A thorough set of construction specifications helps project participants understand what's expected of them and ensures customers get what they pay for.

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Construction specifications are a part of the construction contract. They detail the work, materials, and installation required to complete a project. The specs are a subcontractor’s field guide on what materials to use, how to install them, and the desired level of quality.

The Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) created a specifications index called  MasterFormat, which has become the standard for the US construction industry. They are sections and numbers used to categorize specs and project information, and the MasterFormat creates a sort-of universal language for construction specifications.

Types of construction contract specifications

Generally, there are three different types of construction specifications found in contracts: prescriptive specifications, performance specifications, and proprietary specifications.

Prescriptive specs

Prescriptive specifications provide step-by-step details and instructions on how the types of materials to be used and the desired installation methods. However, these types of specs can be split into three subcategories.

  • General Provisions. These provisions will reference national or state building codes and standards that must be complied with.
  • Required Products. Lists the type of products and materials required, based on the performance and structural requirements.
  • Execution Procedures. Details the methods of installation and how to measure quality or effectiveness.

Performance specs

Performance specifications will provide all of the operations requirements to complete a project. Instead of giving detailed instructions on how to achieve the desired final product, performance specs will describe the anticipated result. This leaves a broad amount of discretion to decide how to perform, as long as the desired outcome is achieved. Accordingly, performance specs will invariably include extensive testing provisions to ensure that the project meets all the operational requirements.

Proprietary specs

These third types of specifications are the rarest of the breed. They are used when a specific type of product or material is required for installation. Typically, proprietary specs are used when doing renovations to an existing structure, and the client needs to match the improvements to the completed portion.

Who manages construction specifications?

Usually architects or designers are tasked with preparing construction specifications. Both may also be involved in delegating the specifications, along with project engineers who are able to provide technical assistance. Professional specification writers may be brought in to ensure all the bases are covered on large-scale projects. 

Importance of solid specifications

The devil is in the details. A thorough set of specifications can help everyone on the project reduce costs, wasted time, and disputes. The more information provided, the better the chance of work getting done correctly. As a result, correct work means fewer defects, which means fewer change orders which means fewer disputes over additional compensation.

Furthermore, having a clear set of specifications using the MasterFormat divisions helps facilitate coordination and communication between all project participants. There will be a substantial decrease in the time spent on requests for substitutions or clarifications concerning materials or installation. Lastly, when provided in advance, a solid set of specs can lead to more accurate bids, resulting in fewer cost overruns.

Improvements in construction specifications

The design phase of construction projects is tedious. In the past, it was common for the specification writing process to be time consuming and require several steps to be completed. 

As technology continues to evolve within the industry, the extensive task of preparing construction specifications has been simplified. Using tools such as BIM and document management software can save time, resources, and improve workflows on construction projects. In addition, the use of technology while preparing specifications can allow for more collaboration, which can lead to better efficiency and risk mitigation. 

Liability for specifications & defects

So what’s the point of splitting these specifications into different categories? The “implied warranty of specifications.” Since subs are required to rely on these specs, they are presumed to be accurate. That is, unless there are glaring errors or omissions that should have been caught in the first place. Thus, when a construction defect arises, the party who will ultimately be held liable depends on what type of specification the sub was working from.

Read more: The “Spearin Doctrine” and project responsibility

Performance specs allocate liability to the party performing the work because they have free rein to decide how the end result is achieved. Conversely, if the specs are prescriptive, the party who issued the specifications may be liable. Prescriptive specs provide play-by-play instructions to perform. If there is an error in the instructions, the contractor or sub shouldn’t be on the hook for the defect.

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What are Construction Specifications? | Construction Documents
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What are Construction Specifications? | Construction Documents
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A thorough set of construction specifications helps project participants understand what's expected of them and ensures customers get what they pay for.
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