CSI Report Card - Part 2

by Sheldon Wolfe, CSI, CCS

I gave CSI a B+ for its performance in achieving the first of its original five goals. Those goals, expressed in 1947, were:
  • Better specification writing
  • Simpler specifications
  • Standardization of specifications for public works
  • Standardization of building codes
  • Greater efficiency and cost effectiveness throughout the industry

Goal No. 2 - Simpler specifications

Despite the availability of CSI's Manual of Practice, specification writing is not significantly better now than it was fifty years ago, largely due to unnecessary complexity.

The MOP presents a comprehensive, logical way to organize and prepare construction documents that is based on two simple ideas: say it once; and the famous four Cs, clear, complete, concise, and correct.

You learned the first of these from your mother, though she probably said "A place for everything and everything in its place." Every subject is assigned a specific location; this makes it easier for both the writer and the reader to find the information they need.

The second is reminiscent of the recommendations found in Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, a standard reference for writers of all persuasions. Information is best presented when sentences are simple, all necessary facts are included, and irrelevant material is excluded.

It is difficult to argue with either of these rules, yet our documents continually violate both. Pick up any project manual, and you will find most of the following.

  • Instructions to bidders that specify activities that occur after award of contract.
  • Supplementary conditions littered with instructions to bidders and Division 1 material.
  • Information also found on the drawings.
  • Continuous repetition of needless phrases and instructions, such as "Install according to manufacturer's instructions" and "The Contractor shall...".
  • Proprietary specifications thinly disguised as open specifications.

If we followed the guidelines established by the MOP, specifications would be much shorter, simpler, and easier to understand. Coordination would be less of a problem, and we could spend less time processing words and more time making them fit the project. I suspect that contractors would be more likely to read them, and there would be fewer disputes about interpretation.

A few years ago, the Navy conducted some tests and found that a well-written document took seventeen to twenty-three percent less time to read than one in the usual style. They concluded that the Navy could save millions of dollars each year if their documents were better written.

Even though CSI member specifiers profess a knowledge of the MOP, and most would say they follow its principles, today's specifications are really no simpler than they were fifty years ago.

Grade, Goal No. 1: C-

Report Card, Part 1    Report Card, Part 3    Report Card, Part 4

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