specifications – why they matter


Architecture produces a lot of paper. And I mean, a lot. And if you’re working on a LEED project?….Forget about it. You’re going to kill at least a few thousand trees just documenting your points for certification. And all of it, every scrap, is important. There are proposals, contracts, sketches, drawings, specifications, addenda, ASIs, Change Orders, RFIs, RFQs, RFPs, submittals, transmittals, memos and even emails. All of this paper is part of what eventually will dictate what your building looks like. But the two most important, other than the contract, are the drawings and specifications.

There are two things that the architect and contractor are concerned about when properly detailing and then pricing and eventually building a particular project: Quantity and Quality.

The drawings represent the Quantity, or the pictorial representation of the building. The site plan, floor plans, elevations, building sections, details, etc. The drawings give the contractor a visual representation of how the building should go together and how much of each part he’ll need in order to get the job done. Now, to some degree, the drawings also represent a level of quality that the contractor is to adhere to. This is mostly evident in the building sections, wall sections, details and framing plans where the architect will depict particular ways of assembly for various pieces and parts of the project. Some of these will be visible while others won’t. But they are all important.

But when it comes to the true Quality of the project, the specifications are where it’s at. And, to me, the specifications can make or break a project. And specifications, like the contract and drawings, becomes a part of the Contract Documents, which are the legally binding agreements between Owner, Architect and eventually the Contractor. These specifications outline the products to be used, the acceptable manufacturers and/or level of performance to be met, warranty information, procedures for testing and evaluation, mock-up requirements, sizes and installation requirements. So, not only do they need to look good, they need to read good as well. And, yes, I’m aware of the horrible grammar in that last sentence.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to specifications and how they are crafted – book format and sheet format. This means that the specifications are either in the format of a book type document (8.5 x 11) or sheet format in which case they are a part of the drawing set. I’m not partial to either. Each is acceptable depending on the type of project you’re working on. Though, in my office almost every specification, even small residential projects, will have a book specification that accompanies the drawings. It’s not necessarily right or wrong it’s just our preferred way of doing things.

Whatever format your specifications are in they need to be clear, inclusive of the materials and finishes necessary for your project, and they need to be carefully proof-read by more than one set of eyes familiar with the project. Lastly, since the specifications outline the quality expected on your project, they need to be READ BY THE CONTRACTOR. This seems to be a more and more difficult request lately. Unfortunate, but true.

vectorworks: a springboard

When I began working at Ruby Architects just over a year ago we were a 2D office, which is fine, but the software we were using hadn’t been updated by the company in a while and after a couple of months it became apparent that the company simply might not exist anymore. So we began searching for a new cad platform and the discussion turned quickly to BIM and 3D. Personally I’ve been using Autocad and various other 2D drafting software since 1998, but about 3 years ago I started playing around with BIM software. If you don’t know there is more to BIM than Revit, and in my opinion Revit is the last of the platforms that should be considered and for two very big reasons – cost and ease of use.

When I began using Autocad 15 years ago it was required as part of my college core courses. My alma mater prides itself on keeping up with technology and the latest digital techniques, so we had the latest versions of Autocad, Microstation, Rhino, 3D Viz and Maya installed which was a lot of software to try and learn. I stuck with Autocad and Microstation, which was plenty, and since then my career has centered around Autodesk software. Given this background you would think that moving to Revit would be a foregone conclusion, but you would be wrong.

Autodesk softwares are not easy to learn. They are not intuitive and are very VERY clunky. So, when my boss asked me to research some BIM options I looked for software that was more tailored to Architects and Designers. The two big names that I found were Archicad and Vectorworks. Both are much more design oriented and are fairly simple in their project organization and object modeling approach. They are also quite a bit cheaper than Autodesk Revit and have fewer limitations. Ultimately we went with Vectorworks and over the last 9 months we’ve been getting up to speed on several projects and trying to work out our office standards, migrating our title blocks, details, etc. It’s been a steep learning curve, but like any new tool you just have to use it.

As the office guinea pig, upon launching Vectorworks I knew I had to not only figure things out fairly quickly, but I also had to get up to speed with an efficient workflow as well. There was one book that helped me out immeasurably and I would highly recommend it as a springboard for anyone just starting out, or needing a good desk reference, in Vectorworks.


Vectorworks Architect Tutorial Manual, Fifth Edition.

For the size of the book it seemed a little pricey at $75, but once I got into it and started bookmarking multiple sections and referring to it constantly for the first office project in Vectorworks, I knew it was money well spent. The book takes you through a simple residential project from start to finish, beginning with a site model and finishing with production drawings and notes, and gives a basic set of tools to get you working quickly and efficiently.


Another great springboard for Vectorworks that I have on my “to buy” list is one written by a friend of mine, Mark Stephens, titled Vectorworks: 101 Tips and Tricks (Kindle Edition). Mark is an Architect with over 20 years experience practicing in UK and Ireland. His firm has been using Vectorworks for some time and his blog posts on the subject have been incredibly helpful to me since I started working in BIM.

