Spec: a four-letter word

Spec: a four-letter word

The following article was originally presented nearly 40 years ago at the 1978 American Society of Plumbing Engineers Convention in New Orleans, USA. It has been modified to correct obsolete information and is presented here to reiterate the continued importance of writing concise and accurate specifications, no matter which continent you are on. We thank the American Society of Plumbing Engineers (ASPE) for granting Plumbing Connection magazine permission to reproduce this article for the benefit of the Australian plumbing industry. Good advice never dates.

Written by Dr. Alfred Steele, PE.

It has always been a popular pastime of contractors and manufacturers to gripe about plumbing specifications. While it’s true that many of the gripes are unwarranted, to be honest we must admit that the majority of the complaints are legitimate and justly deserved. I’m going to take the liberty at this point, of cleaning up the more colourful language usually employed in voicing the following complaints:

  • The specs are too darn ambiguous.
  • The spec doesn’t pertain to this job.
  • The specified model numbers no longer exist.
  • We discontinued the specified product more than five years ago.
  • I don’t know what I’m supposed to furnish and install.
  • Equipment is specified all over the place in the specifications—hidden somewhere on the drawings—or not specified at all.
  • References are made to other sections of the specs, but the information can’t be found there.
  • There’s so darn much extraneous garbage in the spec that I have to waste a lot of valuable time just searching for the important and pertinent data.
  • I don’t know what the engineer wants or what he’ll accept.

This is just a brief sampling of the many complaints but it is sufficient to give you a general idea of the scope of the griping and to indicate why spec has become a dirty four-letter word to many people.

The following statement has been credited to some unknown but shrewd observer of the construction industry. “Architects know a little about a lot of things; engineers know a lot about a few things; but the specification writer thinks they know everything about everything.”

The Bible tells us that Noah received the specifications for building the Ark directly from God. Perhaps it’s this august beginning that has instilled the omnipotent attitude of specification writers. I’m going to attempt to cast aside this holier-than-thou mantle of the spec writer and examine the basics of good specification writing. At the same time, I’ll focus on those areas that have generated such a profusion of legitimate complaints and grievances.

For many years anyone connected with the construction industry has been painfully aware of the shortcomings of specifications. It would require a voluminous book to chronicle all of the complaints. Rather than dwell on the negative aspects, I’ll make an effort to correct the most obvious defects and propose techniques for corrective action.

The writing of a specification is usually the final task in the learning process of becoming a full-fledged plumbing engineer. To be a good designer of plumbing systems you must possess a rare combination of technical knowledge, experience, art and intuition. The specifications for plumbing systems however, have nothing to do with art or intuition. A plumbing specification must be a precise and exact document.

The person usually selected to write specifications in any office is the one who has demonstrated their abilities as a qualified design professional. With such a superior individual in command it’s difficult to understand why there appears to be such a universal dissatisfaction with specs. Perhaps some light will be shed on the problem as I proceed.

Construction Specifications Institute

 In the past, it was an extremely rare occurrence to find specs produced by two different offices that resembled each other in format, phraseology or content. The Construction Specifications Institute (CSI), organised in 1948, has miraculously produced a concept—and the implementation of that concept—out of the maze of conflicting regional practices and opinions, so that we now have a truly national set of construction specifications. The set of documents is orderly, logical, simple and commendably flexible. At the time this article was written, there were 16 divisions of the contract documents, and plumbing found its place in Division 15. Fast forwarding to today, we now have 24 divisions and the plumbing-related specifications are found within Division 22.

The CSI did a fantastic job on the original 16 divisions, and these divisions eventually won wide acceptance by architects and structural engineers. Because they originally did not do as good a job on Division 15—Mechanical, the plumbing and HVAC engineers were reluctant to completely adapt to the recommendations. Although mechanical engineers did not accept the complete concept or format of Division 15, most of them eventually wrote their specs in one variation or another, using some of the recommendations and ignoring others. Eventually these original 16 divisions were expanded into the 24 divisions that we currently have today and the industry has widely accepted the new format.

Understanding Components of Construction Documents

It is essential to understand, and be familiar with, all of the components that make up the construction documents to write a good plumbing specification. The role that specifications must play as one of the components will then become obvious.


To effectively discuss the contract documents, it becomes necessary to define all of the terms used in arranging the documents so that one term, and one term only, is used for any one part. Only then can everyone talk the same language and not misunderstand or misinterpret each other.

Bidder vs. Contractor

The first two words requiring definition are ‘bidder’ and ‘contractor’.  These two words are key to the separation of the various documents.

‘Bidder’ is used only in conjunction with the requirements applicable to bidding and making the award of the contract.

