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7 Tips for Writing a Spec Section from Scratch

THURSDAY, APRIL 7, 2016

By Bob Bailey, AIA, CCS


More items for Good Technical Practice

For those of you who frequently write construction specifications, the time will come when you will need to prepare a spec section for some item of the building for which no master guide spec or other example exists. 

Writing a spec section from scratch can be a very satisfying task for those who take pride in a well-crafted specification document. Keeping in mind some key points to consider as you draft the section will ensure that your spec is meaningful and informative and not merely a glorified rehash of notes on the drawings.

IKM Inc.
Photos courtesy of IKM Inc.

Our project architect designed a decorative assembly of metal and stone to terminate each of the three primary elevator hallways. In this blog post, I offer tips for specification writers using insight gleaned from this successful project.

For me, this challenge presented itself in a big way on a lobby renovation project at a major Pittsburgh high-rise. Our project architect designed a decorative assembly of metal and stone to terminate each of the three primary elevator hallways. These assemblies also had to be operable (hinged) and have integral lighting. In retrospect, I offer the following tips from a successful project.

1.  Decide where to land it.

Since the assembly depended upon the stainless steel framework, I opted to place the spec section in Division 5, in the upper 05 70 00’s, as decorative metal work. An assembly such as this could arguably be placed in one of several different divisions, such as Specialties or Furnishings. Because we wanted a single entity (ornamental metal fabricator) to be responsible for the entire assembly, I chose to specify it primarily as an ornamental metal fabrication.

2.  Give it a framework.

Just because I didn’t have a master guide spec to work from didn’t mean I couldn’t use a master guide spec as my template for organizing the section. You want to choose a spec section that has language pertinent to and close to what you are trying to achieve. Obviously, you will need to edit, revise, or otherwise massage that text. In an assembly such as I was dealing with, you may also have to either reference a portion of the work in different spec section(s) (i.e., stonework or lighting), or import relevant language from another spec section. Because the stone is utilized in a different way than traditional stonework, I chose to import language relevant to stone quality. I also imported language regarding the lighting.

3.  Play well with others.

This assembly had two major characteristics that required coordination with other work: First, its size and the fact that it was designed to hinge. Just the size alone meant that it had to be properly anchored to surrounding construction, all of which was high-end finish material. The anchorage needed to be elegant and as concealed as possible.

IKM

We strive for successful outcomes through our construction documents.

The fact that the entire assembly swung on a hinge meant that there was going to be considerable torque that needed to be accommodated in the anchorage without it appearing ponderous or clunky. Second, integral illumination meant that the proper electrical power supply had to be brought to the assembly. Final connection was by the installer of the assembly.

4.  Make a checklist.

It would be jeopardy at best to design a custom assembly like this and expect to have it fabricated and installed correctly with no submittals whatsoever prior to fabrication. You want to carefully verify material selections and finishes. You want to have shop drawings that show how it will be built and how it interfaces with surrounding construction. In some cases, an on-site mockup will be appropriate. If there is engineering involved, particularly in structural performance such as resistance to loading (or in this case, the ability of the stainless steel framework to not only support the stone panels but to swing on the hinges without deflection or failure), then you want the specification to require calculations prepared by a professional engineer.

5.  Go long on craftsmanship/fabrication.

The two main visible components of this assembly were the stainless steel framework and the inset onyx panels. Of course, the type and quality of both the stainless steel and the stone needed to be properly specified. But it was imperative that the fabrication of the stainless steel be of high quality with very clean welds and a uniform finish. The specification was clear on the acceptable appearance of the welding and the stainless steel members. Similarly, the stone had to have consistent coloring, veining, and finishing, so special attention was called to the quarrying and fabrication of the onyx panels.

IKM

Just about anything we specify has some level of performance required of it.

If this work had involved materials such as wood or ceramic tile, the specification would have emphasized the requirement for demonstrable high-grade craftsmanship.

6.  Stay long on performance.

Just about anything we specify has some level of performance required of it. Define how your subject needs to perform. Does it need to be watertight? Does it have to have wear resistance? Does it have to be highly resistant to fading? Once you know how it has to perform, qualify that with achievable levels. In our case, performance was required in three factors: 

  • It had to have a certain footcandle level of continuous backlit illumination;
  • The stainless steel framework had to perform structurally to meet the loading imposed by the stone panels; and
  • The entire stone panel-laden framework had to swing easily on hinges from the supporting structure.

7.  Make sure it works.

Most items that have performance requirements also have corresponding field quality control to verify at least a part of that performance. If it has to be watertight, there is usually an appropriate water test to verify that the item meets the specified criteria. If the item is operable, it needs to be demonstrated to appropriate personnel that the item operates properly, repeatedly without problems or failure. If the item has a utility connection, then the specification must call for verification that that utility is getting where it needs to go in the proper quantity and volume.

Conclusion

We seek successful outcomes through our construction documents. When it comes to something that just hasn’t been specified before, you want to be certain that you’ve given due consideration to all the necessary points that will ensure the contractor can provide what you have designed. The tips discussed here make a strong starting point.

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; Color + Design; Commercial / Architectural; Renovation; Specification; Specification writing

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