How can i learn specifications writing?


I am still a student but I wish to learn how to write specifications in order to make myself more employable. I understand that a specifications author should be well versed in construction. However, is this something one can learn from a book/guide or is it only possible to learn by working in practice?

Dec 25, 16 3:34 pm
wurdan freo

Memorize a spec book.

Dec 25, 16 4:11 pm
Find your local CSI chapter and get involved. Keep in mind there are a lot of places that don't have a dedicated spec writer, and usually Project Architects write the spec based on a master. On the flip side, there's a market for spec writers. A lot of it does come with just being in an office and going through design, CDs, and CA.
Dec 25, 16 5:26 pm

Unfortunately, there probably isn't much you can do in school to learn how to write specs, at least not that any employer will trust you with. However, you can do some things that will get you started so you can pick up on it faster when you get out into the profession.

Start by understanding project delivery methods better. The best way I can advocate for doing this is to study for and pass the Construction Documents Technologist (CDT) exam CSI offers (do this while taking a pro practice course and you should see some tie-in with the content). This will help make you better with anything construction documents, not just specifications. This is something that employers should see immediate value in, and should be able to trust that value more than just someone saying they took a class on spec writing. Also, the majority of the content you cover with the CDT will be tested again on the ARE, so you'll just be giving yourself a head start on that. 

Aside from that, Josh makes a good suggestion to get involved with CSI. Many CSI events are either free or discounted for student members.

Once you get a job, make sure you ask for opportunities to work on specs and get involved in CA (review submittals, prepare change orders, prepare addenda, review substitution requests, etc.).

Dec 27, 16 12:46 pm
x intern
Before you can do specs you have to know how things are built. Focus on this not specs. Most of the time it's just hunting them down from past projects and the internet or using a spec program. I can't say I've ever written a spec or seen someone else write one from scratch.
Jan 3, 17 2:35 pm

Working for or as a product rep also a way to get experience.


Our office has a base spec that has been a work in progress. We go off that and then modify the base spec as we see fit when we run into issues.


@x intern you are suggesting that good understanding of building construction is a prerequisite for spec writing?

Generally, is it a good idea for a young architect in an office to work on specifications writing or is it going to get me pigeonholed and decrease my chances of getting experience with other work? Is spec writing a skill that could guarantee job security (especially during a recession)?

Jan 3, 17 4:15 pm

Pigeon holed? Yes.   job security? only if you are good at it.


^ exactly


I had to write a spec from scratch once but cannot for the life of me remember what it was for. Most specs are recycled though. Or at least from a template. I've had product reps write specs for me too, I just tell them what I want and play dumb and ask sweetly.

Jan 3, 17 5:26 pm

Very true. Manufacturers would love to give you their spec. Or, you could also go to my site - - where we have over 900 manufacturer's specs. They are written by the best. Daer, I am sure you are already doing well at a firm. If not, let me know ( and I can hook you up with our spec writers. Good luck.

Non Sequitur
Real spec writing is done by senior tech staff. Most of them will have decades of experience and can pull specs from all sorts of past projects in the time it would take an intern to open up their email.

Best to learn how things are put together first before thinking you can navigate spec writing.
Jan 3, 17 6:04 pm

Everyone has great suggestions so far.  

Basically, you need to understand various building systems and have that knowledge base of what works with what.  That comes from experience, and often from failures.  Once you get to that sort of level, specs are a lot easier.  Someone also needs to tell you the difference between a performance spec and hard spec.  Hard spec is really easy since it's built around specific products and the manufacturer's have those.

Something not mentioned yet and I've got no idea if the masterspec software still has it, but the old paper binder masterspec had 'the green sheets'.  Those were really good about explaining the options and pro's con's of the choices and what everything meant in each section.

Jan 3, 17 6:12 pm
null pointer

specs are the sort of bitchwork that people avoid but that you can specialize in and make a bunch of money off of. A $5k spec book for a small project isn't unheard of, and most good spec people (the ones with big template libraries) can pull it together in a day or two of actual work if you aren't doing anything insane.

