What are “Specs”?

By: Mike Lopez

We all know what it’s like to follow assembly instructions of one kind or another. Good instructions indicate the necessary tools, and are clear and organized so that we know what we are working with, how to put it together and what it should look like upon completion. Incomplete or confusing assembly instructions can set us up to fail and leave us thoroughly frustrated.

Project Specifications (Specs for short), function exactly the same way. The biggest differences are that they are for much larger scale projects and that they encompass all aspects of the project. Not only do they focus on the “how to”, but they also detail the bidding procedures, the contractual requirements (e.g. payments, contracts, procedures, etc.) and the required products to be used for the project (brick, mortar, steel, waterproofing, door type, window type, etc.). Each individual process or material/ product is outlined in its own document called a Section. For the sake of continuity and standardization, the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) provides the guidelines for Sections that are organized into more general terms, called Divisions.

Currently there are 50 Divisions, many of which are consistently used by architectural and engineering firms. As an example, Division 04 relates to masonry, and includes Sections on brick, concrete unit masonry (aka concrete block), mortar repointing and masonry restoration. Division 07 relates to thermal and moisture barriers, and includes Sections on water repellents, waterproofing, insulation and roofing. Each Division also provides the first two numbers to the six-digit number assigned to a Specific Section. For example, as part of the masonry Division, the brick section would begin with 04. It’s then assigned 21 13 as its remaining numerical designation, and is referred to as Section 04 21 13 Brick Masonry.

All Sections are clearly organized into three parts: General, Products and Execution. “Part 1 – General” provides a summary of the Section, as well as describing related sections and outlining submittals that may be required from the Contractor. “Part 2 – Products” outlines the products and materials to be used. Some Specifications clearly describe these materials in terms of manufacturer, model and serial number, while others list acceptable manufacturers to select from. Performance specifications state the minimum performance requirements of the products to be used, rather than specifications identifying the products. “Part 3 – Execution” outlines the execution and/or utilization of the specified product(s). This section describes to the Contractor how the brick must be laid, or how the waterproofing should be installed, in a series of written instructions.

Each Section that make up a Project’s Specifications is carefully selected by the Architect or Engineer so that the Specifications as a whole encompass every aspect of any particular project, and properly compliment the project drawings. Depending upon the complexity of the project, the specifications can be hundreds of pages. Not only is it extremely important that the design team include all necessary specification sections, it’s also vital that, along with the drawings, the specs are carefully read and followed by the construction team. Just as proper assembly instructions can make you the hero parent at the Holidays, or the conquering spouse showing off a newly built piece of furniture, good project specifications ensure continuity with the construction drawings, and prevent on-site issues that lead to delays, change orders and numerous RFIs (Requests for Information).

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