(The Least Riveting Books You’ll Ever Read)


We’ve made it to week three, and lately have been answering a lot of questions about Construction. So, a few posts will be dedicated to the collaboration between Architect, Owner and Contractor during Construction. I am proud to present the third post for the Video + Blog series “What the Hell is Architecture?” A series that will present Case Studies, Code Commentaries, How-To Videos, and anything else that comes to mind to try and get the word out on what Architecture, Engineering and Construction ACTUALLY is. (Something the industry has done a poor job of enlightening the public on.)

This Week will be the first post in the explanation of the how the Owner, Architect, and Contractor collaborate during Construction. To begin, we will discuss a document that is just as important as drawings in terms of allowing contractors to bid on a project, and to allow the Architect to ensure everything complies when being constructed…Project Specifications.

Writing A “Book” For Every Project

If you were to ask anyone what Architects do when designing, I have no doubt almost everyone would tell you Architects prepare drawings. Very few outside the industry however, would probably know that every project requires a very lengthy technical manual that explains in detail EVERY aspect of a project, from the color of the tile to the kind of screws used in Metal panels on the walls.

There are many other documents that need to be prepared prior to a project beginning construction. We will discuss them in future posts, however refer to the image below for an easy diagram on what is required to get buildings built. This is a very simplified image, as each project is unique and will require additional documents, or documents to be removed, but the general process for each project is the same.

Below are two sample documents to reference, one is a Table of Contents from a project that was roughly $300,000 to construct. The complexity and length of Project Specifications are not directly linked with project size, but as projects get larger the Specifications tend to as well. The other document is a sample specification for Roof Restoration for an Elastomeric Roof. The content of both documents is not very important, mainly to be used as a reference for this post, however I would recommend looking through and getting a feel for how these are laid out or written…particularly if you have any desire to build anything in the future.

How Specifications Are Used

Specifications have two purposes:

  1. To provide detail and clarification that cannot be conveyed on the drawings. The attached sample spec is 12 pages long, if the information was put on the drawings every time the roof is shown or referenced, the drawings would become unreadable.
  2. To allow the Architect a baseline to review samples and construction against. (We will discuss this further.)

Specifications are not written in a vacuum however. They are unique to each project, and are created with a combination of personal experience, past project’s similarities, and coordination with manufacturers. They are often referred to as “3-Part Specs” as they are often organized into three parts: Part-1 General, Part-2 Products, and Part-3 Execution.

Part 1 – General

As the name implies, the first part covers all the general items of that specification. It will refer you to other specification sections, which may be referenced or be referenced in this spec. It will also state which Reference Standards may be used for testing. (The sample spec attached lists five ASTM standards, which are uniform standards that are used to test different properties of materials, more on ASTM in a future post.)

Certain specifications will also state how materials are to be stored on the site, as well as what sequence they need to be installed regarding the rest of the project. (This may seem a very tedious thing to write, but seeing a pallet of very expensive insulated metal panels sitting in a pool of water with all insulation submerged in water is only one of many construction site observations that make this part necessary.)

One of the most contentious parts of the Specification is listed in this Part, the Warranties. All required warranties for the product are listed here. Sadly, in a bleak race to the bottom, as the years go on Manufacturers are slowly lowering their warranties and covering less and less. This can become problematic when certain government or public agencies REQUIRE minimums on Warranties that manufacturers are no longer offering, requiring a lengthy communication between Architect and Manufacturer.

The portion of this Spec that will play a very important role in the Construction phase is the Submittals and Quality Assurance portion. This is where the Architect lists what they want the contractors to submit prior to being installed. This will be discussed in further detail in a future post, but everything that is called for to be submitted in the Specifications, the contractor is required to submit to the Architect to be reviewed, and then approved prior to ordering and then installing at the Construction site.

