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How to Write Specifications

Specifications are the written requirements for a material, product, or service for a proposed project, like a building, bridge or machine. For architectural projects, the specifications are part of the Contract Documents included with the bidding and construction requirements and the drawings. This guide will cover how to organize specifications, the types of specification methods and specific type of language used for writing specifications.

Purpose of Specifications


Specifications should describe the type and quality of every product required for the project.


The specifications should describe the requirements for fabrication, erection, application, installation and finishing.


Specifications should describe the quality of workmanship necessary for the project. This includes all phases of creation and installation starting with manufacturing, fabrication, and application, through installation, finishing and adjustment.


Specifications should include any necessary codes and standards applicable to the project.


The specifications should also include descriptions and procedures for alternate materials, products or services if necessary.

Organization of the Project Manual

Contract Documents contain the bidding and construction requirements, drawings and specifications. The project manual is the bound written portion of the Contract Documents. The project manual is typically organized according to MasterFormat * . The project manual contains the following elements:

Introductory Information Title Page Certifications Page Table of Contents Guide to Use of the Project Manual (used by many specifiers)

Bidding Requirements Bid Solicitation: Advertisement/Invitation to Bid Instructions to Bidders Information Available to Bidders Bid Forms and Supplements

* For more information about MasterFormat see Construction Specifications Writing Principles and Procedures by Harold J. Rosen.

Contracting Requirements Agreement General Conditions of the Contract Supplementary Conditions of the Contract Bonds and Certificates

Specifications Division 01 – General Requirements Divisions 02 through 49 – Technical Specifications

Appendices Appendices are not included in MasterFormat but they are useful for including copies of information, reference documents, existing conditions photographs or example forms for use in administration.

Organization of Specifications

It is important for the specifications section of the project manual to be arranged in an orderly and comprehensive format. If the section is organized clearly and follows a defined procedure it is less likely that the specifier will overlook or forget something. It will also help the contractor, estimator, inspector, or other reviews find information more easily.

SectionFormat is a nationally approved, industry-accepted standard that provides a defined procedure for organization of the specifications section. It provides guidelines for the arrangement of information within the technical section of specifications. The concise orderly method reduces the chance for omissions or duplication of information and it assists users of the document by consistently locating similar information in the same place in each Section. SectionFormat has three separate parts:

Part 1 – General: This section describes administrative, procedural and temporary requirements specific to this section of specifications.

Part 2 – Products: This section describes, in detail, the materials, products, equipment, systems or assemblies to be used in the project.

Part 3 – Execution: This section describes, in detail, any preparatory actions and how the products shall be incorporated into the project.

To go along with SectionFormat is PageFormat. PageFormat is a standardized presentation of text for each page of a specification Section. It provides a concise and orderly arrangement of Articles, Paragraphs and Subparagraphs and it addresses the physical arrangement on the page, such as margins, indents, headers and footers. The following list is the levels of organization for PageFormat:

PageFormat Levels

PART 1 – GENERAL LEVEL (First Level)

1.01 ARTICLE (Second Level) A. Paragraph (Third Level) 1. Subparagraph (Fourth Level) a. Subparagraph (Fifth Level) 1) Subparagraph (Sixth Level)

Types of Specifications

There are four methods of specifying. There is no defined rule for using one method over another or about combining methods, but care should be taken to avoid redundancy or contradictions. The four methods are:






Reference Standard



Descriptive Specifications

Under this method of specifying the exact properties of the materials and methods of installation are described in detail without using proprietary or manufacturer's names. Descriptive specifications are commonly used for products for which no standards exist, on projects where using proprietary names is restricted, and in situations where the Architect/Engineer want to exercise tight control over the specified work. There are five steps for preparing descriptive specifications:

1. Research available products

2. Research the important features required for the product.

3. Determine which features to describe in the specification and which features to show in the drawings.

4. Describe the important features.

5. Specify quality assurance measures (i.e. submittals, certifications, testing or inspection activities)

Advantages to using descriptive specifications:

Q Descriptive specifications specify exactly what the design intends.


They are applicable to all conditions, methods or situations of a project.


They are applicable to all sizes and types of projects.


They permit free competition because they do not restrict the use of specific products or manufacturers.

Disadvantages of descriptive specifications:


They require the specifier to take special care in describing the design intent in order to achieve the desired results.


Descriptive specifications tend to take up more space because they require more verbiage than other methods.


They may be more time consuming than other methods to create and write.


They are being used less often as more complete reference standards are being developed and implemented.

Performance Specifications

Under this method the required end results are specified along with the criteria by which the performance will be judged and the method by which it can be verified. The contractor is free to choose the materials and methods that comply with the performance specification. They are generally used to encourage the use of new and innovative techniques that may lead to more economical construction. They are also used to supplement other specification methods.

