What is an architectural specification?

There are some things in an architect’s life which simply must be done: cleaning cars, paying taxes, and writing specifications. But why have specifications anyway? What is it about a specification which makes it a necessity? Well, for those who weren’t listening at architecture school (assuming it was on the syllabus for more than a day or two), there are some very good reasons.

It is possible for a brick wall to stand up for a few months with 10% of the correct amount of lime and cement in the mortar but you all know what will happen when the owner proudly leans against the wall, welcoming his guest . . . It has even been known for a roof to leak during the first dinner party (the architect was not invited for a second!).

Drawings cannot always show the designer’s intention regarding a particular installation technique. It needs carefully prepared words in the specification.

Drawings define quantity and location. Specifications define quality, something clients expect and want in the construction of their buildings. They are paying enough, they claim. They are appalled at the cost. Frankly, most architects have their neck saved more times than they know by the skill and competence of the builder.

If the architect does not specify the quality of materials, workmanship and installation in a carefully prepared contract document that protects the client’s interest, they may as well visit the casino with the client’s blank cheques. And furthermore, in these days of Compulsory Professional Indemnity Insurance, careless specifiers will soon be divorced from the profession.

Acceptable specifications

“My specifications have always been OK,” say some architects. The reasons for believing this are:

  • No builder who wants another chance to quote on a job will criticise the architect’s specification.
  • The architect took an earlier specification for a similar job, and copied it. It has been copied time after time and there weren’t any complaints last time so it’s still OK apparently . . . The assumption is no complaint equals OK performance.
  • Too many builders believe specifications are comic books anyway, and read them in the lunch hour for a laugh.

Essential quality assurance in the architectural profession has frequently been achieved on the building site by a conscientious builder doing the work of the specifier. The architect who writes complete and accurate specifications every time is very rare. Very. Yet it is a responsibility that comes with the job and unless we do it well, we diminish the respect and value of our profession. Essentially, the KIS principle applies – keep it simple – use a first class specification basis.

Builders are not impressed by disorderly, long specifications which they cannot understand. So write a specification which is orderly and structured and in which every trade section has an identical form. Use brief, tight sentences which tell the builder exactly what to do. The specification is the architect’s client (owner) speaking to the builder. If the instruction wanders around and is unclear, using language and terms thirty years out of date, the specification will stay in the ute, and will never be opened.

A specification assumes that a builder and the sub-contractors are skilled so it should not insult tradespeople by telling a carpenter to hold the hammer in his or her right hand and the nail in the left. It should indicate precisely what materials to use. The specifier’s job is to know about the range of materials available and which are appropriate for the project. So a good database of currently available materials is necessary.

The specifier may also choose to tell the builder how to install the material, but there’s a trap here. The builder, who may know a better or more efficient way of doing it, may be mislead. New methods, tools and fixing technology may be unknown to the specifier so it is better to say “comply with the manufacturer’s current written instructions,” but only after you have read them yourself. Ask the supplier to fax or email these instructions to you before you finish the specification. If there is a choice, indicate which method is to be used. Copying the manufacturer’s instructions directly into the specification is dangerous as it is easy to make mistakes or omit essential data. Remember that construction technology changes (not always for the better), and it is unlikely that a specifier will know all he should about all aspects of construction.

Trade section specifications

A trade section from a specification should contain the following basic data: a scope of work; a list of essential Australian Standards; a list of materials to be used; and any non-standard installation instructions apart from the manufacturer’s standard. It may also need reference to an item normally found in Preliminaries, such as shop drawings. For example, in the metalwork section or window construction, refer to the clause in the Preliminaries which fully covers shop drawing requirements. A builder rarely shows sub-contractors the complete specification at tendering time, so remind the trades of the relevant Preliminaries which are to be complied with. Both SpecPack and SpeedSpec contain appropriate clauses in them.


A specification needs to be as clean and as accurate as the drawings. Now that CAD drawings are of such high quality, specifications need to match them in clarity and precision. And SpecPack products exist to streamline that goal.  David Nall.