Don’t Be Afraid To Speak Clearly

People in any business know that many business documents — letters, contracts, memos, and emails — are often poorly written. The consequences may be more important in some instances than others. Construction documents (e.g., agreements, specifications, drawings) are bidding and contract documents. When the contractor signs the agreement with the owner, it’s a promise to build in accordance with that great mass of information, in detail. Every drafter putting a note on a drawing is preparing a requirement of the construction contract.

Most people in the construction industry think of the specifier as the person who pays careful attention to the written bidding and contract documents. In mechanical and electrical engineering, the word “specifying” is often also used to mean selecting equipment. Calculating not only the performances of many interconnected machines but also the conditions of the building, and choosing the equipment that will do the job, is an absorbing and challenging task. Preparing biddable and enforceable written specifications is something engineers may not have been educated to do, but it’s essential to getting the systems you want.

Good Writers Use a MOP

Since 1948, the American construction industry has been fortunate to have an organization dedicated to helping those exchange technical information and prepare documents for contracts: the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI). CSI publishes a Manual of Practice (MOP), an indispensable tool for every office where construction documents are prepared.

Besides being the only nationally promulgated reference that gives you a checklist and example of what should be included in an invitation to bidders, MOP includes chapters on all the basics of preparing written construction documents. One of these is titled “Specification Language,” and in five conveniently outlined pages, it covers many of the issues that typically show up as problems in creating or interpreting written construction documents.

The first principles of specification writing are referred to as the four Cs: Be clear, correct, complete, and concise. Clear specification language is readable and unambiguous. Being correct comes from obtaining the best technical information, including information about the administration of your contract and the procedures the owner will use. Completeness is assisted by using consistent formats and checklists; most people are acquainted with the 16-Division format (MasterFormat) for organizing construction technical information, and mechanical and electrical engineers are familiar with lists of Sections (insulation, piping, plumbing fixtures, conduit, etc.) also based on MasterFormat. Being concise is again a language issue: eliminate unnecessary words, but only the unnecessary words.

The 5th “C”: Context

Good business writing style produces sentences that are accurate, brief, and clear. Simple declarative or imperative statements are appropriate for construction contract documents. You will be more confident in using a simple style if you understand and keep in mind the structure of the entire construction contract. The specifications are only a part of the entire contract, and they do not have to carry the burden of describing the entire contract. If the drafter and specifier know where the other requirements of the contract are located, they can concentrate on the clarity and accuracy of the technical information that their notes and specifications convey. It helps to know just what it is you are writing.

There is an agreement between the owner and the contractor which includes all the other contract documents by reference and by careful listing, including a list of the accepted alternates. General conditions, supplementary conditions, and the administrative and procedural requirements of Division 1 cover much of the ground of the contract. When the contractor signs the agreement, she or he agrees to do all the things included in the specifications and drawings, in accordance with the conditions and requirements.

For this reason, the writers of specifications and notes on drawings do not need to preface every statement with “The Contractor shall…” An imperative statement like, “Apply two coats to each exposed surface,” means that the contractor agrees to get this done, and other requirements will ensure that the coating is new, the worker skillful, and the ambient temperature and humidity are within the appropriate range when the work is done.

Specification language can also be clear for its purpose when it is in the form of an outline. This method is especially well suited to lists of products, materials, and some other topics in specifications such as reference standards. It places a key word at the beginning of an imperative statement, as follows:

  • Suction line: Include a dryer loop and suction line filter; insulated.
  • Portland cement: ASTM C 150, Type 1.
  • Manifolds, headers, and connecting tubing: Seamless copper tubing.

Construction documents are more biddable, constructable, and enforceable when the information you need is easy to find, and when it is simply and straightforwardly expressed.