Jan 3, 17 6:14 pm

Specs are super important in making the built product actually look like your pretty, pretty drawings and renderings.

It is a scandal that meaningful coursework in spec writing is nowhere to be found in American architecture schools.

Jan 5, 17 12:25 pm

I have been teaching graduate students in Architecture for 18 years as a volunteer to the alumni association.  It is an elective class, not a requirement. The closest thing to that curriculum is the required "Practices" class.  My students walk in without a clue about what a set of Contract Documents are, how delivery systems change the approach to writing specifications, or know what the "Standard of Practice" is.  A one credit hour class is all that stands between these young aspiring Architects and a lawsuit.  Now I don't think Null Pointer is correct about the two day project manual.  There are far too many variables to consider based on project delivery and the agreements that have been or will be executed.  Specifications are not the stuff that the designer picks out, they require integration and thoughtful and deliberate articulation of each sections 3 parts. Well written specifications with a disciplined approach to notes on drawings will make a project easier to bid, and easier to administrate.  It manages expectations and dictates performance at both the point of manufacture and the point of installation.  I have been working on the Academic Programs Committee for the CSI to try to encourage accredited Universities to offer classes to (at a minimum) graduate students.  This is an uphill battle due to a long standing adversarial relationship between CSI and AIA.  

May 16, 18 1:44 pm

This thing about animosity between CSI and AIA is something I've seen mentioned a number of times - always by CSI members, particularly on CSI's online "community" boards - but I haven't seen it in action. I'm perplexed because my local AIA and CSI chapters host joint events and such, so all I'm seeing is cooperation. I've never heard anyone on my local AIA board or other AIA members say anything at all critical of CSI or "anti-CSI". Most architects routinely refer to CSI guides and documents, and while there are certainly aspects of those that aren't perfect, overall I'm under the impression that most of us think CSI is a great resource. What is AIA doing specifically that is somehow preventing spec education?


Really I don't quite understand the inferiority complex that CSI seems to have, or the historical basis for their thought that Architectural Schools wont support a CSI education. My efforts to try to promulgate that CSI should use part of their endowment for Academic Programs to support accredited Architecture Colleges, just seems to bounce off the wall. Personally I haven't had any negative experiences and I am members of both organizations.


First off, CSI is just the name of the organization. CSI has multiple specifications formats. I'm sure you are familiar with Masterformat. There is also Uniformat and others. CSI involves a lot of different specifications formats and is just a name of the organization.


I'm not sure if you were directing that to me, or to jpilus, Rick, but both of us are well aware of this. I was responding specifically to his statement that getting better spec education into architecture schools faces difficulties in part due to CSI / AIA animosity. In that context he's talking about the organizations, not spec formats, and I was just wondering about what he's experienced relative to that statement. Both of us write specs and participate on various spec-related forums.  CSI is an active professional organization, with a structure similar to AIA in governance, specialty sub-committees, local chapters, etc.  In my location it sometimes joins with the local AIA chapter to organize events, continuing education content, and in advocacy issues.


Okay. Fair point. I agree. I agree with you guys that better education on spec writing would help prepare people for the profession. After all, the degree is suppose to be a so-called "professional degree".


Try and grab a spec set.  Ask your professors for one.  Then find ASTMs that are called out in the spec set.  Start reading the ASTMs.  Try and find ASTMs versions throughout the years and notice where things change, like minimum gage for flashings, etc.  None of this will prepare you to actually write a spec, like everyone else is saying, it'll be years before that's part of your MO.  However, if you're interested in how we require the contractor to build to specific minimum standards and how things are built, like I was, then maybe you can shorten that "decades" comment down to something more reasonable.  My first spec (which was mostly recycled and did get reviewed completely by our resident spec guy in-house) was after 4 years of experience and on a core and shell office space I was doing.  It was a very very simple building and nearly all products/assemblies were used on multiple projects in-house.  Still, there were many spec sections that had been recycled multiple times that were missing or provided wrong information due to the continued evolution of the trades.  