‘Contractor’ is used only in conjunction with the requirements applicable to the successful bidder after they have been awarded the contract.

The definitions are clear and simple yet you would be amazed at how often they are confused and used interchangeably. Absolutely no instructions to the bidder should ever appear in the specifications. The specifications are instructions to the contractor only and the bidder uses the information given therein to prepare his proposal.

Construction Contract Documents

In the past, these documents were erroneously called ‘plans and specifications’ and there are still too many individuals who continue to use this terminology.

It became obvious that many items included in the construction contract documents were neither plans nor specifications. Instead of ‘plans’, the terminology is now ‘Drawings’ with a capital D (surely elevations, riser diagrams, and flow diagrams are not plans).

Instead of ‘specifications’, which was the word used to describe all of the documents with the exception of the Drawings, the terminology is now ‘Project Manual’. The construction contract documents are thus comprised of the Drawings and the Project Manual.

Project Manual

This is a much more accurate and descriptive term to describe all of the documents other than the Drawings. The Project Manual generally consists of the following:

  • Invitation to bid
  • Instruction to bidders
  • Bid forms
  • Bond forms
  • Forms of agreement
  • General Conditions of the contract for construction
  • Supplementary conditions
  • Specifications
  • Addenda

Each of the foregoing is a separate and distinct document. It should be noted that although the specifications comprise the bulk of the Project Manual, they are only one of the many required documents.

Purpose of the Various Documents

Although the plumbing engineer is not usually involved in the writing of any of the documents other than the plumbing specifications and addenda, a brief description of the purpose of the various documents should prove helpful. When you understand the overall picture you are able to perform your function more efficiently.

Invitation to Bid

This is used to quickly and simply advise prospective bidders about the proposed project. For private work, architects and engineers frequently send the invitation electronically via email, to a selected list of prospective contractors or simply call them on the phone. For public work, the law generally requires the invitation to be published in a newspaper of general circulation.

Instruction to Bidders

Although it could be successfully argued that everything in the contract documents is an instruction to the bidder, it is the purpose of this document to inform each bidder how to prepare the bid so all bids are in the same format and can be compared more easily.

Bid Forms

These provide a uniform submittal template by all bidders to facilitate the comparison and evaluation of the bids.

Bond Forms

The bond is a legal document that binds a third party into the contract as a security that the bidder and contractor will perform as agreed. Three types of bonds in common use are (1) bid bond, (2) performance bond, and (3) labour and materials payment bond.

Form of Agreement

The agreement is often confused with the contract. The contract consists of all of the contract documents, whereas the agreement is simply one of those documents.

General Conditions

These define the contractual relationships and procedures relative to the project. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has produced the ‘General Conditions of the Contract for Construction’ document (AIA-A201) that is the culmination of more than 105 years of continuing refinement by the best legal and administrative talents available. The latest revisions were made in 2007. The document now consists of more than 40 closely printed pages and is often used verbatim, or in amended form, by many specification writers.

Supplementary Conditions

General conditions are usually produced as a standard document for use on all projects, however each project has its own individual and unique characteristics. It therefore becomes necessary to modify, add to or delete certain items in the general conditions. These modifications, additions and deletions comprise the supplementary conditions.


All items of work in the contract (except for Division 01 in the CSI format) should be listed in the specifications. This means that every type and kind of work shown on the Drawings or otherwise to be included in the contract should be covered in the specifications. The purpose of the specifications is to define the quality and types of materials and workmanship upon which the contract is based.


Addenda signify ‘added information’ and are used to modify the contract documents during bidding. They are seldom used after the award of contract. When addenda information is required after the contract is awarded, change orders, field orders or some other modification to the contract is often employed, which is currently typically classified as a bulletin or proposal request.

The foregoing has been a much-too-brief and simplified description of the various documents that constitute the construction contract documents but knowing the purpose of each of the documents engenders a better understanding of the particular requirements, and therefore a firmer grasp on the technique of writing a good specification can be achieved.


The most accurate and damaging accusation levelled at a spec writer is that of ambiguity and verbosity. The hallmark of a good spec is its brevity, consistency and lack of redundancy. A specification should be clear, concise and correct. A general rule of thumb question that can be applied to assess the quality of a spec is ‘are the bids within a narrow range or are there wide variations in prices?’ The trouble with this rule of thumb is that it can only be applied after the fact but if you take the trouble to find out why there was a wide discrepancy in bids it should be of enormous help when writing your next specification.

What follows does not presume to be a lesson in grammar or the use of the English language. There are however, certain phrases and word usages that are preferable for specifications. There are also phrases, usages and styles that should definitely be avoided. Some of the most flagrant abuses and troublesome practices, as well as suggested corrective procedures, will be discussed.

