Better Faster Specifications

Architecture Week, February 20, 2002
by Evan H. Shu, FAIA

When it comes to developing project specifications in this new technology world of ours, you will find a mixed bag of choices. The choices mirror the myriad ways architects have traditionally approached writing project specifications.

While some practitioners carefully craft their specifications from the beginning of the architectural design process, many more of us see them as a last minute requirement that must be thrown together during the final stages of bidding or contract documents. We want our specifications fast and yet, knowing their critical importance, we want them accurate and comprehensive.

The Office Master
“The specification route for most of the profession is the ‘office master,'” says Mark Kalin, FAIA, FCSI, a well-known specifications guru. By “office master,” he means that master specification “bible” that has made it through countless project iterations in the office history — red-marked with revisions for each new project.

Unfortunately, such a process often leads to what might be called “fake specs” that perpetuate errors and lack currency. A recent Engineering News-Record survey found that 84 percent of contractors believed project specifications to be deficient.ENR also found that six out of seven product failures were due to improper selection of materials.

Word processing has perpetuated the prevalence of “fake specs” — but how else are we to begin? “The key for most architects is getting to 90 percent overnight,” says Kalin. Project architects are usually willing to take care to customize the final 10 percent, but to start from scratch is too mind-boggling for most. Now there are better options for getting to 90 percent other than falling back on the old office master.

Traditional Guide Specifications
Many architects rely on various “guide specifications” to create their office master or to serve as their major resource for specification sections. These guide specifications, such as MasterSpec, CSI Manu-Spec, or SpecText, are offered in word processing format to aid the cut-and-paste work required.

A number of master specifications can be downloaded for free from the Internet. For example, the State of New York, publishes online their complete master specifications.

The National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) offers their Construction Criteria Base, an electronic collection of over 10,000 documents used in building design and construction, including guide specifications, manuals, handbooks, regulations, and reference standards. You can download up to five documents for free before a subscription charge is assessed.

Individual product specifications and product selection software are only a few clicks away at such sites as Construction.com, Sweet’s, 4Specs Construction Products, and Building Team, which are all based on the Constructions Specifications Institute (CSI) 16-division system.

Intelligent Guide Specifications
Increasingly, master guide specifications have introduced software to make the “cut and paste” work of dealing with massive amounts of text more “intelligent.”

For example, MasterWorks and Linx software works with MasterSpec to automate some of the editing and production work so that deletions are made structurally. This means if a certain reference is removed in one section, it and related sections can be removed automatically throughout the document. These systems also offer an interactive question-and-answer methodology to working with MasterSpecs.

BSD SpecLink edits by selection rather than by deletion and uses internal links to coordinate the specification text so that mutually exclusive options cannot both be selected. Also, suggested omissions in related sections may be shown in highlighted text.

Purchase and/or subscription (because they are regularly updated) to the most comprehensive and “intelligent” of these master guide specifications can easily run in the thousands of dollars, but there are more budget-conscious alternatives.

With Archispec SpecHelper, the architect works with a simple “tree structure” menu in the software to point and click on desired items. There are five basic types of specification templates: outline, custom residential, premium residential, retail/office build-out, and light commercial.

A relatively new entry from “down under” is SmartSpec, a menu-driven specification system that can work independently of (or with) any word-processor. Its companion product, SmartScratch, keeps track of the myriad project documents that are needed with any project and allows import of any data into SmartSpec. Both SpecHelper and SmartSpec have demo programs at their Web sites.

Online Checklist Specifications
Kalin Associates has developed Kalinweb, a low-cost Internet service that might be described as the checklist approach to “getting to 90 percent fast.” A straightforward checklist in CSI division format allows the architect to select the items that are in the project.

As each section’s checklist is completed, it automatically generates a draft specification in outline or short-form format. This is culled from the proprietary and well-known Master Short Form Specifications and Master Outline Specifications databases.

Once the checklist sections are completed, the entire draft specification is sent to the architect in Microsoft Word format within 24 hours. With this service, you can develop a project specification for any custom residential or commercial project for only $295.

For smaller projects, Kalinweb offers the alternate Prospec checklist service for only $49 to generate specifications in CSI MasterFormat or TimeLine format. In this second mode, the specifications are available immediately in Adobe PDF format for download and use.

This checklist approach to specifications is very helpful in the architect’s own design process because the list is a reminder of which items have been decided on and which have not.

It is also a fast way to work, says Kalin. “The most common choices are listed first,” he notes, “and if you’re not sure, you can check all the boxes and decide later” as if you were working with a master specification. Kalin estimates that an architect can easily develop a 90-percent-level specification draft in under an hour.

An important caveat to using any online or specification software service is to evaluate the staffing, experience, and comprehensive quality of the guide specifications behind the “software curtain.” Make sure you also check the guide specification’s flexibility and applicability to your regional requirements.

CAD Drawing-Based Specifications
For many years, architects have been frustrated because project specifications could not be automatically generated from CAD drawing files. Object-based CAD software promises to fully integrate specification writing soon.

In the meantime, one intriguing alternative is E-specs by InterSpec LLC, which uses non-object-based CAD drawings to help create project specifications.

This Web-based software scans a CAD file in DWG or DXF format and creates a “call-off” dictionary of items that are then linked to create project specifications. Although this service provider can work with standard abbreviations, they know enough about the realities of common practice not to expect to architects to adhere to CONDOC standards or the latest National CADD standards and have built flexibility into their system.

The software creates a master list of text terms which are then edited and otherwise culled by both the architect and by Interspec to create the key call-offs file. For example, the software may list the text term, “DH Window”, as a likely call-off candidate. This text term is then linked to a “Double-Hung Window” guide specification.

As the process moves along, an InterSpec technician may log a project note in the file, asking the architect’s preference for window manufacturer, and the project specifications grow more definitive as information is sent back and forth.

When the architect sends or posts another iteration of the CAD file, the InterSpec software does another scan of the CAD file database and compares it to the previous list to find new or omitted call-off items. A dialog between the technician and the architect determines the appropriate adjustments.

E-specs scans CAD drawings largely for text, but the company expects that, as architects grow more sophisticated in their use of CAD, this software will read symbols, objects, and attribute information for call-offs as well.

Unique to InterSpec’s service is that the CAD file is linked and automatically used as a cross-checking mechanism to the project specifications. The company has also introduced a Spec-liner utility that helps clients red-line specification sections online or append notes to the specification writers to further enhance the online interaction of the service.

CAD software developers are not quite at the point of taking full advantage of the power of newest technology to enable architects to create a more automated and integrated set of project specifications. But we architects can take better advantage of the opportunities that are currently available to create better specifications than the rehashed office master. Today’s specification software and online services move us a good way in that direction.

Evan H. Shu, FAIA, is an architect with Shu Associates Inc. in Melrose, Massachusetts. He is a frequent contributor to Architectural Record and publisher and editor of “Cheap Tricks,” a monthly newsletter for DataCAD users and computer-using architects.

This article was reprinted from the March 2001 issue of “Cheap Tricks”
© Shu Associates Inc. with permission of the publisher.

Editor’s note: recent advances in object-based CAD systems, such as Revit, have brought drawings and specifications closer to integration than when this article was first published. This integration will be the topic of a future article.