May 16, 18 2:13 pm

An old Project Manual is probably not going to help with anything, with all due respect to Joseffischer.   The CSI Construction Specifications Practice Guide might be too advanced if you have not already worked through the Project Delivery Practices Guide, but it depends on what you already know. Reference Standards are very important but there are thousands of them.  ASTM is only one source among many, they also include many trade organizations that update their manuals frequently.  Additionally if you want to read them, they will cost you about 30.00 -75.00 per standard. One standard becomes obsolete, and another replaces it but not always in the same space or by the same agency.  If you cite a Standard, you should know the standard - because the supplier will.  If you recycle old office masters you are inviting a change order request that you probably will end up really making the stakeholders pissed off about.  Now, if you are subscribed to a provider of master documents that updates them, you can gain a lot of leverage. Avitru (formerly Arcom) takes them section by section and does it quarterly.  BSD (owned by the CSI in part) does it daily, but whole system is reversed from the way Masterspec sections are edited.  Recycled spec sections are better described as diluted spec sections, and technical specifications are not a project manual.  Division 01 Requirements are specifications too, and they do not need to be duplicated in individual sections - they can and often are enhanced.  Here is the crux of the misconception that most designers have about a project manual: we do not write them for subcontractors or suppliers.  They are written for the General Contractor and those guys are his damn problem.  You don't have to study this for years, but you should be a good researcher and willing to abandon lots of preconceived notions about what the purpose of doing it is.  

If I gave up teaching tomorrow there wouldn't be a single professor in the whole department that could (or would want to) teach the class.  If they did it would be so tiresome and boring that it could be marketed as a substitute for Ambien.  

May 16, 18 3:51 pm

My advice isn't for anyone actually needing to put specs together, but for a student. Some of your comments, trade organizations changing, spec numbers and ASTM callouts changing, etc, is exactly what I'd hope a student would discover in looking at older versions. We use specbuilder in-house and I'd say half the PMs just click through the questions provided and then think they're done. I asked one senior PM what they did if they didn't know an answer to a question and they said "copy from a previous project or just pick the first one"... I was shocked. In the meantime, I get a lot of juniors who, after speaking with a product rep, tell me "this is what we need in the spec" without realizing the product rep in providing an inferior product or otherwise trying to create a product specific spec out of performance requirements. I always like roofing materials as a first guideline into what specs are for and how they describe different products. Firestone and Johnsmanville have pretty decent reps all-in-all.


There are always different ways to skin a cat, but most of the specs I've worked on use ASTM. Yes, there are thousands, and they go into how to screw the specific type of screw in. I think a lot of people don't realize how means-and-methods our specs get by calling out ASTMs.


Are you saying that the specs with which you're familiar use only ASTM standards? That would be very peculiar. A typical set of specs will contain references to many ASTM standards - but to thousands of other standards too - ASCE, CFR, AASHTO, AHRI, ANSI, ASHRAE, ASME, UL, SSPC, BIFMA, NFPA, NEMA, ISO, IAPMO, OSHA, DBIA, DASMA, BHMA... and that's just off the top of my head - there are so many more. I don't think I'd start somebody off on reading literally hundreds of thousands of reference standards - I'd start them on writing Part 2 of a 3-part spec, and move outward from there.


Exactly. But you need to know what you are trying to say in part 2 or 3. I guess it works for houses and little cheap jobs if you just put it on the sheets?


That can work for private single family residences, or for small (under $500k) commercial projects for private owners. Anything else and I think it's a disaster - though it doesn't stop some peers from doing it that way for some larger projects. Anything with a public entity involved usually won't allow it no matter how small, so that makes it easier to lobby for a "real" spec.