It should always be kept firmly in mind that the specification is a part of the contract documents and must therefore be written with extreme care. It must also be written clearly enough so it can be easily understood by anyone (including non-technical lawyers, judges and the laymen on a jury).

Specifications are not written to be deathless prose but they are not ever intended to be contenders for a Pulitzer or Nobel literary award. Long words, legalese phraseology and complicated compound sentences have no place in the specifications. They may impress your Aunt Tillie, but the very complexity of the writing lends itself to various and many times expensive, interpretations.


The spec writer should always give specific instructions and complete information regarding the item they are specifying. It should never be necessary to resort to any of the following or similar phrases:

  • As approved by the engineer
  • As directed by the engineer
  • In the opinion of the engineer
  • To the satisfaction of the engineer
  • At the discretion of the engineer
  • Unless otherwise directed by the engineer

Such phrases are absolutely worthless and only create a lucrative business for lawyers. It is not necessary to constantly repeat ‘as approved by the engineer’. This has been clearly stated and defined in the general conditions and is adequate and sufficient to cover all parts of the specifications. The only purpose served by the repetition is to inflate the spec.

How is it possible for anyone to anticipate what the engineer will ‘direct’ or to know what the ‘opinion’ of the engineer is or may be at a future date? Do you know what ‘satisfaction’ means? Webster defines it as “a personal feeling of pleasure or comfort generated by an award, a gift, or some emolument.” There’s more than the slight smell of graft involved here! It’s a surprise that some sharp lawyer hasn’t spotted this and used it to defend a client accused of paying a bribe, with the argument that he was only trying to live up to the terms of the contract. This may sound facetious but anything can happen when you get into a court of law.

The inclusion of the foregoing phrases is a definite admission that there’s an inadequacy in the specifications and drawings. These types of phrases are a substitute for necessary research and are an attempt to shift responsibility from the office to the field. They are used when the spec writer is unsure of the quality or characteristics they should specify. When such phrases appear it becomes necessary for the bidder to ask questions, do some guessing or increase their quote to cover the unknown.

An example of this is, “trenches shall be excavated to the depths shown on the Drawings or as directed by the engineer.” This is a clear admission that the depths shown are not accurate and that deeper excavation may be required. When such a ‘God save the King’ clause is necessary, it is only fair to the bidder that they be given assurance that they will be compensated for any extra depth of excavation required.


No two words in the English language have the exact same meaning. When writing a work of fiction it might be desirable to use synonyms to avoid the constant repetition of a particular word but specifications are not novels. The spec writer should select the word that best conveys their exact meaning and then repeat that word as often as necessary for a clear and concise statement.


Specifications are actually commands to the contractor. ‘Shall’ is an imperative verb and should always be used whenever someone is told to do something e.g. “the contractor shall install” or “the contractor shall furnish”.

‘Will’ is not a command. It is a statement that something is going to occur in the future. In specifications it is used to impart information e.g. “install toilet paper and towel holders, which will be furnished by the owner.”


Always use the word ‘shall’ instead of ‘must’. If both words are used interchangeably, a difference in the degree of responsibility is implied.

‘To be’, ‘is to be’, ‘are to be’, ‘should’ and ‘should be’ are all indefinite forms of the verb and as such have no place in the specifications. Specs are composed of specifics—not indefinites!

When the paragraphs on the ‘scope of work’ or the ‘description of the work’ have been adequately written then there is no need whatsoever to repeat ‘as shown’ again and again within the body of the spec. Neither is it necessary to use ‘as specified herein’—that’s what the specs are all about!

The combination ‘and/or’ sends shudders up the spine of any scholar of the English language. It is positively and definitely not considered proper usage. A judge, in rendering a court decision in a case, termed it senseless jargon. In writing a spec, use either ‘and’ or ‘or’ but never both in combination. The word ‘or’ denotes a choice so extreme caution should be observed when it is used.

Consider this sentence, “remove trash, rubbish, garbage or debris”. The word ‘and

Is obviously required in this instance, otherwise the contractor could successfully argue that they only had to remove the garbage and that someone else was responsible for the trash or the rubbish or the debris.

And how about ‘close proximity’? This is the same as a girl who insisted she was only ‘slightly pregnant’.

‘Unless otherwise specified’ is unforgivable. If you know what you are doing and the specs are complete then the exact location where it is otherwise specified should be given. The phraseology would then be, “except as specified in Section ___”. The specifications are explicit instructions to the contractor; they are not intended to be a guessing game!

