Almost every specification section most specifiers will ever need is available in one or more commercial master guides, and for those that aren’t, there are other options.  Many manufacturers provide guide specs for their products.  Most offices have a library of previously written spec sections that cover a wide range of unusual conditions.  So, why post about how to write a spec section from scratch when there might never be an opportunity to do it?  There are a number of reasons.

For one, it’s really not that unusual for a project to include something completely different that a specifier hasn’t seen before, for which there are no existing guides.  Maybe it’s a foreign product with no domestic equivalent, or something esoteric selected by an interior designer.

Another possibility is that the specifier is actually writing a manufacturer’s guide, and writing from scratch to not violate existing copyrights.

A third possibility is simply that the spec is for an established product, but the product is being used in an unusual way.

Finally, because some commercial guide specs are overly voluminous, contain redundant requirements, and are written in stilted language, specifiers can often get better results starting from scratch rather than figuring out where to trim prewritten sections.

All good reasons, so now how to go about it?

First Steps

There’s no need to panic when faced with the prospect of writing a section from scratch.  The initial steps are basically the same, and start with information gathering – knowing what the specs should contain before beginning to write:

  • Know the product. Collect and read as much relevant information as possible, including data sheets, detail drawings, photographs, relevant ASTM standards, applicable code requirements and code evaluation reports.
  • Know how the product will be used in the project, and what special considerations are required in its installation. Closely review project-specific details.  Discuss the details with the project’s designer, and then discuss them again with the manufacturer’s rep to understand how to avoid possible installation pitfalls.  Finally, understand how installation quality can be controlled.
  • Understand how quality can be assured, what types of submittals are available and will be most helpful, if there are limitations on site conditions; and what manufacturer’s warranties cover, and how long they last.

With this information in hand, and before beginning to write the specs, jot down a set of work results statements:  Describe the work, including what will be specified, how the items will be installed, and where they will be used in the project.  These statements can be used to replace “Section Includes” at the top of the spec and serve as a reminder to help focus the rest of the writing in the section.

Start From a Blank Page?

Unlike writing a blog post, in which the big white rectangle stares back at an author from the computer screen every time, there’s no need to start a spec section from a blank page.  Instead, the obvious place to start is with CSI’s SectionFormat.  Even a blank SectionFormat outline in word processing software serves as a great way to organize the process of spec writing.

Similar to the best way to edit pre-written guides, after completing your Work Results statement, begin by roughing out Part 2 before moving on to Part 3 and then finish with the rest of Part 1.  This follows along with how the ‘first steps’ are organized above.  For Part 2, as an example, SectionFormat provides the blanks to fill in for performance criteria, manufacturers’ names, product names, materials, fabrication, finishes, and etcetera.  Having collected all the information before beginning to write, simply copy it down.

Another helpful practice is to have handy other sections from the same project.  That will help keep the scratch-written section and the rest of the specs reading as if they came from a single author.

Keep it Short and Simple

The main advantage of a scratch-written section is that it can be tailored to say exactly what is needed.  With a master guide, there’s always a risk that a specifier will fail to delete something that doesn’t belong; there’s a far lower risk when writing from scratch of adding something that shouldn’t be there in the first place.  This is especially true if the information gathering process was thorough and well organized.

Another advantage is that writing from scratch gives the specifier the chance to consider exactly how things are worded, avoid all the discouraged terms, limit prepositions and indicative form of language.  Cleaning these things up from guide masters can actually take longer than starting over, so most specifiers don’t bother.

Asking for Help

Other specifiers are a great source of information and guidance when it comes to figuring out what to put in and what to leave out of a custom section.  Conspectus has ample experience writing specs from scratch, with writing manufacturers’ guides, and even with writing commercial masters.  We are always happy to be of assistance.