You are absolutely correct. I would stick a hot needle in my eye if I never saw another drawing that had a note that said: "prepare surface as needed", or the ubiquitous "see specs". Here is an encouraging note. Only the old guys refuse to accept that this is poor practice. They will disappear with AutoCAD. My students do understand that there is "information" in a BIM model. They see how OmniClass and Uniformat parameters classify components regardless of the complexity of the assemblies. They are beginning to realize that Architecture is not an art form, but a form of business.


I would love a class on spec writing. I think it's cool and have thought about going that route. I read the blog of a spec writer and find it fascinating.


I guess we just have different philosophies. It's like in Chemistry, where they have you blindly memorize reaction formulas rather than learning the full picture behind why the formulas react... or teaching trig based physics before calc based phsyics. In construction, it's how most laborers don't know more than "this is the nailing pattern required for this job" or "sealant joints must be 1/4" or "metal flashing should be .050" thick alum. Get back to the actual standards and look at how the standards have changed over time to start understanding the why's of the standards. Complaining that it's thousands of pages to read... well, hopefully your doctor won't complain about the research literature they're supposed to keep up with to stay current.


No there are not different ways to cite the same standard and you skin that cat according to the proper reference.  The society for standards and testing materials is much removed from the American Iron and Steel Institute or the AWS structural welding code.  There is no one stop shop for standards.  Means and Methods is not a sacrosanct contractor option, but as specifiers we need to cite cite  execution requirements that can be known and verified.  So the Tile Council of America sets up certain installation procedures to prevent the sub contractor from doing whatever they want.  Economy, premium and custom grades of millwork are delineated by AWI and if you want something special on your project you need to know what you want.

Secondly, you should never trust a product representative.  Your job is to tell them what you want, not to have them tell you what you need.  Your JM rep can move to Firestone next week and all of a sudden you get a whole different story.  Do the hard work, learn what you are talking about and you will be much better off for it. 

May 16, 18 4:31 pm

You're directly responding to me and putting words in my mouth... and I don't appreciate it. I'm confused as to what point you're even trying to delineate and why you think I'm wrong? With nearly every sentence you seem like you're trying to debate me and I don't know where to begin with your accusations, so I'll try to start from line 1. By suggesting there are more ways to handle a problem, and referring to previous editions of a trade's particular standard, I am trying to remind the OP that as architects we can actually educate ourselves enough to move beyond standards and call out our own requirements, minimums, maximums, etc. Often I've met younger folks who look at the newest edition of a standard and act like that's the only way to build a building. Regarding locations of standards, it's been my experience that ASTMs are most enlightening, and many of the trade standards, which do call out ASTMs, also have become controlled over the years by the trade itself. I think you must have misread my intent earlier about means and methods, I am just saying that the standards are very means and methods, and it is my opinion that architects should control such... an opinion I find to be in the minority often. I find it interesting how many architect's tell me "that's means and methods, not our purview" even though the very question I'm asking them about is regarding a standard related spec they copy pasted from a previous project. I heartedly agree with your first paragraph's last sentence, except I'd remove the word "special". I suggest to the OP to pick up ASTMs and you scream no from the hilltops? Sure, picking up the metal flashing manual from NRCA, flipping through UL-rated assemblies, looking at standards in general is a good step at any stage in your career even if you're years from managing your own projects or writing your own specs. Ultimately, I feel like we probably agree on all counts, but somehow I worded it wrong and set off your buttons, and now we're arguing over nothing? I'll leave you with a typical example referencing JM and Firestone, just as a plea that you believe my credentials and stop trying to tear down a colleague. Which is longer lasting and/or a better product for your client, a polyester reinforced mod bit membrane or a polyester and fiberglass dual reinforced mod bit membrane? The answer: It doesn't matter because JM is the only manufacturer that your boss specced as-equal for the school you're working on that makes a dual-reinforced membrane and you need a minimum 3 bidders, so you'll send the addendum out shortly so that GAF, Firestone, and Soprema can bid the work.



Email me at and I will send you some material.  You will need a lot of coffee.  Since I am a professor I can distribute a lot of stuff to a student, so you may have to send me one dollar.

May 16, 18 5:41 pm

This thread is as boring as actually being a spec writer. Good times!

