Why Does My Spec Writer Ask So Many Annoying Questions?

Many full-time specifiers were project architects at some point. We’ve been in your shoes. We are thinking about ourselves in your future shoes, a few months from now, during construction. That’s why we ask you all these questions during the Construction Documents phase.

How do spec writers keep all these questions in their heads?

Well, they’re not always bouncing around in our heads. When we use our master spec sections to prepare project specification sections, we get prompted to think about many little details of construction, spanning a range from bidding to layout, rough construction, finished construction, to warranties and life cycle maintenance. We also think about sequencing, and how things will all get put together, a little more than some other members of the design team do.

But I still have design work, and other stuff to do right now, during CDs. Why do I have to think about these questions now? Why can’t we just address these things in the field?

The process of writing a spec section, much like the process of drawing a construction detail, is part of the process of design. Your spec writer is a design professional, just as your consulting engineers are.

Sometimes spec writers think a little bit like estimators – when we look at product data and specification masters, we consider different product options and selections that need to be made. That’s one reason we ask the project architect questions. We don’t want you to have to make these selections during the submittals part of construction. We want to specify it now. Why? It’s not because we’re control freaks, and it’s not that we’re so concerned about your work load during construction contract administration (although some of us might be control freaks, and I personally am concerned about my architect-clients’ work load during construction). We want to spec these things now because now, during CDs, is the right time.

Some product options are standard and others cost more. We’d rather specify the color you want, now, before the contract is signed, so that there won’t be extra costs in the form of change orders for silly things like colors that are more expensive than the color group the contractor was expecting (and priced).

Sometimes we think like installers or subcontractors. We might ask questions about whether the owner wants vinyl tiles to be under the casework, or to butt to the casework. This is something that might be in spec sections for casework and for vinyl tile. Someone needs to make the owner’s expectations explicitly clear to the contractor. The owner might not care. But the owner might care – the project architect should ask the owner.

Things that ought to be addressed during CDs, and aren’t, often end up costing the owner more money, end up costing the architect more time (and therefore burning through more fee and therefore reducing the firm’s profit) and end up causing the general contractor more stress, because of having to obtain a price on documents that aren’t really complete, and having to then address (argue about) discrepancies between what was actually desired (but not specified clearly) and what was priced (based on fair assumptions).

SOMEBODY HAS TO ADDRESS THESE ISSUES. The most qualified person, and the person who might actually be legally obligated, to address these issues, is the architect. The contractor often ends up making these decisions, and it’s not always the way the owner or the architect would have liked it – it’s better to explain how you’d like it, so the contractor knows, instead of letting him do it however he decides, and then asking for it to be redone later. Redoing things costs the owner extra money.

THE ISSUES HAVE TO BE ADDRESSED AT SOME POINT. They will not just go away. The time to address these things is during construction documents phase, when everything can be considered together before it’s too late. (Before it’s too late to make necessary changes to other things in order to get everything to turn out the way you envision. Nothing in design and construction can be considered in a vacuum. Everything affects, and is affected by, other things.) Try to address everything now, and you’ll have fewer surprises during construction.

Your spec writer is thinking about these relationships between building elements right now, and has taken the time to ask you the questions, and wants to write the specs in such a way that your intent can be achieved during construction.

Take the time now, read your spec writer’s provoking emails now, think through everything now, ask your spec writer questions now, and get all those design decisions made now, so that you’re not scrambling later, under the gun, in the field, during construction.

This is what the sophisticated owner expects.

14 thoughts on “Why Does My Spec Writer Ask So Many Annoying Questions?

  1. The easy and efficient way to avoid so many questions from the specifier towards the end of the CD phase is to maintain a product file while doing the detailed design. As you do research on product selection or the products you based the details on, take the small amount of time to document what product(s) meet the project needs.

    Make a copy of the catalog page or save the website page as a PDF and mark the selections from among the available options and choices or critical characteristics required. Maintain the file for transmission to your specifier at the appropriate time(s). Maintaining this file as you go will save much time and frustration in comparison to getting the questions later and then trying to recall where you found the product info that you used and going back to try and find it.

    Avoid the temptation to note the proprietary name on the drawings or model. If you do that, you are indicating there is only one product to do the job which is probably not true. If a different product is selected later you will have to go back and revise it everywhere you noted it on the drawings and you will probably miss one creating a conflict. Instead, choose a generic name – if you multiple versions of that product call them Type A, B, C, etc. Mark your generic names for the products in your product file and you have given coordinated info to your specifier. If you are not sure of an appropriate generic name, ask your specifier – do the coordination at the beginning rather than trying to catch the terminology coordination issues later. Again it will save time and frustration later.

    It’s “pay me now or pay me much more later in terms of time!”

    Maintaining this product file as you go will keep that annoying specifier off your back and you might even get a few compliments and thanks! You may also have time to actually have lunch and enjoy that happy hour!

  2. The actual writing of the specification is arguably the least important part of what a specifier does.

    My clients have told me that the questions we ask are the most valuable aspect of the service we provide. Our questions bring up issues they may not have thought about. Part of why specifiers can do this is that we are not as close to, nor as familiar with, the project as is the project architect. Therefore it’s easier for us to see what is not there, or to see anomalies in the drawings, that the project architect may not see.

    Those clients who understand and appreciate our questions and the value they bring to the project, will be repeat clients.

    It’s very satisfying to be told by clients that they always learn something from our discussions, or that we have helped make them a better architect. Those clients are a joy to work with.

  3. Yes, I’ve felt the annoyance many times. But nearly every time the question asked becomes a catalyst for solving important related issues that no one (even the spec writer) considered. Especially the ones dealing with material interfaces and construction sequences. Architects often stop after thinking about the finished product, and spec writers consider the whole process.

  4. The specifier’s questions are in effect the design phase RFIs. They are usually the result of incomplete, contradictory, or missing information within the progress documents or from experience of coordinating material interfaces. If during the data gathering process the specifier cannot decipher the intent, do you think the contractor will do any better?

    The best part of the specifier’s questions is that all can be resolved before the contractors ever see the documents. In effect eliminating the need for RFIs to address the same questions.

    Just remember the specifier is trying to help make the documents as good as they can be and to help guide the design team to to good technical decisions to avoid problems during construction.

  5. The most lamentable thing about being a spec writer is being perceived as adversarial. We are not being obtuse when we ask questions. We are trying to help. It’s regrettable that QA reviews performed during the process of construction documentation often result in more work for the architect. It doesn’t make me happy to learn that I forgot something or made a mistake and have to do extra work to correct it, so I wouldn’t expect an architect to react otherwise if faced with additional work, particularly with the compressed deadlines and fast track construction common in contemporary construction projects. It’s refreshing to see responses like those of dbarchcsi that assert the value added through a specifier’s questions. Thanks.

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