How does your firm produce specifications?


What's up 'Nectars,

I work for a public university in the architecture/planning department.  We do not produce specifications ourselves; we get them from the architects we hire per project.  I'm interested in how different firms produce specifications.  Do you use software like BSD Speclink?  Do you use online resources like ARCAT or 4-Specs?  Are there specific books or other resources that you recommend?

Any insight is much appreciated.



Oct 10, 11 2:18 pm
some person

Outside specwriters, baby! The good ones ask the right questions and help to create a better link between drawings and specs. They are a valuable consultant to have. And you get to keep your sanity.

Oct 12, 11 7:07 pm

yeah, i've done both internally ('spec' guy) and w/ a specwriter outside the firm. have to agree, outside the firm is definitely better on the haircolor.

Oct 12, 11 7:37 pm

if you treat specs like part of the design project, an outside spec writer really doesn't work. i've been burned before by things that snuck into a spec without me knowing about it. it's a tough slog, but we usually have the job captain of any project take charge of the spec, with one of the partners reviewing it for 'gotchas'.

we'll either start with a spec we trust from a past project with similar conditions, a manufacturer's spec that we then have to heavily edit, or *sometimes* masterspec. i honestly find that i spend more time working over a masterspec section than if i started from scratch.

we also get a lot of input from the product reps for our basis-of-design products. we have to leave the specs open for competition, though, especially because for schools we have to qualify at least three manufacturers for everything. 

Oct 13, 11 7:27 am

Once an office reaches the threshold of 50 design professionals, it makes sense to have an in house specification writer. Most smaller (than 50) offices will contract out such work, as it's much cheaper. Some smaller firms may have an inhouse guy/gal, but they usually have to figure out what to do with him/her for the other 85% of the time. 

Spec writing can be extremely time consuming, but it comes in short bursts. There is a lot of downtime even for the contract people.

Quality of architectural specifications is proportional to the overall quality of the project. I've written great specs for great designers who took keen interest in all aspects of their work. I've written horrible copypasta crap for projects that were poorly documented in everything. In later example, noone seemed to care about the content of the specs, as long as they were delivered to them on the eve of their deadline, never to be read by a single member of the project team.

Good designers will constantly haunt you with additional information and will want to see multiple progress specs from you. Poor designers will avoid you at every corner and will just flat out not respond to the easiest of questions.

Most firms I've done specs for fall somewhere in the middle. The good designer/poor designer thing is mostly a refection on office culture. A chronically overworked architect usually makes for poor communication with external consultants (not just spec writers).

I fell into spec writing by pure chance. I was looking for a position that would strengthen my iffy technical knowledge. I've been doing it for years now, and I like it a lot. It can suck at times, but it can be very rewarding. Working with better design offices where quality control is important is where it's at!

Most spec writers will be happy if you called them "your detective". Even the most experienced spec writer relies on research to provide a technical solution that's up to date. Architectural technologies are constantly shifting. What made sense 10 years ago, is horribly out of date today.

Lastly, all spec writers are kind of weird as hell. If you hire a spec writer and you don't think they are batshit insane, look for a new one.

Oct 13, 11 12:37 pm

Steven, I'm glad to see you this passionate about them specs!

"if you treat specs like part of the design project, an outside spec writer really doesn't work."

It can definitively work. A high-volume discount spec writer will be inconvenienced by your attention to detail. Get a spec writer that prefers working on good designs. They do exist, and will give your projects the attention they need.

"we'll either start with a spec we trust from a past project with similar conditions, a manufacturer's spec that we then have to heavily edit, or *sometimes* masterspec"

This is completely backwards, right? Recycled spec is rarely ever 100% correct, and once you start recycling specs, it's like crack! Can't stop now. Recycled project manuals are the most horrible types of spec collections I've ever seen. High-volume discount spec guys do this as well. 

Manufacturer's specs are only useful on a rare occasion where you are dealing with a new technology that doesn't have much competition (yet). For established components, manufacturer's spec is full of deliberate exaggerations. 

I always work from a clean master. It's the only way to go. I like to be very descriptive in the summary of work. For complex assemblies, I'll often combine components of various specs into one mega-spec (masterformat is just a suggestion, and even it allows for creative interpretations). It sounds to me like you are usually strapped for time, and my method can be time-consuming. For best results, there are no cheap shortcuts.

"we also get a lot of input from the product reps"

Yup. Product reps can be great. Especially for highly technical requirements. I can continue doing specs for another 50 years, and I will still never be an expert on high performance coatings. You can spend a lifetime on that one alone.

"for schools we have to qualify at least three manufacturers for everything"

Typical government/institutional requirement. It makes sense too. Some school boards will hand you their own version of their modified Masterformat for you to edit down. I worked on putting together couple of school authority masters. Not fun!


Oct 13, 11 1:52 pm

We wing it!

Oct 13, 11 9:32 pm

Good luck with that, and make sure you keep a lawyer on retainer. The essential difference between a set of specifications and a set of drawings is: In a plan room they look at the drawings and ignore the specifications. In a courtroom they look at the specifications and ignore the drawings.

