The Role of the Spec Writer

Reading recent grumblings by specifications (spec) consultants, I started thinking back over the roles of the spec writers at firms where I have worked since I began my architectural career in the 1960s. Spec writing and related technologies have changed some over those years, but one constant has been the need for effective communication and coordination between the architect and the spec writer. Despite this need, it seems the general trend in the profession has been to divorce the writing of specs from the practice of architecture, taking spec writing out of the hands of principal architects and delegating it to other staff in remote corners of the firm’s office or to separate consultants, and, more recently, to remote software databanks. It takes a concerted effort to facilitate the effective two-way communication and coordination that are needed to compensate for these organizational changes, given the architects’ continuing professional responsibility for specs as integral components of construction documents.

Of course, coordination is less a problem if the architect and the spec writer are the same person, assuming the architect has the time to also write specs. In the small four-person firm where I first worked, the principal architect developed the spec for each project, marking up a spec book from a previous project and then sending it out for typing. Designers and drafters in the office were not involved in this process. The principal architect controlled what went into the specs, also incorporating sections from engineering consultants as applicable. The typing itself would have been tedious work, but that was the way of word processing before we had access to computers and word processing software. The principal architect would then check for typos before the specs “went out the door” with the drawings to be bid by a contractor or contractors.

When I worked for a residential design-build contractor, the specs were very informal and most often were unwritten – the stuff of conversations with clients, material suppliers, carpenters, and subcontractors.

Working as an architectural production employee in a large, 250-person firm, I found that specifications were prepared in a Spec Department. The spec writers had a room full of catalogs and files of information on products customarily specified for the firm’s projects. These spec writers performed functions similar to those performed by the principal in the small firm. They would mark up spec sections selected from previous projects to be retyped by secretarial staff in the office, and they would check the retyped specs for accuracy before they were issued for bidding. One significant difference in the role of the spec writer in the large firm was the physical separation from design activity and design decisions. Where the small firm principal controlled both the design and the specs and had to mentally integrate and coordinate these graphic and written requirements, the spec writers in the large firm had to rely on information shared verbally by the designers and had to interpret what they saw on the drawings. These large firm spec writers were not principals in the firm, and they tended to be regarded as lower level – albeit necessary – staff. They were expected to “get it done” without much time or attention.

The need for completeness and accuracy in written specs tended to be inversely related to the familiarity between the contractor and the architect. The residential designer-builder cited above did not see a need to develop formal, written specs to communicate his intent. In another situation, a contractor who was very familiar with an architect made no fuss about specs for tilt-up concrete walls on a project where the walls were intended to be thin, GFRC panels which had not been specified but had been discussed in meetings and over the phone. Small or large firms developing designs that would be bid by several contractors or by unfamiliar contractors needed to develop complete written specs in order to augment their drawings with technical product information that was generally too wordy to appear on the drawings. Despite the old saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” the architectural drawings commonly needed thousands of words to establish quality standards for competitive bidding and construction of an acceptable quality. The drawings and specs worked together to describe the intended whole, where neither drawings nor specs alone could do that.

When I first began working in a large firm, I was immediately interested in the challenge of coordinating drawings and specifications. I wanted to be sure that the products I was showing on my drawings were consistent (even if only generically) with the products that were specified – and vice versa. I was also interested in pursuing information about available products in order to develop drawings that could result in construction consistent with product manufacturers’ intended applications of their products. I wanted to find and specify products that would fit the design application and tweak the design where necessary to accommodate unavoidable product limitations. At times the challenge was too great, when I developed construction documents for designs where the principal architects or project designers or product manufacturers did not share my interest in this coordination. When we worked on large enough projects (or series of projects) to warrant custom products, we sometimes found manufacturers willing to tailor their products to specific project needs that could not be exactly met by their off-the-shelf offerings. More often, though, inconsistencies between design intent and product manufacturers’ standard requirements or recommendations would arise as matters of concern or contention during construction.

Spec writers rarely hold lofty positions in architectural practice. They are more likely located out of sight from the centers of decision making. In a profession that bestows honors on those with bold design ideas, the practical world of the spec writer enjoys few kudos. To the consuming public, the practice of architecture is primarily a practice of pictures – pictures we imagine and convey in drawings and descriptive words, and the descriptive words that get most attention and credit are those uttered in presentations that convey desirable attributes of a design (e.g., “openness”, “brightness”, or “warmth”; not “threads per inch”, “cross-linked”, or “DIN hardness”). Professional periodicals mostly support this view of the profession as a visual practice with aesthetic value being most important.

One reason for the architect’s preference for pictures over technical words may be found in the studied differences in three personal communication styles – Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic. Architects interested in design may be predominantly Visual, and architectural education, training, and honors (as noted above) tend to support and encourage that communication style. Writers, including spec writers, may be less Visual and more Auditory. Regardless, specs are not typically considered a “picture”, so architects tending to communicate in pictures are likely to be less comfortable writing and reading specs. So, “picture” architects usually do not want to spend time writing specs, and, consequently, they do not develop refined skills in spec writing.

