During the International Builders’ Show in Orlando, I participated in a National Leadership Conference hosted by Custom Builders USA, a national custom builders buying group.  CBUSA strives to obtain better pricing for its builder members by doing local and national group buying and negotiating volume builder prices from its suppliers and subcontractors. 

One of the subjects in the meeting that hit close to my heart was a discussion about how difficult it has been to obtain comparable bids on products and services due to inadequate information to provide to partners.  Since the discussion revolved around builder plans with no mention of specifications, it became clear to me the genesis of the problem was inadequate specifications. When I raised the question about project specifications, all 20-plus builders in the room agreed there were typically large gaps and insufficient information  in the specs, plans and therein, Scope of Work, provided by the architects. 

The group decided the remedy to the problem was to take it upon themselves to create their own Scope of Work to define the different products and services.  All agreed that strong specifications lead to improved and more competitive bidding.  What was transpiring in that room is what occurs across the country on a daily basis. Builders, suppliers and subcontractors are stuck with an inadequate set of plans and specifications, and they take it upon themselves to complete the unfinished work of the architect.  This can only result in time and money wasted for the owner. It will also create confusion on the job when everyone but the professional, the project architect, is filling in the Scope of Work.   

I am sure many residential architects have heard from builder team members, “Don’t worry about the specs; I’ll take care of it.” How many times have you seen the words “as specified” on builder plans only to find nothing referenced in the minimum pages of specs largely filled with allowance amounts? 

Custom residential architects need to get deep into the subject of specifications, become more knowledgeable and provide the service that is inherent to our profession.  We need to move away from the builder-set mentality that the builder will figure it out.  

Specifications sources

I have personally not found a good single source for residential specifications. I have followed my own devices, utilizing different resources within the industry starting with the Construction Specification Institute. Though CSI deals mostly with commercial and institutional plates, I have found its 16 divisions of work are a good skeleton by which to organize my own information. 

The best advisors for creating a good set of specifications and scope of work are your network of builders, subcontractors and manufacturers along with the industry’s related associations. At the end of the day, however, it should fall on the architect to compile all the information and provide it to our clients.  We should all consider this to be intrinsic to our profession and to the services we provide as custom residential architects.   

Move beyond allowances

Another factor that becomes the enemy of a good specifications’ set, and greatly diminishes effective comparable bidding, is the insidious use of allowances.  To me, the word “allowance” is code for, “Don’t bother me; let somebody else figure it out.” Allowances open the door for the owner or the interior designer or any other consultant to figure out what the heck we’re supposed to be building and relieves the architect of getting burdened with too much specificity. Unfortunately, it seems to be a concept builders are happy with because it allows them latitude in the interpretation of the construction documents. 

Delve into the endeavor of improving your specifications, updating the technical and minimizing or discarding all of your allowances. Use your network to compare and improve your in-house specifications. I have learned a great deal about specifications through the years from reading different versions generated by some of my peers their businesses. 

Once you’ve done a good job with it, share it within your industry network. This way we can all operate in a world of abundant information and reliable competitive pricing from our suppliers and subcontractors. 

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