The 5 Pillars of Spec WritingJan 26, 2021
Yes, specs are boring.
Few people find them interesting. Well, that’s because they’re not intended to be interesting.
So how do you get yourself to work on something that’s not interesting?
In other areas of life, you can remind yourself that the thing is useful, even when it’s boring.
But with specs, even this is challenged. Are specs even necessary? It’s sometimes tempting to set them aside when the specs don’t seem relevant or helpful for their work.
Honestly, they can feel like a legal formality — like a necessary evil. And since they can feel useless , working on specs can be disheartening.
But there’s a better, brighter angle.
Don’t forget that you became an architect for a reason.
It wasn’t to write — especially not to write dry documents.
It was to draw — to envision lines, geometry, inhabitable spaces where human beings will move, converse, collaborate, relax, inspire, retire, and contemplate.
A striking characteristic about being an architect is your passion for ensuring your design becomes a physical reality. If you didn’t care about your visions getting realized, you simply wouldn’t have gone through the trouble of that design school, that crazy-hard exam, that demanding work in your firm.
But you do care.
So what do you do when you, the one who likes to draw, is told to write those dusty cardboard-tasting specs? You’d really only have two options:
- Give up on embracing your creativity and succumb to the grueling spec-writing work without a hope of finding satisfaction. (Just being frank.)
- Insist on making your specs serve your design vision — and refuse to let them do anything less.
Specs don’t have to kill your creativity.
But how, you ask?
Think of it this way.
For every line you draw, you mean to indicate a very particular thing imagined in your mind: this kind of wall, that kind of flooring, nothing truly left to chance.
But each line you don’t diligently protect in the specs, you tragically forfeit to the whims of someone else. And you can’t realistically expect them to value your design the way you always will.
You’ve worked too hard in your career to let your vision disappear.
So why write specs?
Because they're your best shot at clarifying, and therefore guarding, your design intent.
Specs should be easier to read and write.
They’re nothing romantic or beautiful— that’s usually true. But let’s be honest, many specs tend not to be even helpful at the practical level, either.
What would be a clean, efficient, excellent piece of technical writing? One that’s to-the-point, no frills, potentially no thrills — but that’s okay. The point is to beefficient, as clear as possible, and mercilessly accurate. It’s scientific.
Specs belong in this category. But the craft of writing specs is burdened with a frustrating problem: its language can frequently be more complicated than is necessary.
For architects, specs have been so low on the priority list. This is understandable, since the massive task of drawing takes a lot of time and energy. As a result, the path of least resistance is what’s most attainable, and therefore that path takes precedence. And the thinking which has accompanied it has been, “No harm, no foul.”
Unfortunately, there is harm. Contractors, more regularly than anyone dares to admit, are forced to take the specs to other parties who they’ll hope can help interpret their impenetrable language — or, even worse, they’ll just decide to disregard the specs entirely.
If you think specs should be simpler to read and write, you’re right. Of course, only if you want the contractor to build the building you actually designed.
Good news: it’s in your control. And we’ll help you get it done with these 5 pillars of spec writing.
The 5 Pillars of Spec Writing
1. Keep it simple.
There are these “rules” out there about what kind of language your specs should contain — stuff about always or never using “shall,” stuff about making sure you don’t use articles like “the” or “a”, and so forth.
Are the rules wrong? No, not really.
But honestly, just keep it simple. If you do that, you won’t run into these problems. They’ll fix themselves.
For example, if you just focus on keeping it simple, you won’t use the word “shall.” Why? Because you don’t live in the 19th century.
Yes, there are rules, and it’s best not to completely rewrite them just for the heck of it. But it’s the essence of the rules that’s important. And it’s this: the desire to eliminate all unnecessary baggage and write in the most economic, understandable way possible.
When you keep it simple, you keep it understandable. And that means the reader — in your case, the contractor — won’t misunderstand your design intent and build a building you didn’t design.