Advantages to using performance specifications:


Only the end result or design intent is specified, this gives the Contractor flexibility in selecting and applying products.


They permit free competition.


They can be applicable in all types and sizes of projects.


Performance specifications delegate the technical responsibilities to the construction industry, where the Contractor instead of the Architecture/Engineering firm is responsible for the results.

Disadvantages to using performance specifications:

Q They can be time consuming to produce and may result in long, detailed specifications.


They are more difficult to enforce than other methods of specifying.


They may be too elaborate for simple or minor projects.


Performance specifications delegate the technical responsibilities to the construction industry, where the Contractor instead of the Architecture/Engineering firm is responsible for the results. (This is both an advantage and disadvantage because it depends who wants certain responsibilities and control.)

Reference Standard Specifications

Under this method reference is made to an established standard defined by associations very knowledgeable about a certain part or phase of construction. Reference standard specifications are used for "commodity" products in the marketplace, where brand names are not important. Steps for preparing reference standard specifications are:

1. The standard must be recognized as authoritative by the industry.

2. The standard must be available to all parties involved in the project.

3. The specifier must know the standard. Assure that the standard relates to the current project and does not present duplicate or conflicting information.

4. Establish a date of the standard.

5. Incorporate the standard correctly into the specifications.

6. Enforce the requirements of the standard.

Advantages to using reference standard specifications:


The standard is usually widely known and accepted by the industry.


They do not limit competition.


They dramatically shorten the length of specifications.

Disadvantages to using reference standard specifications:

Q There may be no appropriate standard to reference, because standards are written for the most commonly used and generally available products.


Standards generally refer to the minimum requirements.


The standard may become obsolete or out-of-date, because of advances and changes in technology and the creation of new products.


They require a lot of research and care in use.


They must be incorporated properly, including all supplementary information.

Proprietary Specifications

Under this method the actual brand names, model numbers and other proprietary information is specified. They are primarily used for private commercial projects where the Owner knows what products they want. There are two types of proprietary specifications, closed and open. The primary difference between the two types concerns substitutions.


Closed specifications generally prohibit substitutions. One or more products are specified, and no substitutions will be considered.


Open specifications permit substitutions. One or more products are specified, but other manufacturers will be considered. It is necessary to specify the criteria the alternate manufacturers will be judged by.

Advantages to using proprietary specifications:


They allow for close control of product selection.


The drawings can be more complete and more detailed because they can be prepared based on precise information from the selected manufacturer.


The specification can be shorter.


They simplify the bidding by narrowing competition and eliminating product pricing as a major variable.

Disadvantages to using proprietary specifications:


They reduce the competition.


They may specify products the Contractor is not familiar with or has had little experience with.

Q Care should be taken to assure no error is made when specifying model numbers or product designations.

Nonrestrictive Specifications

Nonrestrictive specifications are used when public authorities restrict the use of proprietary specifications. Either a different method needs to be used that can be met by several manufacturers, or 2 to 3 manufacturers must be listed as additional possibilities in a proprietary specification.

Selecting a Method of Specifying

The following questions are helpful to consider when deciding which method of specifying is most appropriate.


What does the Owner require?


What method best describes the design intent?


What method is most appropriate for the project size and complexity?


What method will result in the best quality of work?


What method will result in the best price for the work?

Specification Language

Specification language should be precise. Vague and ambiguous text can be open to multiple interpretations. This section covers how to be precise and clear when writing specifications and it includes a few things to avoid and how to be concise and save space.

Four important Cs for specification writing


Be Clear: Avoid ambiguity, use proper grammar and chose precise words to convey the message.


Be Correct: Present information accurately and precisely using proper terminology.


Be Complete: Do not out important or necessary information. Brevity at the expense of completeness should be avoided.


Be Concise: Eliminate unnecessary words but at the expense of clarity, correctness, completeness or grammar.

Sentence Structure

Imperative Mood

Imperative mood puts the verb that defines the action as the first word in the sentence. It is the recommended method for specifications covering installation of products and equipment. It is easily understandable and concise.


Indicative Mood

Spread adhesive with notched trowel. Install equipment plumb and level. Apply two coats of paint to each exposed surface.

Indicative mood uses the passive voice with the use of the word shall in nearly every sentence. Sometimes this can create unnecessary wordiness and monotony.


Streamlined Writing

Adhesive shall be spread with notched trowel. Equipment shall be installed plumb and level. Two coats of paint shall be applied to each exposed surface.

This technique uses a colon (:) to mean shall or shall be. Streamlined specifications are very concise and clear to read. The subject before the colon is helpful when scanning the specifications for keywords.