Part 2 – Products

The Second Part of the Specification is where the details on what is required for each item is listed. Acceptable Manufacturers may be listed. The Sample Spec is written as a “Closed Specification,” in which it lists one manufacturer and will not allow substitutions. This can be done for Private Construction when there is a unique or specific material needed, it CANNOT be done in public work. (Any job that is built with money acquired through government or public entities.) Public Specifications must be written with at least three competitors for every item, which raises an interesting problem that unique or proprietary materials cannot be legally used on public projects. (Even if they are superior.)

This section can also be helpful in the Submittal Review phase during construction as it will list the properties that are required for the project. In the Sample Spec, almost each of the items clearly states that they are to be a “White Elastomeric” finish, so during the review process if anything of a different color is submitted for example, it is already rejected based on the Specification.

Part 3 – Execution

The final section again is self-explanatory based on its name. The Execution portion of the Specification provides more detail on HOW certain things are to be done during construction. One important note to make is that Architects have no control over “Means and Methods.” The contractor is solely responsible for how and when things are to be done, the Architect is responsible for “What” is being done for the project. So, this portion is not to be an instruction manual for the contractors, instead it is the details on how materials are needed to be handled. (The Sample Specification for example explains how Roof Surfaces need to be prepared before the Substrate can be installed, Section 3.2.) This will also be very important in proving whether a Warranty is voided based on whether their requirements and methods were met during construction. Almost all material vendors have engineering staff dedicated to inspecting whether this was done so it is VITAL that contractors follow these requirements to the letter, and that Architects have spelled these out clearly in the Specifications.

The Third Part in general is where the most coordination with Manufacturers is helpful, as they live and breath their respective materials, and have seen a lot and can be the most help in putting together this portion. It is an understated fact that Architects design buildings using a very rigid set of rules and a “Kit of Parts” with existing materials and manufacturers. A perfect example is a high profile auditorium I was working on had a beautiful curved design with Metal panels, however it was discovered in Construction that the manufacturer could only produce Flat panels, thus leaving everyone with a choice of either making the curved wall out of flat panels, or to have the Contractor pound the panels into a curved shape…neither of which would be appealing. (The final solution was using a larger quantity of thinner flat panels to achieve a somewhat curved look, not horrible, but proving the value of constant coordination with manufacturers and the Architect.)


This is only a scratching of the surface for Specifications, many firms that are large enough will have dedicated staff to writing and editing specifications. And while the task of reading or writing a 2,000 page technical manual is daunting, and not nearly as “exciting” as the drawings prepared for a project, they are not only necessary but VITAL to a project’s success: both in its bidding, (Well written and detailed Specifications can help obtain more accurate bid numbers from Contractors.) and its Construction. (Clearly defined properties and Submittal requirements will allow for an expedient review process during Construction, when time is of the most essence.)

Whenever you have a question or concern about Construction, talk to an Architect.

Years of writing Specifications, reviewing Submittals, touring Construction sites and coordinating with Manufacturers and Construction Materials have given Architects a breadth of knowledge in Construction. This has hopefully introduced how Specifications play a role in Construction, as they will be referenced often in our next few posts detailing more about the collaboration of Architect, Owner and Contractor in getting things built.

If you feel I missed the mark or am misinformed on any aspect of what I wrote, please let me know.

If you did enjoy the post or have any ideas or questions you would like to see or hear about in the upcoming posts and videos in this series, please let me know that as well.

Thank you all and have a great day.

  • Bryan Toepfer, AIA, NCARB, CAPM
  • Principal – Architect

Lets Build Something Together

<strong>Bryan Toepfer, AIA, NCARB, CAPM</strong>
Bryan Toepfer, AIA, NCARB, CAPM

Bryan Toepfer is the Principal Architect and founder of TOEPFER Architecture, PLLC, an Architecture firm specializing in Residential Design, Construction and Virtual Reality modeling.

Taking his philosophy of the importance of education to heart, he guide clients through the process of Design and Construction with each project. He runs a blog titled “What the Hell is Architecture?” with the goal of sharing with others the many aspects of Architecture. He also coaches Intern Architects studying for their Architectural License exams, as well as teaches at a local University.

He lives in Rochester, New York with his wife, two dogs and two cats.

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