In June's column, I discussed how to find your way around in a specification section by using SectionFormat, the ordered list of topics developed and published by the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI). Using this list and knowledge about a material or product, a designer can create a complete description of what is required, how and where it should be applied, and how it should be related to the administration of the construction contract. However, it's easier and leads to better decision making if the designer uses a set of guide specifications prepared in advance and edits them to suit the project.

But Do They Suit The Project?

Users of contract documents often complain that inexperienced or lazy specifiers have used specifications applicable to another project and not to the one at hand, or office or subscription "masters" or guide specifications without deleting inapplicable products or requirements.

There are reasons why this happens. Under the urgency typical of design projects, editing the specifications may be put off until the last minute, and done hastily. It can be difficult to decide about some of the choices described in the guide specification, or reading quickly, the specifier fails to observe that a choice has to be made. Sometimes it seems that a specification for another project was exactly what is needed on the current job, so the specifier copies it. The technician or subcontractor in the field will discover something that is different this time.

Does Anything Make It Easy?

Preparing specifications is not easy, and inexperienced designers should begin to learn how to do it under the supervision of an experienced person. Attending seminars organized by your local CSI chapter will help. Even when you know the process, the project, and the materials involved, specifying requires attention to written words.

Practice helps, and so does practicing your reading and writing skills in general. If you have young children and want them to grow up with good reading skills, the time you spend with them reading aloud will improve your own reading skill. Challenge yourself. If you don't read them already, read one or more of the more sophisticated periodicals your clients read, such as The Wall Street Journal or The Atlantic Monthly, or literary engineering books such as Henry Petroski's "Remaking the World."

In my August column, I discussed how the different participants on the construction team need to share their knowledge to create documents that truly describe the project the owner wants to build. Whatever the specifier's base document, working with knowledgeable suppliers or subcontractors can make the task of editing easier. However, be wary of inviting the supplier or subcontractor to write the section. Such documents usually contain much more information than is necessary, and they usually contain irrelevant subcontracting or purchase-order language.

The way you approach the task can make it easier. Don't begin to read and edit at the beginning: go to Part 3 - Execution. There, reviewing how the product is to be installed or where it is to be located, you'll be reminded of the different types or characteristics you need. Then look at Part 2 - Products. When you return to Part 1 - General, you'll have a better idea of what submittals are required, and what related sections contain requirements that affect the subject at hand.

New Technologies May Help A Lot

Some of the subscription guide specifications, such as BSD Speclink and MasterSpec (if you use its MasterWorks program), are prepared with electronic links that guide the sophisticated user in making selections. When you edit out a product, the link will automatically edit out installation requirements applicable only to that product. Links permit you to pull up menus of products and find catalog data. All the sections you refer to in the project text can be highlighted on a list.

This technology is used by a specifier who works on the computer, not with paper documents produced by others. Learning to use the computer, using special programs, and handling electronic documents is not easy either, but in the long run, electronic technology will make preparing specifications easier and better. Nothing is going to make it easy to prepare written documents that really describe the particular contract. It always takes skill and attention, but specifiers can obtain useful tools, get appropriate help, and hone their own skills to meet the challenge. ES