Words to Avoid

Adhesive: Spread with notched trowel. Equipment: Install plumb and level. Portland Cement: ASTM C 150, Type 1

Typically the articles a, an and the are not necessary and can be deleted where clarity is not diminished. Avoid making an article or pronoun out of the following words; such, said, and same. The use of the word all is usually unnecessary.


Install the equipment plumb and level. Such accessories shall be silver plated. Polish said floor with wax. Polish same floor with wax. Store all millwork under shelter.


The Construction Specifications Institute. The Project Resource Manual, CSI Manual of Practice. 5 th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005.

Pilus, Jeffrey M. "Specifications Mini-Course Part 2." Class lecture notes reviewing The Project Manual. University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, 2009.

Rosen, Harold J. Construction Specifications Writing Principles and Procedures. 5 th ed. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005.


The following examples are from the Washington State University's Library Road, Pedestrian Corridor and Open Space Project Manual:

KPFF Consulting Engineers. "Washington State University, Library Road, Pedestrian Corridor and Open Space, Phase 2." Project Manual vol. I (April 8, 2004).

Example 1: Descriptive Specification (combined with a reference standard)


(combined with a reference standard) 2.02 MATERIALS PageFormat Article (second level) A. Granite: PageFormat

PageFormat Article (second level)

A. Granite:

MATERIALS PageFormat Article (second level) A. Granite: PageFormat Paragraph (thrid level) Reference Standard

PageFormat Paragraph (thrid level)

Reference Standard


Paragraph (thrid level) Reference Standard Specification 1. Conform to referenced ASTM C615. Gran ite shall be

1. Conform to referenced ASTM C615. Granite shall be standard grade, free of

cracks, seams, or starts which may impair its structural integrity or function – inherent color variations characteristic of the quarry from which it is obtained will be acceptable.

of the quarry from which it is obtained will be acceptable. PageFormat Subparagraph (fourth level) Example



(fourth level)

Example 2: Performance Specifications


The stone cladding needs to meet the following performance criteria

cladding needs to meet the following performance criteria A. Structural Performance: Pr ovide dimension stone cladding

A. Structural Performance: Provide dimension stone cladding capable of withstanding the

effects of gravity loads and the following loads and stresses within limits and under conditions indicated:

1. Seismic Performance: Provide dimension stone cladding capable of

withstanding the effects of earthquake motions determined according to the UBC – 97, Seismic Zone 2B.

2. Thermal Movements: Provide dimension stone cladding system that allows for

thermal movements resulting from the following maximum change (range) in ambient and surface temperatures by preventing displacement of stone, opening of joints, overstressing of components, failure of joint sealants and connections, and other detrimental effects. Base engineering calculation on surface temperatures of materials due to both solar heat gain and nighttime sky heat loss.

a. Temperature Change (Range): 120 deg F, ambient, 180 deg F, material surfaces.

3. Provisions for Fabrication and Erection Tolerances: Allow for fabrication and

erection tolerances and for structural deflections from loads and other causes. a. Concrete structural fabrication and erection tolerances are specified in Division 3 Section "Cast-in-Place Concrete."

4. Control of Corrosion and Staining: Prevent galvanic and other forms of

corrosion as well as staining by isolating metals and other materials from direct contact with incompatible materials. Use materials that are nonstaining to exposed surfaces of stone and joint materials.

Example 3: Reference Standard Specification


A. Comply with the requirements of Section 01090 and as listed herein. See Section

01090 for listed association, council, institute, society, and the like organization for its full name and address.

List of related reference
List of
related reference


ASTM C97-96

ASTM C99-87(2000)

ASTM C170-90(1999)

ASTM C615-96 ASTM C880-96 ASTM C1201-91

ASTM C1242-96b


Standard Test Methods for Absorption and Bulk Specific Gravity of Dimensional Stone. Standard Test Method for Modulus of Rupture of Dimension Stone. Standard Test Method for Compressive Strength of Dimension Stone. Specification for Granite Dimension Stone. Flexure Strength of Dimension Stone. Structural Performance of Exterior Dimension Stone Cladding Systems by Uniform Static Air Pressure Difference. Standard Guide for Design, Selection, and Installation of Exterior Dimension Stone Anchors and Anchoring Systems.

National Building Granite Quarries Association, "Specifications for Building Granite"

Example 4: Proprietary Specification


A. Product Data: Manufacturer's technical data for:

1. Blue Stone, smooth faced panel, sizes and thickness as indicated on drawings;

Specific manufacturers are
manufacturers are


contact: Terrazzo & Stone Supply, (425) 644-5577 and Marenakos, (425) 392-