Let's cover some basics. Most common way of becoming a spec writer is to go down standard architectural path and transition into it usually in your late 30's. At that point you have a number of projects under your belt and maybe you were even a project architect on some of them. Perhaps becoming a project manager is just not for you because of drab personality, and design is really not your strength, or maybe you are just that weird kid who eats worms and writing specs full time is your idea of fun. You a spec guy now! This was a pretty simple transition as you gained general design and construction knowledge throughout your career. 

Some people do go into spec writing much sooner than that (those who really love taste of worms). And that transition has a much steeper learning curve. 

My boss handed me CSI Manual of Practice as step one. It's a decent start as any, but information didn't really sink in for me until years of practical application. This manual is also seriously out of sync with current popular project delivery methods, but that is not important when you are just starting. In fact even experienced PMs could benefit from reading CSI Manual of Practice. There is often a disconnect in how Owner and GC operate in certain Contract setups. 

May 16, 18 5:42 pm

First of all, I don't even remotely resemble those remarks.  In most circles I am considered quite a colorful figure, sometimes a bit too controversial for some of my affiliates.  However, my reputation exceeds me and I wish I had done half the stuff people say I had done.  Now Rusty, if your boss handed you a Manual of Practice he gave you a book that was replaced in 2011.  It is an artifact, not a resource guide. On a similar subject,  The Architectural Handbook of Professional practice was revised in 2017, so if you have the 2002 version I would suggest buying a new one of those as well. Project Delivery methods are dictated completely by the agreements and the general conditions common to those agreements, and the menu of them is quite extensive and not exclusive to the AIA documents, there are many sources. 

The “standard of care” is the prevailing benchmark of professional practice. The Architect shall perform its services consistent with the professional skill and care ordinarily provided by architects practicing in the same or similar locality under the same or similar circumstances.  The Architect shall perform its services as expeditiously as is consistent with such professional skill and care and the orderly progress of the Project.

The design professional’s standard of care is generally based on the performance of others characterized as the “reasonable”, “ordinary”, or “average” design professional, and not on internal or personal capabilities.  The ultimate legal question is generally not, “What are you capable of?”, but rather, “What would others do?  When I start a class I always ask:  "How many of you would characterize your highest professional aspiration to be ordinary or average? "  I never see one hand raised.

Contract Documents for construction of a Project consist of the Drawings, Specifications, Agreement, Conditions of the Contract (General and Supplementary), Addenda, and Modifications. Contract Documents are complementary, and what is required by one are binding as if required by all.

So on that worm comment: 

If you want to seem smart but you are not – then at least you should act very cynical.  Cynicism passes for wisdom , especially if you don’t want things to change or have a clue what you are doing

May 17, 18 3:32 pm

Hello Professor Worm. I have been a full time spec writer going on for 15 years. I've probably done over 500 projects depending on how you want to count them. I do appreciate your academic approach to the matter but in the actual industry where things are actually built, design services require a lot of pragmatic thinking done at an impossible pace. Literally everything goes down the toilet when GC refuses to sign off of Division 1 and Owner doesn't care either way. But you still have a project to deliver. I had no idea Manual of Practice was discontinued. I last read it when it came out in 2004. So thank you for teaching me something. I may not be a smart man, but there is always hope!


I am a professor, but only a part time professor and I don't get paid. The reason for that is that there aren't any faculty who can teach specifications, contract administration, or the intricacies of the legal liability for a set of documents. So I do it as a service for the alumni association - who in fact actually bought me a free meal one time in the 18 years I have been teaching. I was in the construction business for 30 years before I even thought about coming over to the dark side of the force. There is some welding slag in my shoulder that sets off metal detectors at the airport. I have administrated and written specifications for billions of dollars worth of work. So you don't really need to educate me about the real world. Now on to the subject of uncooperative GC's and clueless owners.