If you’ve been working in Vectorworks for a while, or if you’re just getting started, I’d love to hear from you about any successes, challenges, and even failures and lessons learned.

What You Should Know About Buying a Fixer-Upper

I’ve gone through this process myself while purchasing a 1918 Craftsman Bungalow. Making sure you understand exactly what you’re getting yourself into upfront is incredibly important.

Excellent Post.

Barley|Pfeiffer Architecture

fixer-upperThe house looks good, needs some work and is in a desirable neighborhood. But what might seem like a great fixer-upper property could actually be a money pit. Let’s look at some common potential issues with a home that could easily derail an appraisal and your mortgage — and they come up more frequently than one might think.

(And just a note: It’s all about the appraisal and contract. If the problem isn’t listed in the appraisal or listed as a condition of sale within the purchase contract, it shouldn’t delay or deny your loan.)


Many resale homes have worn-out roofs that must be replaced at some point down the road. In this situation, your real estate agent is bound to identify it right upfront. Get at least a couple of quotes to determine how much shelf life the roof actually has, and the costs associated with repairing or…

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daily prompt: truth – most can’t take it

Tell us about the harshest, most difficult to hear — but accurate — criticism you’e ever gotten. Does it still apply?


I have to admit, when I first read today’s daily prompt as I was scrolling through all the blog posts I missed today while on the road traveling for a project, I more than giggled. I LOL’d. Because the very first thing that came to mind was a review that I had with the head of my department at a community college I used to teach at. This was my first review as an educator (part time adjunct, but still…it counts) and it was based on commentary from my students. For those of you that know me personally you know that I have a close, personal and almost sadistic relationship with criticism. I LOVE criticism. In college I CRAVED it, NEEDED it…but I’ve written about all of this before. The bottom line is, if your peers are not criticizing your work, both negatively and positively, then your work needs work because you’re not raising any eyebrows….at all. That’s bad.

But, back to the story. So, I’m sitting down waiting to hear about how my students feel about my teaching, while she trudges through the basics – grades, attendance, outcomes, blah blah blah. Finally, she flips through a couple sheets of paper in this stapled STACK that represents my faculty evaluation and gets to the good stuff.

The first few bits are nice. Mostly to do with my knowledge of the profession and Autocad (I taught beginner, intermediate and advanced Autocad courses as well as hand drafting for almost 3 years) and that the content was always good, clear, mostly concise, blah blah. This was good to hear. Then she got to the next section. 🙂

It seems my students, almost unanimously (a total of about 40 between 2 classes at the time), described me as arrogant and that I sometimes rushed through the material leaving them feeling a little lost. I actually smiled and let out a little laugh at this. And let me tell you why.

They were 100% right.

I’ve been described as arrogant on more than one occasion by friends, peers, that strange fellow I talked to at the bar that time….It’s more or less just who I am. But I don’t see this as a bad thing. Arrogance is simply an unfriendly way of telling someone they are confident in themselves, self-aware and self-assured. These are good qualities in a person. Arrogance is taking these qualities to an extreme to where you aren’t humble enough to realize that others around you may have something to offer. This is certainly not me, though I will admit I may have seemed that way then.

I certainly don’t begrudge my students for feeling this way. I was full of bravado in my youth and have tempered some since then. I’ve learned that it is often times better to listen, consider, evaluate and then speak. I’m certainly no less confident in myself or my abilities and I’m always improving. But as I’ve moved through my 30s I have learned that there is more to being good at what you do than to just be right.

daily prompt: on the road

If you could pause real life and spend some time living with a family anywhere in the world, where would you go?

This is an interesting question. And if I weren’t an architect, I would have a long list of places and cultures that I could submit as an answer. I don’t think it would be possible to limit it to one single location. There are so many interesting and intriguing cultures and locations on this earth that I could spend my entire life going from one place and culture to another and never see them all or get my fill.

telepathic alien species from an old 50s movie - also what architects will likely look like in the future

telepathic alien species from an old 50s movie – also what architects will likely look like in the future

But, as an architect, I would say that this is actually part of my job. Because, when you design a home for someone, for a family, this is exactly what you have to do – put yourself in their shoes and decide what is most important in how a home should function, how it should flow and what it should feel like. To be an architect is also to be part sociologist, psychologist, anthropologist, engineer, artist and archeologist. It also helps to be psychic and telepathic as well. O_o

on the boards

As I’m sure you’ve all noticed by now, my posts have become seriously erratic in frequency and maybe even a little erratic in content as well. I’m sorry for that. There really isn’t any excuse other than I’ve been plowing ahead full speed in so many different directions lately that to try and rub two coherent thoughts together may cause a stroke.

BUT, I have stepped out of the fog long enough to write this post and show you some of what I’ve been up to in my freelance world. As you may have guessed by my review post of the last year, my new position has afforded little time for moonlighting and I am completely ok with that. I much prefer to have a fulfilling day job that lets me do the family thing once 5 o’clock hits. The two side projects that I have taken on are quite interesting however and I am proud of how they are shaping up.