Just as consultants have emerged in other specialties, spec consultants have found a role related to the practice of architecture. Many architecture firms have found it practical to outsource specs to entities that specialize in written specs developed or tailored to complement the architect’s project drawings. Some public building authorities now require that architects engage independent spec consultants on their projects – a policy that probably resulted from perceived problems with project specs prepared by architects’ in-house staff. While some firms may be happy to relieve themselves of responsibility for spec writing, the outsourcing of specs may be more a continuation of the separation (divorce?) of specs from architectural design and may not actually serve the intent of those authorities who seek more complete and better coordinated specs. The challenge is still the same: effective communication between the architect and the spec writer; physical separation can adversely affect that. Design decisions may not be communicated to the remote spec writer in a timely manner, and feedback from the spec writer may be dismissed without consideration. Alternatively, some offices remain places where a raised voice can communicate a design decision literally through the air between work stations, and that informal communication can help with coordination of specs and drawings.

Working in a management role in one firm where we recognized the importance of close coordination between the specs (prepared in-house) and the drawings, I encouraged the project job captains to get involved in the specs to the extent necessary to verify completeness and coordination, especially on projects where public bidding regulations required special attention to scope delineation for different trades. Trade scope delineation can be very fussy, including matters of responsibility for staging and scaffolding, temporary weather protection, furnishing vs. installing, etc. Most spec writers are trained to avoid such scope delineation in specs, but it is necessary where the applicable laws require it, and we were most often working on public projects subject to those laws. Involving the job captains in coordination of the specs and drawings also increased their understanding of the complementary nature of those documents and their interest in making sure that everything needed for the project was covered. Although, as many would exclaim, no construction documents are perfect, this focus on coordination and completeness found good results on the construction site, and changes related to document discrepancies were minimized. It reflected well on the firm’s reputation, and it felt good, despite an early-warning statement by the principal architect that “you will do this because it is the right thing to do, and no one will thank you for it.”

In more recent years, software has been developed (and is still being improved) to electronically link drawings and specs with meaningful information about assemblies and products included (or intended to be included) in building designs. While this comes with a promise of better and easier coordination between specs and drawings, it also brings increasing expectation that the accuracy of the information will be automatic without on-the-job knowledge or scrutiny of the appropriateness or fit of product selections. Since we all have a tendency to prefer “faster and easier” methods to accomplish the same thing, there is an increased risk that discrepancies will go unnoticed and be carried forward through bidding and into construction. Also, the successful application of this linking software depends very much on effective development of the electronic drawings for that purpose; the drawings must be precise enough for the information to be read by the linking software and to be useful in the finished project. (I have not used proprietary software names here, but most architects and spec writers should be able to make the translation.)

It is possible that the latest outsourcing of basic knowledge to remote software databases is yet another step in the separation of practical specs from architectural design. As creators of pictures, the designers may be happy to divest themselves of responsibility for connecting with real materials and products, but the overall effect on building quality may be negative if no one with a professional interest determines how the parts all work together on a given building project. As a profession, we gave up something important when preparation of specs was taken out of the hands of the principal architect, and we have potentially given up more in delegating spec writing to remote databases. We need to make a concerted effort to facilitate effective communication and coordination between architects and spec writers in order to mitigate the downside of those changes. Otherwise, the architectural profession may risk a more damaging loss of credibility as control of product selection and related knowledge of building materials appears to shift away from architects into the hands of software managers, and as product manufacturers may see the software managers as more influential points of entry for their products.

Posted in Construction Documents, Design, Practice Management, Project Administration, Project Management, Specifications
2 comments on “The Role of the Spec Writer
  1. There are great discrepancies between what is required by a license, what is taught in school, what architects know and do, and what the public believes they do.

    With the exception of sole practitioners and architects in small offices, architects no longer are master builders. The profession, in its drive to minimize responsibility, has given away – or had taken from it – most of what architects did a hundred and more years ago. The increasing complexity of buildings contributes to the decline, as it is impossible to know more than a little about all the things that go into a modern building.

    I’m tempted to say it’s amazing that architects have credibility at all, but because, in general, the public believes “the practice of architecture is primarily a practice of pictures” I don’t think the credibility of the profession has changed much at all by changes in the way specifications are prepared.

    The software companies have been promising for decades that one day, when the architect is done designing, the computer will do everything else. In theory that is possible, and we certainly are making progress in that direction, but those who believe current specification software will eliminate the need for a specifier (or information manager, if you prefer) are sadly mistaken.

  2. Al Russell says:

    I think the term “information manager” is quite useful today as we contemplate the future. Architects/specifiers are assemblers and synthesizers of information from many sources. The tools we use (catalogs, pencils, computers, websites, spec software) change over time, but the essential purposes remain quite constant.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>


The content provided on this site and in the Posts is intended to be entertaining, thought-provoking, and educational. It is not intended as direction or recommendations for the design or construction of any specific building project. The information is provided in good faith but without assurance as to its completeness, accuracy, or suitability for any particular purpose. If you are considering using information provided on this site, you are responsible for verifying its appropriateness to your needs, and you assume all risk for its use.