2. Proof rigorously.
Contradictions always cost. If miraculously there aren’t legal repercussions from a serious contradiction in the specs, you still very well might lose your design intent. And usually money is involved at some level too, unfortunately.
Theoretically, the contractor could ask the architect to help them interpret the contradiction. But if it’s easier for the contractor to simply choose one interpretation over the other, what you intended to communicate may get surrendered to whatever the contractor preferred to do instead.
Other proofing errors — certain misspellings, incorrect numbers — can amount to legitimately different meanings that lead to significant departures from design intent.
Proofing rigorously is a safety measure which keeps the possibility of contradiction or mistakes at bay. It’s a tedious task, but it’s always worth it on multiple levels.
3. Do your research.
This means many things.
We get it: it’s very tempting to just plug in that manufacturer’s seemingly ready-to-go spec into your project manual and call it a day. More often than not, however, those specs are loaded with exclusive language which allows (you guessed it) nothing apart from their own products. It makes sense from the manufacturer’s perspective, and maybe you as the architect like that product quite a lot — perhaps so much that you’d like to “close the spec” to that option only. Less work for you, and you get the product you want.
But this won’t fly, unless the project owner explicitly told you they won’t accept any other product. (Not to mention, they might still change their mind if they see how much their favored product costs.) The architect has the power to broker healthy economic competition to manufacturers through the way the specs are written. Architects truly are stewards of this fair play, and that’s realized through a set of specs that strike a balance between compromising on quality on one hand and expecting the unrealistic on the other.
Doing your research is actually one more way of ensuring that the project has a better chance of including products that more accurately represent your design intent. When you do your research, you become familiar with the market’s options and can therefore act strategically through the way you write the specs.
For example, since money is a thing, expensive products are rarely attainable. Becoming familiar with less expensive, yet comparable, alternatives to your ideal product can paradoxically make your original design vision more possible, since the less expensive alternative is a more reasonable option for the owner to afford and might actually get selected. (Which is pretty cool.)
On the other end of that spectrum, knowing your less expensive options can inform you as to which products should be avoided: maybe this or that product performs too poorly to be justifiably allowed, so you can craft your spec’s standards accordingly. But, let’s emphasize, this isn’t just a bare allowance to arbitrarily make up standards; it’s an invitation to commit to a scientific search for the truth — in this case, the truth regarding what are realistic yet successful products which the owner will be happy with and can afford.
Basically, do your research. It’s the most ethical, the safest, and the most creatively satisfying way of making architectural choices.
4. Look at the drawings.
This sounds crazy. Why even say it out loud?
But it’s strangely possible to write the entire set of specs and not refer to the drawings once.
In a sense, this is a variation on pillar 2 and 3. If you proof rigorously, you’ll make sure the specs don’t contradict the drawings. If you do your research, you’ll be forced to look at the drawings because they contain unspeakably necessary information regarding the project. (After all, there wouldn’t be a building without them, and especially not the building your specs are supposed to describe.)
Even still, it can’t hurt to hear it said explicitly: look at the drawings when you write your specs.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
The construction industry is such a big world, and you’re already an architect having to focus on words to describe pictures. That’s hard enough. Don’t make things harder on yourself by trying not to ask for help on all that.
Asking for help when you hit a wall, fall into a rut, or cannot for the life of you figure out what’s even going on — it’s probably the smartest thing you can do, and undoubtedly the most efficient too. Chances are, someone else knows the answer and is likely happy to give to you at no cost.
The alternative is to wing it by yourself, which should never be an option except in dire emergencies — in other words, only after you’ve asked everyone you think might have an answer (and that includes the internet).
Of the other pillars of spec writing, this just might be the most practically important, because the number of times you’ll find yourself needing help becomes uncountable. And there’s no shame for that. It’s a big world out there, and we all need each other’s help.
For more resources on architectural product knowledge and specifications training, check out spec-lab.com.