‘By others’ is another vague and indefinite term that has no right to appear in the specifications. When necessary to make reference to work by another trade or contractor, or anyone else, make the reference specific e.g. “furnished by the HVAC contractor” or “installed by the electrical contractor.”

The word ‘intent’ is used much too frequently. There is no necessity to explain that the specifications have intent. Specs are not intentions; they are requirements!

It is possible, and surprisingly easy, to write an entire specification without once using “the contractor shall”. The specs are direct instructions and commands to the contractor. When instructing five-year-old Roger how to cross the street, you don’t say, “Roger shall look up and down the street before crossing”. Why do it in a spec?

The use of the imperative mood is more preferable and it also tends to avoid any conflict between the contractor and subcontractor e.g. “support horizontal steel pipe every 12 feet”, “test the sanitary drainage system” and “submit a schedule of”.

The foregoing by no means encompasses all of the unnecessary and undesirable practices of the past but it does point the way toward the improvement of spec writing. The task will be made easier and less error will occur if you always keep in mind that you are writing directly to the contractor and that your purpose is to provide them with clear and concise instructions.


If the principle that each construction contract document serves a particular and unique function, it then becomes a corollary that a particular function should be served by one document only. The function of the specifications has been discussed and no other document should perform that function. Yet specifications constantly appear on Drawings. The function of the Drawings is to define the physical relationship of materials, while the function of the specs is to define the quality and types of materials and workmanship. What appears in one should not be duplicated in the other. Redundancy is expensive. It requires manpower to place information in documents and it requires more manpower to make the inevitable revisions.

It is also potentially very expensive if information has been stated differently in two or more documents. Many engineering firms have adopted the policy that, whenever possible, information is to be shown in the most logical place and that information is to be given once and once only.


How should a specification section be written? If the ancient traditions are followed, you start with a statement that the general conditions, supplementary conditions and all provisions of Division 01 apply to the work of this section as thoughtfully set forth herein.

Then you attempt to spell out the work of some hypothetical subcontractor, telling them what they must do and what someone else will do, ad nauseam. Following this auspicious beginning you then launch into descriptions of every tiny component of the work of the section, trying to cover every pertinent item you can think of. Then you wrap up the entire package with the carefully worded instruction to “perform all work in a first-class and workman-like manner.” You then relax and sit back with a feeling of a job well done. Well it wasn’t well done and you shouldn’t be complimenting yourself if you followed that procedure.

It’s pointless to constantly remind the contractor of one part of his responsibilities and why is that data repeated and other data stated only once? Is one so much more important, or less important, than the other?

The general conditions generally include a statement that it is the contractor’s prerogative to divide the work among their subcontractors as they see fit and that nothing in the contract documents shall be construed to diminish that responsibility. Therefore, when an individual section is written you are addressing the contractor and not one of their subs, even though the material may have been carefully arranged to reflect the probable contents of a subcontract. All of the wording must be addressed to the contractor and not to the subcontractor. The contract is strictly between the owner and the contractor.

With all of this in mind, the path that must be followed is narrow and clearly defined. The data must be arranged to be of maximum use to the contractor in dealing with their subs but everything must be written as though the sub were nonexistent. We address ourselves strictly to the contractor. This is not as difficult as it sounds, particularly if you eliminate all those ‘the contractor shall’ sentences.

The CSI has incorporated the use of the three-part section format. When writing a section, you divide it into three separate and distinct parts:

  1. General,
  2. Products
  3. Execution

Included in part one are the scope, necessary references to related work described elsewhere, a listing of the codes and standards to be followed in the work of the section, qualifications of personnel and manufacturers, data as to what shop drawings to submit and how to submit them, what samples are required, all information about product handling and storage, spare parts to be furnished and everything else not specifically included in the other two parts of the section.

Included in part two are all of the products to be used in the work of the section. The products are described as accurately but briefly as possible. Absolutely nothing is said in part two about how these products are to be installed. All remarks are limited to pure data about the products themselves.

Included in part three is a completely detailed description of how the products are to be installed and the work performed. For each and every product listed in part two there should be an adequate description of its installation in part three. Also included are the descriptions of the tests to be performed, coordination with other trades, acceptance of substrata, tolerances of installation and similar data. In short, all of the active, on-the-job execution of the work of the section is set forth in part three.

At the risk of becoming tedious, it must be stressed that specifications are not written to demonstrate the great wisdom of the writer. They are written for all those people involved in the construction industry, including bidders, contractors, purchasing agents, manufacturers, wholesalers, sales engineers, inspectors and many more. As a group they could be termed the ‘spec readers’. Specifications must be tailored to the needs of spec readers if you are to avoid confusion and trouble. The three-part format serves this purpose admirably.

