Are Your Specification Concerns Reaching the Right Person?

Owners, contractors: I’m talking to you. The person who writes the specifications for a project is often not the project architect. Why is this important to keep in mind? A story from real life:

Last night as I sat at dinner with my family, we discussed plans for an upcoming weekend away with friends. My husband has employees, and is good at delegating tasks to his associates and assistants. I work for myself and am used to doing everything at the office. Sometimes my husband employs his well-developed delegation skills at home. (Sometimes I’m halfway through doing something before I realize that he has delegated to me a task that he really ought to be doing himself.)

Last night, the delegation was about our travel plans – he was asking me to email something to our friends that he was having trouble communicating clearly to me. I didn’t understand the point he was trying to make, yet he was asking me to reach out to our friends and “let them know.”

I wasn’t going to pass on some unclear nonsense in an email with my signature. After I suggested that he send the email himself, he managed to verbally articulate his concerns clearly to me, and I later sent the email. It would have been better if my husband had sent the email himself, but he doesn’t like typing (and I love him).

Sometimes while my husband is driving, he’ll call me and ask me to contact someone about coordinating the kids’ soccer practice pickups that he and someone else have already communicated about. I know nothing about their plans, the two of them have previous knowledge, I’m supposed to be the middleman, but I don’t have all the information they have. I do my best, I ask questions to make sure that I’m passing on the right info. I really prefer that my husband contact people directly, but sometimes he doesn’t have contact info at hand while he’s driving.

Not everyone who fulfills delegated middleman tasks is as conscientious as I am. Not everyone understands the things they listen to, transcribe, and send on to someone else, yet they send them on, because they know it’s part of their job. Double-checking that you’ve properly understood the meaning of something before you pass it on to someone else is a good practice, whether it’s for work or fun, but not everyone does this.

The owner, the end users, the construction manager, the general contractor, and the subcontractors on a construction project usually communicate with the project architect or the architecture firm’s construction contract administration person. This person may or may not have prepared the project specifications; usually someone else wrote the specs. If a sub has a question about something in the specifications, and has an old-fashioned talking conversation about it with the project architect, important items have the potential to be lost before they get passed on to the specifier. The project architect or contract administrator, the middleman in this case, may not have the deep knowledge about specifications that the subcontractor and specifier have, and might only pass on what was understood, or might even take a guess at what was meant.

Owners, users, construction managers, general contractors, subcontractors: Never assume that your contact at the architecture firm actually wrote the specs. Keep in mind that it’s possible that this person isn’t actually very familiar with the contents of the project manual. If the specifier is not at your project meeting, and items come up that affect the specs, I suggest that you communicate your concerns in writing to the project architect, so that the project architect can send on your concerns to the author of the specifications verbatim, and not risk having the original meaning of your question or comment get lost in translation. Better yet, copy the specifier on your email to the project architect… or maybe even save the specifier a seat at the table for your project meetings.

10 thoughts on “Are Your Specification Concerns Reaching the Right Person?

  1. More excellent and cogent thought! The situation can become even more problematical when a subcontractor wants to get a substitution approved and the project architect may not be aware of the reasons a product and its attributes were specified.

    • Thanks, Louis.
      You’re right about substitutions – communication about proposed substitutions with the specifier is especially important. I personally want to see all properly-prepared substitution requests on my projects (and I want my architect-clients to reject all that aren’t properly prepared).

      • And the worst case of all [which I’ve experienced] is when the PA has left the firm before the construction period substitution rears its ugly head.

        Keep up the good work! Need to get you to appear as a guest SPG panelist again this year. If you’re interested, send suggestions for topics.


        Louis Medcalf, FCSI, CCS
        Senior Quality Manager

        Gresham, Smith and Partners
        Architecture, Engineering, Interiors, Planning

        1400 Nashville City Center, 511 Union Street
        Nashville, TN 37219-1733
        [P] 615.770.8610
        [M] 615.418.3767

  2. Great post as always Liz! Perhaps a stratagem for the architecture firm is to ensure that the project architect or construction contract administrator is familiar with the contents of the Project Manual. If architects want to do their job correctly, that would seem to be a no-brainer.

  3. I recently had this happen on a project. I requested to the project architect, who selected my product, that they make sure the concrete slab conform to ACI 302.2 and be slab to vapor barrier. This is in every flooring spec now(in some words it is there as it is a fall back for manufacturers. Be it in ASTM F710, or wording, or instalation instructions it is in every standard flooring instruction. But it never makes from whoever writes Div9 to the person who writes Div3 (engineer).

    When the specs & plans came out the engineer had writen in ACI 302.2 into my room only to be slab on vapor barrier. But, he left every other room the same old slab sand vapor barrier combo. I ended up accidentally sitting next to him at a Pre-Con meeting and I thanked him for following my specs instructions. Then I pointed out to him if he has a moisture failure anywhere else on that campus…. any consultant will ask why was that one room done differently from all the other rooms.

    What I realized is by the time my instruction for ACI 302.2 got to him, the why was lost and all he did was put slab to barrier, Which means I have no idea what he missed. Did he change mix for increased shrinkage? Did the GC budget for increased shrinkage and curling? All beyond my scope but all things that can be avoided if he had stopped and asked … why.

  4. Did someone draw a detail so installers know how to do what’s sure to be the funky transition from one to the other? (Or maybe that room has foundation wall all around it, so there is no weird transition?) If someone had, that person would have started asking some questions at that point. Drawing details really helps to identify problems we don’t even know we have, and then helps to flesh out the solutions.

    The “why” definitely got lost there.

    Another why – why do people in California do this sand-between-vapor-retarder-and-slab thing, anyway? Do geotech engineers keep putting in their recommendations or something – something the design professionals are afraid to not follow?

    Structural-related spec sections really need to be a collaboration between architectural and structural. There are too many scope overlaps, especially in masonry and concrete sections, but even in steel sections (when it comes to painting). Too many things rely on each other to try to rope off the concrete section and say that’s all structural’s. I like to be the first and last author of the structural-related sections – to edit the master a bit to delete what structural things I know we don’t have, and to do the architectural things, then pass it on to structural for them to edit the structural things, then get it back, and if I make any changes after that, they’d be architectural, and if there’s any chance they could affect structural, I let structural know.

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