Construction Owners: Do You Know Who’s Specifying Your Projects?

October 1, 2012

construction of a new building is a major financial undertaking for owners. For
that reason, owners need to make sure that they get the most for their
construction dollar not just during the bidding/negotiation and construction
phases, but also during the design process. Every decision made during design
has some impact on a project’s bottom line. Therefore, it is prudent for owners
to select design teams with experience and qualifications appropriate to the
specific project.

When selecting a design team, owners consider many factors.
However, frequently overlooked during this selection process is the
construction specifier?the individual responsible for establishing the
qualitative requirements of a construction project. Before exploring the
details of how the construction specifier benefits a project, discussion of
quality and construction documents (particularly, specifications) is necessary
to set the stage.


owner wants a quality project, but what is quality? In 1979, consultant Philip
B. Crosby defined quality as “conformance to requirements.”¹ Determining
requirements and getting something that satisfies those requirements is the
essence of achieving quality. However, in the design and construction business,
establishing requirements is not as easily accomplished as many would think.
Owners and users have expectations for their construction projects. Many will
transform those expectations into design requirements in the form of a
programming document that will guide the design team in developing the design.
Thus, a design team’s ability to satisfy the requirements in the programming
document is at the center of achieving a quality project.

Documents and the Role of Specifications

Developing eye-catching renderings and plans are only
the first steps in achieving a quality project. The design team must develop a
coordinated set of construction documents. At the center of these documents are
the drawings and specifications, of which the drawings usually elicit the most
attention from the owner. The specifications, although acknowledged, are often
ignored as technical, legal documents to be used by the architect and
contractor during the course of construction.

In reality, the specifications are
equal to the drawings if construction contracts are based on the American
Institute of Architects (AIA) documents. AIA Document A201-2007, General
Conditions of the Contract for Construction, states that the drawings and specifications,
as well as other contract documents, are “complementary, and what is required
by one shall be as binding as if required by all.” Some owners do not rely on
this equality and have established some level of precedence among the contract
documents?namely, the placement of specifications over drawings in case of conflict.
Thus, the importance of specifications increases while the attention to their
preparation remains the same. Even if owners take no interest in the content?or
the precedence?of the specifications for their projects, they should take
interest in the individuals who are tasked to prepare them.

Although the drawings provide graphic
information that is needed to construct a building, such as indicating
locations and types of doors, there is a lot of information about those doors
that is not indicated, such as fire ratings, fabrication quality, finishes, and
acceptable manufacturers. This is where the specifications become critical.
They provide specific information about a project’s products and materials, and
the requirements for installation. Owners who are concerned about the type and
quality of materials that go into their projects should be equally concerned
about the specifications?including their contents and how they are prepared.

Who Prepares

to the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI), the person or persons
responsible for the preparation of specifications will vary depending on the
size of the firm. For small firms, the principal is likely to assume the job of
preparing specifications. Medium-sized firms may have a full-time specifier on
staff, while large firms may have an entire department dedicated to the
production of specifications. In most cases, collaborating design consultants?such
as mechanical, electrical, structural, and civil engineers?will prepare the
specifications applicable to their discipline, with one specifier (usually the
architect’s) acting as coordinator.

For some design professionals, the
preparation of specifications is a secondary concern, with specifications
usually prepared close to or following the completion of the drawings as the
deadline draws near. This regrettable
timing likely will create coordination errors. Additionally, preparing
specifications involves more than just the ability to use a word processor to
edit specification masters. Individuals assigned to specifying duties should
have experience in and an understanding of construction materials and methods,
construction law, building codes, and the specification standards developed by
CSI. Individuals with this level of experience can be considered true

Unlike design professionals who prepare specifications as an
additional task (i.e., “specification preparers”), specifiers make specifying
their profession. The difference between specifiers and specification preparers
is that specifiers possess an expertise that allows them to effectively and
efficiently translate a project’s quality requirements into correct, concise
form for the specifications. The availability of commercial guide
specifications makes specifying easier for the specification preparer, but it
takes skill and knowledge to properly use them.

How does an owner know that an experienced person is specifying
a project? In 1978, CSI introduced the
Certified Construction Specifier (CCS) program. Besides the minimum 5-year
experience requirement, a candidate must pass a 200-question exam that tests
the candidate’s ability to apply specifying principles to certain situations.
Of the several thousand specifiers in the United States, only 1,229 have earned
this credential to date.

Setting a

owner’s best defense against poorly prepared construction documents is
requiring experienced and credentialed professionals on the design team. State
laws require that most projects have a licensed professional prepare the
construction documents. But if being a licensed professional was sufficient to
ensure properly prepared construction documents, why is there such a concern
from owners about the quality of
construction documents?

The licensed professional is similar to a
licensed driver?just having a license does not make you a good driver. Experience
makes a better driver, and specialty training qualifies a driver to operate
certain types of vehicles. The CCS is the design profession’s version of an
experienced driver with specialty training.

When selecting design teams for
projects, owners justifiably seek design teams with experience in the owners’
building types. However, experience with a building type only proves that the
design team can address the
specific needs of the project?it says little about their ability to produce a
quality set of construction documents.

Each owner wants a quality project?one
that is designed to meet the owner’s program and aesthetic goal. Owners also
want their projects within budget, completed on schedule, and constructed with
as few problems as possible?all affected by the quality of construction
documents. Owners can set a new standard by requiring qualified construction
specifiers on the design team.



  • Crosby, Philip B.
    Quality is Free: The Art of Making Quality Certain. New York:
    McGraw-Hill, 1979.


    Opinions reflected in this article are
    not necessarily those of NIA. Reprinted with permission from The Voice,
    published by the Construction Users Roundtable.