In addition to what has been stated above, specifications consultants can provide that third set of eyes over a set of documents.  I don't know how many times I've found errors in a set of drawings I was reviewing prior to preparing the specifications.

Even though I'm an independent specifications consultant, I won't recommend going one way or the other--in-house versus consultant.  It all depends on what your company is most comfortable with and works within your financial capabilities.  Which ever way your firm decides, I strongly--STRONGLY--recommend hiring an experienced and, preferably, certified construction specifier. 

Oct 14, 11 9:55 pm

Great point Ron Geren


is there a specific reason you are asking?  many owners provide very specific design standards

Oct 16, 11 4:16 pm

Thanks everyone for the outstanding information.  I really appreciate everyone's insight.

To answer shuellmi's question, I posed the question for my own educational benefit.  I'm a newly minted architect, as it were, and I haven't had much experience in producing specifications thus far.  The office I work in is in a project management/ planning role, so we do not produce specifications ourselves.  And my college years were absolutely devoid of any education on the subject.  

Perhaps I could also pose the question as: "How would one begin a specification from scratch?"  For example, in a recent project manual there is a Section 07900 "Joint Sealers".  Within that Section are 8 References (how does one know to only reference those 8?  How do I know if there are others that should be referenced?).  How does one come up with the specific bullet points under the Submittals sub-section?  How does one know to ask for a 5 year warranty, rather than 1 or 10?  What resource is there to help choose which products to specify?  There are 3 sealant types under Part 2 Products; how would one choose those specific types?

I of course don't expect that anyone would answer those specific questions in this forum, but I think you get the idea of where I'm coming from.  How does an architect deliver intelligently written, wisely informed specifications?

I have learned a lot recently just by reviewing the CSI Manual of Practice and their website.  I'm interested in the CDT and CCS certifications, as I'm sure just going through those exercises would provide an incredible amount of education.  I'm very surprised that there doesn't seem to be a very introductory book on the topic - most everything I've found is not very user friendly nor pragmatic in approach.

It sounds like most of you are well versed in the practice, and I appreciate your input.  At this point, I feel like specifications writing is an enormous dark room, and I have no idea how to get around.  But your comments are beginning to shed light - thanks!

Oct 17, 11 2:39 pm

If you have little or no experience preparing a project manual, do not try to write a specification from scratch.  There are plenty of master guide specifications to choose from.  Three of the most popular are ARCOM MasterSpec, BSD SpecLink, and SpecText.  Another source is (which is free) is SpexPlus--it is not as comprehensive as the big three, but for a budget-strapped professional, it is a start.

I applaud you for considering CSI's Construction Documents Technologist (CDT) exam and the Certified Construction Specifier (CCS) exam.  In lieu of the CSI Manual of Practice, which is outdated, look at the Project Delivery Practice Guide for CDT preparation and the Construction Specifications Practice Guide for the CCS preparation, which can double as resource when editing specification sections.

Specifying is not something a person can master overnight.  Knowledge on what to specify and, more importantly, what not to specify, comes with experience.  A great resource to learn about products is from product representatives, especially the good ones (sometimes referred to by specifiers as a "golden rep").  Avoid the ones that are just there to sell you on their products.  The good reps will educate you about their products, ther competitor's products (without product bashing), and about the nature of the products in general (applicable standards, building code issues, etc.).

Oct 17, 11 4:38 pm
el jeffe

i'm in the middle of a project manual right now, three days from a 95% cd's submittal.

since it's for a county project, i pulled the division 1 from a previous county project since a ton of it is specific to this particular county's requirements.

technical specs came mostly from a previous project, edited to suit this project. probably a handful of specs came from a product rep that i've heavily edited to eliminate proprietary info, and another couple i created from masterspec. one came form arcat.

finish hardware spec is coming from a hardware rep.

intern gets to go thru them all and get the formatting consistent.

i'm humored by the illusion of control and confidence spec writing creates.....

Oct 17, 11 6:32 pm

Thus the reason why architects need just as much training in the area of specifications as they do in drawings. 

Specifying should not be treated as an eleventh-hour task that is completed just as the documents are sent to the printers.  Specifications should be developed along with the drawings so they are fully coordinated.  And "to go thru them all" just to get the format consistent is shirking a responsibility to ensure a coordinated set of construction documents.

In AIA Contract Documents, the General Conditions state that the drawings are complementary--"what is required by one shall be as binding as if required by all."  However, if the owner's general conditions state that specifications take precedence over drawings, which many government general conditions state, then regardless of how well the drawings are prepared, a poorly prepared set of specifications will rule. 

Specifications are words and lawyers love words.  Next to a design that meets the owner's requirements, nothing reduces an architect's risk more than a well-coordinated set of construction documents.

Oct 17, 11 10:32 pm
el jeffe

when i wrote 'formatting' i literally meant 'formatting', as in type face, margins, etc.

basically, an activity that has nothing to do with liability but everything to do with perception.

