by Andrew Wilson

Specifications are unlike other forms of writing familiar to design professionals and tradesmen. The writing we’re all exposed to on a daily basis (such as in books, newspapers, websites, etc.) is almost entirely expository, the goal of which is to inform or persuade. Specifications are entirely different: the goal is to describe the design intent and list provisions of the construction contract, with precision, and in language that will be interpreted by each separate reader in exactly the same way. This is no small order. The very qualities that make the English language such an elegant tool for authors and poets – the rich supply of synonyms and the complexities of syntax and grammar – present design professionals with a challenge to create specifications with precision and clarity.

As part of the contract documents, specifications serve to regulate future conduct as much as they document design intent. Each party to the construction contract has a legal right to enforce the obligations and restrictions indicated in the contract documents. Any shortcoming in language that isn’t spotted before contract signing has the potential to cause a problem down the road when brought to light under performance of the contract. Further, after signing the construction contract, no single party has the authority to unilaterally fix mistakes that do come to light. Expository writing that seeks to explain or persuade rather than regulate doesn’t carry with it these sorts of risks.

Every specification provision is subject to intense and prolonged scrutiny by multiple parties, including the owner’s representatives, regulatory agencies, contractors, subcontractors, material suppliers, manufacturer’s representatives, specialty consultants, expert witnesses, attorneys, mediators, judges, and others. Much more time can ultimately be spent negotiating a single disputed provision than was spent writing all of the original project specifications in the first place; this in turn can give rise to additional related issues being disputed and requiring even more time and further resolution. If nothing else, disputes, disagreements, and negotiations reveal one simple truth: provisions agreed to in principal can still include areas of disagreement within their wording. Since the contract documents consist of what is actually written down and are not an abstract notion of what one party thinks they should be, precise language is imperative.

Uncertainty is the specifier’s enemy. Any specification provision that (1) is capable of conveying two or more inconsistent meanings; (2) is too general because a lack of detail makes it unclear what it applies to; (3) employs a word or phrase that conveys a different meaning in another provision; (4) includes a word or phrase that conveys a meaning expressed elsewhere in the same provision; (5) contradicts another provision; or (6) provides for the possibility of borderline cases, can all become a basis of dispute, and eventually litigation. A working knowledge of these sources of uncertainty and a proficiency in eliminating them are essential skills anyone preparing specifications must possess.

With a typical project specification containing over 500 pages and more than 150,000 words in the architectural sections alone, and given the very nature of language and the importance of getting things right the first time, isn’t it clear that the rigorous and comprehensive approach to specifications provided by a specialist is invaluable to those firms who would like to spend their time seeing projects realized rather than exposing themselves to the risks involved in defending poorly prepared contract documents?