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Murphy’s Laws of Spec Writing
(With Apologies to Murphy)

TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 2, 2014

By Bob Bailey, AIA, CCS


More items for Good Technical Practice

We all know Murphy’s Law: "Anything that can go wrong, will." Over the years, there have been many corollaries to Murphy’s Law.

Here are mine, for specifications writing.

If anything can be put in an Addendum, it will be.

How many times are we faced with issues still undecided when the specs need to be issued? “We’ll cover that in an addendum” is the usual solution—and not necessarily a bad one.

Sometimes, there are things you just don’t know when it’s time to publish the spec.

Specifier
Bob Bailey

Resolved: There will inevitably be some things you just don't know, or items you can't find, until it's too late.

The perfection of your Modified Bitumen Roofing spec will be ignored, but that typo in Bituminous Damproofing will hound you for weeks.

Spec writers often feel underappreciated. Part of this stems from how architects actually perceive specifications—which is not holistic. They look for and at pieces and parts, generally hot-button issues that have burned them before.

The product information you have been pleading for during the six-month construction document phase will arrive on your desk at 5:35 the afternoon before the project is due.

Architects can be great at not sharing information and somehow assuming that the spec writer knows about this particular product or material.

Sorry, people, but a note on the drawing is not a technical data sheet. Also, just about anything you specify comes with options and choices. Decisions need to be made and the information shared—not just with the spec writer, but also with the person actually drawing and detailing the item.

The amount of product information you receive on a product is inversely proportional to the importance of such detail in the specification.

What spec writer hasn’t been flooded with non-specification information about a product or material?

SkyscraperInterior
Unsplash / S. Charles

You will always have the most information about the least important item.

Conversely, who hasn’t spent time combing a website and/or arguing with a product rep about what specification information is—and could they possibly provide it to make the specification more than just a brand name?

You will lose the single most valuable piece of product information on the project, only to have it resurface months later on a slow “cleanup” day.

If you’re like me, you get bombarded with piecemeal information throughout the day on several projects. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, that crucial data sheet manages to get “lost in the sauce” of the pile of specs, notes, cuts, brochures, samples, drawings and sketches that populate our work area.

When you do get to come up for air weeks later and do some much-needed cleaning up, that elusive data sheet will emerge—but not until it’s too late to do anything about it.

If there is absolutely no way the project architect can screw up a spec section, he or she will anyway.

I fight a constant battle to keep the architects out of the specifications I’m working on. If they are compiling the specs, that’s fine, but if it’s me, STAY THE HECK OUT OF THEM.

Why?  Despite my best efforts at conveying this, many architects still don’t know where specific information belongs within the structure of a spec section. They also don’t understand how to coordinate information within the spec section itself (between the three parts of the section).

And they further don’t understand that changing one spec section often requires a corresponding change in one or more related sections.

NY skyline
Unsplash / Philipp Henzler

Perfection will be overlooked; typos will follow you to your grave, because of how specifications are typically reviewed.

Also, many architects have only a rudimentary understanding of how Microsoft Word works, for instance, and will obliterate your paragraph styles and other formatting. 

Plus, architects as a whole tend to be lousy at spelling.

Despite your best efforts, the project architect will insist on having all pertinent project information jammed into one three-page-long paragraph in the Summary.

Again this is a matter of many architects not understanding three-part section format and what goes where within the section.  They seem to think the contractor reads only the first page of any spec section … which actually may be true….

The myth of the Supplemental Conditions is that they exist.

There are important issues addressed within the supplemental conditions, which supplement and/or modify the general conditions of the contract for construction. 

Sometimes, we use the supplemental conditions to include clauses and language that reinforce our particular office practices. Sometimes, clients will have their own supplemental conditions.

All of this is well and good, but architects often forget that the SCs need to be included—or modified to reflect the current project—until that fateful day when an issue arises that is often addressed in the SCs.

And, of course, that is when they discover that the SCs have not been included in the spec.

In the heat of battle, with a huge deadline hours away and project decisions still hanging, a product rep will call to “drop by” with seven new catalogs and wonder why you can’t take “just a few minutes.”

Architects
Bob Bailey

Just say no to product reps who bend your ear uninvited on deadline.

When you’re up against a deadline, a disruption of even “just a few minutes” can have a big effect on your concentration and your ability to remember what it is happening with each of those balls you have in the air.

So “just a few minutes” never is. Product reps who get indignant about it, or who stop by anyway despite your request, get a quick ticket to exclusion from our specs.

Tell the project architect that you have researched the performance properties of epichlorohydrin and included them in the spec, and they’ll believe you. Tell them, yes, you included two colors for the toilet partitions, and they have to see for themselves.

A lot of the technical stuff that goes into the specs, performance properties and test methods will cause many architects’ eyes to glaze over. And to a certain extent, that’s fine: They rely on the spec writer to “make it work.”

As I said previously, a lot of what architects hone in on in specs are issues that have previously bitten them—like not owning two colors of toilet partitions when they fully expected to have that.

These are my 10 Laws. I welcome yours!

ABOUT THE BLOGGER

Bob Bailey, AIA, CCS

A full-time specifier for more than 25 years, Bob Bailey, AIA, CCS, CSI, LEED AP, is Specifications and Constructability Specialist for IKM Inc. of Pittsburgh, PA. An award-winning specifications writer, Bob is the founder of the Pittsburgh Specifiers' Roundtable and immediate past president of CSI Pittsburgh. His professional passions: continuing education and internship development. Contact Bob.

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Tagged categories: Architects; IKM Inc.; Specification; Specification writing

Comment from Wayne Yancey, (9/3/2014, 10:34 AM)

LAW 11 - The Specifier is NOT the designer. Specifier's responsibilities: 1) Responsibility for documenting product decisions 2) Responsibility for making product decisions delegated by design team 3) Responsibility for coaching design team’s decision 4) Advisor to design team in products 5) Advisor to design team for contacting product representatives


Comment from Ronald Lewis, (9/3/2014, 10:30 PM)

Oh, you won’t have to remove my comments because they are all true and none are outside of the authors (Bob Bailey) story. Enjoyed the "rush" to deadline and, Yea I was one of those rep's 55 years ago. Our very German firm KOPPERS-INERTOL did everything with perfection. We added the new data sheets to the clients catalog ourselves and left the old sheets with notes so that finding the news ones with changes would be easy. Doing this mundane job was appreciated by the Engineer who was too busy or the secretary who didn't know where the catalog was. And, added; it gave us the unique opportunity of perusing our/your entire catalog for scribbled footnotes, leading us to know what the Arch was doing and where next! We also had sufficient time to peruse many of our competitors catalogs and find out via scribbles what else might be going on. Fun and Games as we say, but with an ulterior purpose. Ron,and still on the job....at Corrosion Management Ltd Singapore.


Comment from Sheldon Wolfe, (9/4/2014, 11:00 PM)

In the last few years, I have heard what we formerly called the bidding period become known as the addendum period. It follows that what we called the construction phase will be called the change order phase.


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