For the spec writer who must create a new section from scratch, having a standard pattern to follow gives a built-in checklist of what to include and where it is to be included. Separating the section into three manageable increments allows extra attention to be paid to the particular needs of each part. When the specifier knows the product described in part two must have a description of its installation in part three, there is a tendency to collect installation data more carefully while researching the product.

During the construction of the project and after completion countless questions are raised about many and various things. Constant reference to the specifications is required. It’s important to be able to locate data in a spec quickly and efficiently. You don’t want to look like an idiot because you can’t find what you said, although you know it’s in there somewhere. Having a consistent and logical pattern for every section permits you to quickly pinpoint what was said, about both the product and its installation.

Quick retrieval is of course important to the spec writer but think of the scores of people who must read, understand and carry out the requirements of any one section of the specs before the project is finally completed and functioning. A cherished dream of the people who must read specs for a living is to have specification sections, wherever they may be written in the world, in a pattern that is uniform, consistent, logical and easy to read. Specs are usually dull reading so there’s no need for them to be frustrating as well. You can help bring one small ray of sunshine into the spec readers’ lives by the simple procedure of helping yourself through the use of the standard arrangement of data in spec sections as recommended by the CSI.


No discussion of specifications would be complete without at least a passing reference to the ‘or equal’ controversy. Some wit once said that all products are equal, except that some are more equal than others. Every time there’s a full moon, some fanatic is found running around shouting that we should never, never use the words ‘or equal’.

All of you have probably heard the interminable arguments pro and con, as well as the various proposed remedies to eliminate the abuses of substitutions. Suffice to say, the controversy is no nearer a satisfactory conclusion now than it was before and I have no intention of boring you with a long-winded and fruitless dissertation on the subject.


Many engineers seem to think that when the specification has been written and distributed their job is finished. Well, it isn’t! They are only half-right in their assumption. Administration of the specification is just as important, if not more so, than the finished document. Proper administration can eliminate many of the inadequacies of a poor spec, whereas improper administration can ruin a good one. Poor administration has led many individuals to voice the opinion that we don’t need specifications at all; no one ever looks at them! It’s sad to relate that there are too many projects where this observation is only too true.

Why bother to write definitive instructions for the proper installation of work and descriptions of the quality of materials and equipment to be furnished if, when the project is in progress, you permit the contractor to do exactly what he jolly well pleases? This lack of forceful administration is rapidly leading to deterioration in the quality of materials and equipment available. Quality manufacturers are finding it more and more difficult, if not impossible, to meet the lower prices of inferior products that the engineer accepts. It has led some major quality manufacturers to the expedient of offering three choices. They still offer the quality product on which their reputation was built but they also offer one that is not quite as good and another that they euphemistically call the ‘economy line’ or the ‘competitive line’.

This whole subject is worthy of a separate and complete discussion and so will not be pursued at this time. Suffice to say, if you believe in what you have specified you owe it to yourself, your client and the consumer to insist on and get exactly what you specify.


The essence of a well-written specification is clarity and brevity. If one word will suffice, don’t use two or more. If one phrase is adequate, don’t elaborate. If one sentence serves the purpose, don’t blow it up into a paragraph. The approach should be to eliminate as much excess verbiage as possible, not to enlarge the volume of words without any resultant increase in clarity. By a judicious use of the scalpel, the average specification could probably be reduced in volume by at least 50% without the loss of one iota of direction, instruction, assignment of responsibility or purpose.

Every spec writer should seriously study the recommendations of the CSI with an open mind. The goal of the CSI is to establish a uniform practice for all construction specifications to enable better communication between the design professional and all other segments of the construction industry. The result will be a vehicle by which an engineer in San Francisco can converse intelligently and meaningfully with a supplier in New York by using the same language, with the same meanings, in the same way. What you specify is your own business—you can ask for the moon if you so desire—but the way you specify is crucial to being understood by the people with whom you must communicate.

We are well on our way toward a national standard format for spec writing. When we finally achieve the goal, perhaps spec will then become that much-desired four-letter word love.

Dr. Alfred Steele, PE, joined ASPE in 1968 and was a Past President of the ASPE Research Foundation. He received a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the City University of New York and a degree in Civil Engineering from Ohio Christian College. A licensed Professional Engineer, Dr. Steele spent more than 44 years in the engineering field and his expertise included process piping plumbing and fire protection. He was the author of three pioneering volumes on plumbing engineering: Engineered Plumbing Design, Advanced Plumbing Technology, and High-Rise Plumbing Design (now out of print). Dr. Steele passed away in 1998.

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