They are almost always owners who are doing small potato stuff. Large developers and sophisticated facilities management divisions are well schooled in the General Requirements and Conditions of a Contract. GC's (some, not all) will bully a designer or an administrator if they think they can get away with it. If you feel alienated from the owner's representative because they are always on the shoulder of the contractor, do something about it. Be authoritative and be more visible. You should be the conduit between the contractor and the owner in most General Conditions. If that is not happening, your responsibility is to enforce the agreements. Do not call me a worm unless you have had to set a bunch of trusses in January with the wind blowing one ice covered top plates, kid.


I was a guest lecturer on couple of occasions in last few years. Teaching specs is tough. I don't know how you do it. Students I had were responsive on most superficial level. Most of it flew over their heads. It sure flew over my head when I took specification class back in school. It's like trying to teach middleschoolers the joy of filing your own taxes.


If you want some material to read, contact me. I am on the academic resources committee at CSI. Happy to help.



jpilus When the student is ready, the teacher will come. I have some restrictions based on copyrighted material. We can work with that if we follow certain guidelines. My effort lately has been to try to initiate some programs in accredited universities. CM students come out of college much better prepared than Architecture students for the fray. I like those young folks a lot, and I learn as much from them as I teach them.


Ok, I do have to say that the architectural handbook of professional practice is a waste of money that most schools require as No. 1 core book to buy in the professional practice book. The material from 2017 did add a lot in regards to what is more common for project delivery methods, etc these days, but I just can't recommend anyone, student or otherwise, buy that bloated book, especially when they can go to the architecture library and cram the necessary material for class about 2 days before.


However, if you have PDF forms of any actual standards, I'll take them.




The last response I wrote didn't load, so thinking about it - it was too detailed anyway. 2. Minimum requirements for components are not at all the same as minimum requirements for systems. One is required and articulated for manufacture (the alloy, the strength, the longevity), the other is a requirement for performance (wind, rain, impact resistance). The minimum requirements for the components may apply to the fully manufactured assembly that is tested for performance (a Pella window), but not vise versa (some aluminum extrusion). He is wisest; but not because he possesses special knowledge not had by others.  Rather he finds that he is wisest because he recognizes his own lack of knowledge while others think they know, but do not. -Socrates. You can visit and buy them all. But what you need is a basic education, not 100,000.00 worth of published standards. Buy the CSI Project Delivery Guide instead. Then consider either Avitru Masterspec or BSD Speclink and stop cramming for exams and forgetting what you read the next day.


Hah, students will stop cramming and forgetting when professors stop clogging school with useless information. Why have the firms I work for refused to hire interns straight out of school? Why do the engineering departments of our firm have Co-ops, 2 a year, each, for Struct, Mech, Elec, and Plumbing, yet the arch department, slightly larger than the rest of the departments combined, can't find any work for an intern to do? I'm sorry to say this, but since we're throwing mud and you keep seeming to want to imply that I'm not wise or smart enough, as a professor, you're part of the problem.


How to learn spec writing?

They taught me at school, we had to write the specs of our group project and they had manuals to help us, somehow we all ended up with totally different specs for the same project...Forgot about specs rather quickly until I was working on some projects in the real world and the spec writer would bother me all the time to ask what I meant in my drawings and how I wanted it to be done, made me feel like such a noob, couldn't get any work done was on the phone all the time... Later studied his specs for the project I worked on, very to learn spec writing, read a lot of specs of the projects you did, otherwise it is just too abstract in my opinion.

May 18, 18 3:03 am

Uh, design is abstract. Specifications, contracts, and administrative procedures are defined and well articulated. It is an algorithm, the science of building. You have no need to feel like a noob (whatever that is), if you know what you want. Don't let some old grumpy guy try to put you on the defensive. It took you much time and effort to learn whatever program you use to produce the graphic documents. The documents commonly referred to as the specfications normally contain much more than that name implies. Learn a few concepts and the rest all fall together in a very comprehensible way. Plus it makes you a formidable design professional - better than the average one. Your details are better, your notes are better, your communications skills are better. You get paid better. LOL

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