Oct 19, 11 10:21 am

That is just my point--formatting has little to do with liability.  Making sure the content of the specifications are coordinated and appropriate for the project has everything to do with liability.

The architect of record, or a responsible person whom the AOR trusts, should go through every section and make sure it is specifying what is required and that materials and products specified are actually used on the project and are not included "just in case."

There are so many coordination issues that could go wrong between specifications and drawings (e.g. using keynotes to "specify" requirements that contradict what is required in the specifications) and even between sections within the specifications (e.g. the mechanical engineer specifying firestopping in the mechanical sections when it is already specified in Division 07--where it should be).

Oct 19, 11 11:15 am

Thanks for the additional comments.  What a valuable conversation.

I just downloaded SpecPlus.  Wow, I can't believe that it is a free resource.  The specs even have lots of direction for the user within each subsection, if hidden words are displayed.  I'll be reviewing those files in detail.  And they are updated quarterly.  Incredible.  I have reviewed BSD as a trial before.  It's smart features are really nice, and worth the price I'm sure.

Thanks for the recommendation of the books.  I have noticed on the CSI website that those two books are highly touted as good resources.  And thankfully, they aren't crazy expensive like the Manual is.

Oct 20, 11 10:06 am

To those that have hired an independent spec writer:
How much of your architectural fee do you attribute to spec-writing?

May 18, 15 5:25 pm
Erik Evens (EKE)

We do custom residential work.  We work with two spec writing consultants, who write all of our specifications.  We send them 50% set of CDs, and all of our notes on materials and methods for the project.  They send us a draft, which our senior project managers go through and edit, very carefully.  They go back to the spec writer for revisions, and the final specification is issued with the 90% CDs.

Our spec writers charge us between $2500 and $5000, depending on the size and complexity of the project.

The big advantages for using a consultant for this: 

1.  Keeps your arch staff doing what they do usually isn't spec writing.

2.  Our spec consultants are much more up to date on the most current products and assemblies, and revisions/updates to products we are currently using. 

May 18, 15 7:34 pm

Hi there EKE,


I was wondering if you could send me contact info for the 2 spec writing consultants you mentioned. We also do custom residential work and are looking for a good spec writer for that type of work. 

Also if anyone else has any other recommendations for spec writers that they have used successfully on residential projects that would be greatly appreciated.



Feb 4, 16 11:04 am
jpilus's comment has been hidden

You can contact us, but residential projects are kind of a different animal - and delivery systems can change the approach significantly.


(old thread, but WTH)

we don't really write specs (at least in the 3-part spec that you're likely talking about)

at my last office (a national firm), I had to produce them using masterspec, which wasn't too awful when I had time to thoughtfully walk through them. That program/system gives you a lot of info to consider and start asking the right questions. Admittedly I had approached that from the perspective of someone who had produced docs and managed projects more that 10yrs.

currently (self-employed), i do a lot of residential, and it's usually products ID'ed right on the drawings and methodology is handled by warning the GC during bid that we are involved in CA and expect to be consulted in the field on non-typical processes (we will call these moments out on dwgs and/or during bid walk-thru on site if necessary).

Feb 4, 16 11:40 am


Feb 4, 16 12:06 pm
null pointer

A lot like proto. I annotate the living shit out of my drawings. If I know I may be getting sidelined, I make everything go through a submittal to make sure the contractor isn't fucking shit up in my abscence.

Feb 4, 16 12:29 pm

95% of my career has been in large, 1000+ people firms.  They always have spec writers that work off templates like Masterspec.  However, spec writers are usually overloaded with many projects simultaneously and they don't have the depth of understanding of the design intent that the PA or PM have.  As a PA, I usually get the base set of specs from the spec writer and then personally review and edit the sections that really matter.  For example, a misc metals or rough carpentry spec typically doesn't warrant more than a cursory glance just to check for major errors or omissions because they really don't change from project to project.  On the other hand, I might spend several hours carefully reviewing Divs 08 and 09, or millwork specs, for example, because the details in those specs can really make or break a project sometimes.

Jul 28, 18 10:05 am

just curious why specifiers commenting here do not use sites like arcat or similar - which was part of the original inquiry where all the mfrs specs are housed and its free  - why write specs or reuse project specs if you can use the csi specs found there as a starting point for any bod products  or for products not selected by archtitects - do they require too much editing ? more than masterspec or bsd? they don't collect your info either. just curious because it seems like a good site

May 1, 19 8:59 pm

Do you download all your BIM content and details from the manufacturer's websites? How well does that work for you in producing consistent drawings? 

You get what you pay for. Free manufacturers' guide specs are ok in a pinch if your spec writer knows what they are doing. If you were trying to compile the majority of your specs this way though, it would be a mess. The thing that MasterSpec or BSD gets you is consistency between each section. Each manufacturer's spec is going to be slightly different and have varying levels of detail.

atelier nobody

What EA said, plus it is simply better practice to make both the drawings and specifications as generic as possible, and only "sole-source" items critical to the design. Also, if doing public bid work, it's the law.

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