specifications: part II

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My last post on specifications was more of a rant than really being informative, so I decided to provide a little more substance this go around and talk about, compare and contrast the Performance Based specification and the Proprietary specification. But first lets talk about what a specification is (generally) and how they are organized.

A specification, according to its definition, is “an act of describing or identifying something precisely or of stating a precise requirement“. In Architect-speek a specification, or spec, is a document that outlines the technical requirements of a particular product, material, design or service relating to a particular building project. Most architects will get their specifications from one of two places: the product manufacturer or MasterSpec. MasterSpec is a company that provides industry standard specifications in either long form or short form for each division. Each division is a grouping of like elements such as existing conditions, concrete, metals, thermal/moisture protection, openings, electrical, etc. Within each division are sections for the various building materials, products, services, etc. And within each section, the document is divided into 3 parts: General, Products and Execution, known as the 3-Part Spec. Got it? Clear as mud right?

Now that we all understand the basics of what a specification is,  lets look at the two most common types – Proprietary and Performance based. These should be fairly obvious just by the definition of the word, but lets look at each one first anyway.

Proprietary Specification is one in which a product by a specific manufacturer is listed as the only approved product to be used. Most spec writers will also add the performance specifications of the particular manufacturer as a way to make sure that only that product will be used in case the contractor tries to submit an alternate product that is not quite up to snuff. I tend to prefer this type of specification for most of my private projects since I do spend time with the client reviewing various products like lighting, finishes, flooring, etc to achieve a particular aesthetic and having to spend additional time later on during construction to review what a contractor may think is an “equal” product simply is not worth the time and effort, nor is it in the client’s best interest, in my opinion.

Performance Specification, similarly, is exactly as it’s worded – a spec that outlines a particular set of minimum standards for quality that have to be met in order to be considered. This is the most common type of specification used on public projects where an open bidding process has to be in place. It’s intended to ensure an open playing field for contractors to competitively bid the job by pricing materials that they feel are of equal or greater quality to the minimum level of performance outlined and may be cheaper than others allowing them to have an overall lower total construction cost than another contractor.

Most firms will use a combination of the two in which a minimum level of performance is listed along with two to three acceptable manufacturers of a product, material or service. And for 90% of our specifications, especially on public projects, this is the method we use as it gives the contractor some flexibility in the manufacturers that they can choose from in order to be competitive with their price, while allowing us more control over the ultimate quality of the finished project. And in a perfect world, contractors would always price and submit only the manufacturers listed in the specifications…..but that almost never happens.

As I mentioned in my previous post architects need to be more diligent and determined to hold contractors to the specifications, not only ensuring that they actually READ them, but also holding them to the minimum standards that we spend a great deal of time and talent compiling for them to bid from. If we don’t then we’re not properly serving our client’s best interest and in the end both the client and the project will suffer for it. Because no matter how well detailed and pretty your drawings are, the specs are what make or break the finished product.

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