The first project is more of a residential complex than a residence. Once complete there will be a total of 4 buildings (Main House, Guest House, Barn with 2 apartments and a work shop) plus horse corral and a huge retaining pond. All of this will sit on 21+ acres of old grove land in South Florida. It’s quite simply an amazing project.

Front Elevation - copyright r | one studio architecture 2013

Front Elevation – copyright r | one studio architecture 2013

Rear Elevation - copyright r | one studio architecture 2013

Rear Elevation – copyright r | one studio architecture 2013

The architecture, as you can see, is fairly traditional. It’s not necessarily a style so much as a simple and honest design. Not a lot of ornament (you’re seeing the Guest House – which is being developed and constructed first), but I have taken an opportunity to show off the rear porch a little. The Dutch Gable roofs are fun and give that Florida feel. Finish colors will be very light with some wood accents. It will fit nicely with the surroundings.

The next project has actually been in development for quite a while. I began the design with the client last year and only now has it come back online and we’re moving forward with construction documents and permitting this month. This will be my first constructed container home. If you’ve followed this blog at all you know I’ve designed many, but haven’t had the opportunity to see any built, though some came close. This is going to be an exciting project.

Floor Plan - copyright r | one studio architecture 2013

Floor Plan – copyright r | one studio architecture 2013

As container homes go, it’s on par with size and scale. Less than 1,000 square feet, 2 bedrooms, 1 bath, living, dining, kitchen and storage. The rear of the house has a water view, so I’ve also created a roof deck above the master bedroom and the rear wall of the living room is a roll-up garage door. To say we’re “bringing the outside in” would be an understatement. 😉

Side Elevation - copyright r | one studio architecture 2013

Side Elevation – copyright r | one studio architecture 2013

Life and work continue to move at a breakneck pace, but I would much rather have too much work than not enough, no?

AIA Arkansas – Tactical Urbanism

Mike Lydon gave a great presentation this morning on tactical urbanism, which is not really a new idea, but centers around revitalizing urban and even suburban areas through grassroots community actions like parklets, or complete streets initiatives, or pop up streets, or better blocks programs. All of these blurbs will yield incredible results on google.

The gust here is that for years our zoning overlays have created roadblocks to development and better communities through design and planning. By tactically creating smaller initiatives and documenting feedback you can better catalyze change.

More to come in part 2.


daily prompt: in thru the nose, out thru the mouth

Tell us about a time when everything seemed to be going wrong — and then, suddenly, you knew it would be alright. 



Today’s post is both near and dear to me as well as incredibly timely in my own professional and personal life. You may remember from my recent “year in review” post that I am eye ball deep in projects right now. Nearly all of them are in construction which means my days are mostly spent on the phone answering calls from owner’s and contractors, hunched over my work table reviewing shop drawings and submittals, or at my desk sending email responses to RFI’s. Somewhere in there I manage to study for the last 3 exams I have to take to get my license.

And on the personal side, I work essentially two jobs, have two small ones in school and my wife is in the process of going to back to work full time on top of having her own hand made business. Oh, and we’re looking for a house. Yeah, we’ve been stressed.

BUT there is one thing I pride myself on and it’s the one single thing that I know without a shadow of a doubt that will keep me, and you, from jumping out the window as an architect.


You have to have the right attitude in this profession, otherwise you will get jaded, cynical, angry, depressed and eventually burned out and looking for a new profession. And it’s much easier than you think to get caught in that cycle.

As an example, we have a current project that is under construction. It’s a small project with an even smaller fee (which is more than gone already). The contractor is a small outfit not local to the project, which is in North East Arkansas. This would be complicated enough, but is made worse by the fact that the contractor seems either inexperienced or simply not used to the general standards of a commercial project. Just for good measure we’ll add to this that the contract only allows 60 days to complete construction.

Now is the time to take that deep breath.

This is now the 6th week of construction. It took the first 4 to get all of the submittals needed to actually perform the work and it’s taken the last 2 to get a proper change order request to submit to the owner for the carpet they’ve chosen. From top to bottom this has been a stressful CA process (Construction Administration for those not in the know).

And, while I can’t necessarily control how the contractor does their job, even though I would REALLY like to, what I can control is my ATTITUDE. That’s right. I can effectively control the outcome of this project (to a certain extent) by how I choose to react to the situations I’m placed in. I could get angry and yell and even at some point very soon remind everyone of the liquidated damages clause. But none of that is helpful and it certainly won’t reduce the stress of the project either.

If instead I take a deep breath and come at this with a good attitude, with a positive outlook and even, dare I say, LAUGH at the problems that arise and work through them calmly….well, lets just say it makes the job much easier and this attitude will serve me much better on the other 4 projects I am currently overseeing in construction right now as well.

How you react is what will ultimately determine the outcome of a situation. You can’t control other people. But you can influence them and help things to run more smoothly simply by taking a deep breath, smiling, laughing and just moving through whatever it is.

Some talk, some do

There are some container “designers” out there who like to talk a lot. But they never show their work. They’ll show other peoples work and even pass off others as their own. And then there are those that actually do design container homes. And here’s one of mine headed for permitting and construction this month.