Division 01. Section includes, well that in the title of the specification, do we really need to repeat what the scope of work is? These are all things we call legacy or traditional requirements that have been passed on through the years.


Another, legacy requirement that can be consolidated is the listing of sustainability credits within each specification section. Sustainable design requirements can easily be covered in Division 01, so why do we continue to see it specified in each specification? Specifications in construction need to adapt to the change, not continue the tradition.


Why keep all those words?

First is the mistaken belief that specifications must be lengthy and legal-sounding to be enforceable. How many times have you seen the wording “Contractor shall strictly follow the installation instructions, to meet warranty requirements, and following job site conditions.” Did all the words help make it more enforceable? No, in fact, quite the opposite is true. Let’s look at a simple example.

The ultimate roofing warranty would probably look like this; “Roofing: Watertight.” Add anything to this statement and you detract from it. For 20 years? You had it for eternity. Wayne Watson.


This may be influenced by the fear of being sued and the belief that quality specifications require more words. In reality, having shorter, easily understood specifications makes us less likely to be involved in litigation. Why? Because contractors will understand what to estimate, what is expected of them and how to install the product correctly. This will lead to less litigation.


Second is the mistaken belief that having lots of words protects us from a contractor making mistakes. You can read almost any project specification and tell every time the design professional encountered a bad contractor. A new requirement is inserted to protect themselves; I call these statements “gotchas”. There is no way to include enough statements to protect yourself from a bad contractor; they will always find something to make a mess out of.


Third is our desire to be in control of the project. As a result, we specify construction means and methods instead of just including simple, enforceable statements. Don’t tell contractors how to do their job, tell them what your expectations for the final product are. The manufacturer already knows what “gotchas” to insert into their installation instructions.


A new way of thinking

It is way past time for a shift in our thinking. Anyone that’s written specifications, has thought long and hard about how to make the process more efficient. For my office, that thinking turned into the SimpleSpecs™ Master Guide Specifications System.


With SimpleSpecs™ we’ve followed the CSI’s – 4 C’s (clear, concise, complete and correct) approach into CSI 3 part specification sections covering everything that affects the cost and overall quality, and nothing more. For most products we simply defined product parameters; installations are covered by referencing the product manufacturer’s installation instructions, by referencing an industry standard or are covered by the applicable building code.


In a developed market like the United States and Canada, nearly all construction product manufacturers have a vested interest in making sure their materials are correctly installed. Installation instructions, checklists, entire installation manuals, videos, and certified installer programs are common. There is no need to become overly wordy on installation requirements. Don’t worry, you’ll get plenty of information during submittals.


In SimpleSpecs™ a copy of manufacturer instructions is required to be onsite during construction, and utilize certified installer programs when available.


Reference standards are also used to shorten the specifications, both for products and for installation when available.


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Specifying products

As design professionals, we spend a great deal of time specifying a particular product. Specifying each and every requirement to make sure that product is used. All that time is lost with the submission of a substitution request by the Contractor.


When a particular product is specified in way too much detail, it also makes it more challenging to change from project to project.


In SimpleSpecs™ we’ve specified products by listings “approved manufacturers.” If the Owner wants a specific manufacturer, modify the list of manufacturers. If your team wants a different manufacturer on the next project, just modify the list of manufacturers. This allows you to focus on the product or assembly requirements, not excessive details about one particular product.


For assemblies or products that are very particular, SimpleSpecs™ includes manufacturer-specific sections to save you time.


What about BIM?

SimpleSpecs™ are designed with an eye towards the future. Incorporating simple, short specifications into a BIM model will be easy; trying to use a traditional 35-page CSI 3 part specification section on painting will not be.


Use SimpleSpecs™ master specifications on a few projects, and I guarantee that not only will you spend far less time writing the specifications, you will also have fewer issues to resolve in the field. – Craig K. Haney, FCSI 


Pricing starts at $345 and specifications are available for editing in our cloud service.