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Please Specify

Of all the mystifying requirements lurking in a typical set of construction documents, no collection of directives is quite so perplexing to wall and ceiling estimators as is the specification manual. Also known as “the spec-book,” “the project manual” or simply “the specs,” I’ve frequently heard it referred to in much more colorful terms by fellow bidmeisters. The basis for this frustration is apparent. The project contract generally lends the specification manual final authority in the hierarchy of bid documents. Its dictates in these instances take precedence over the particulars of the architectural plan set and even the structural drawings, where there is a conflict in application. Now, being the holy grail of the project documents, one would think that great care would be taken in spec preparation. But, as the great lyricist Ira Gershwin once proposed, “it ain’t necessarily so” as in many cases the exact opposite seems to be true.


The specification sections issued by the Construction Specifications Institute that affect the wall and ceiling trades include cold-form steel framing, thermal insulation, plastering, light-gauge framing, gypsum board assemblies, acoustical ceilings and paint. This discussion will concern itself with issues experienced within those specified parameters. Evidently, most design teams utilize a boilerplate format for each spec section cited above. The MasterFormat® contains all acceptable manufacturers, all acceptable product data, various tolerances and all manner of standards applicable to each section. That is to say, the MasterFormat is a smorgasbord of these components from which the designer can simply cherry-pick the ones most relevant to his design and delete all others. This sort of “multiple choice” arrangement becomes embarrassingly evident when a designer inadvertently issues a section in which he has forgotten to make the requisite deletions. Of course, this shotgun approach to specifying is the most drastic example of carelessness, but less blatant (and less humorous) examples of negligent spec-writing abound.

Steel Swaps?

In the cold-form steel framing section, for instance, the standard galvanization for heavy gauge studs is G60 for non-coastal areas. However, many designers who are unfamiliar with the standard will specify G90 (used in areas with a more corrosive atmosphere) just to cover themselves, which adds the burden of excess cost and longer lead time to the project. When in doubt, it seems, a cautious designer will select the most stringent option to compensate for his lack of knowledge—price and hassle be damned.


With the insulation section, it is common for Thermafiber® to be specified for acoustical insulation and fiberglass batts in the drywall section (a duplication and a conflict). Similarly, one can frequently find both foil-faced and kraft-faced fiberglass batts specified for thermal insulation, along with rigid foam board assemblies that may have no corresponding application in the architectural drawings.


This brings to light a common error in the writing of a great many spec sections: that components and tolerances are included in the spec that obviously do not pertain to the project they are named to. This is particularly frustrating to an estimator because it leads him to mistakenly believe that he has missed something in the plans and consequently causes him to waste much precious time re-perusing the pages, searching for an omitted component that simply isn’t there.


The base metal thickness of studs seems to be the spec writer’s primary stumbling block in the light-gauge framing section, specifically 20-gauge studs. The options here are so diverse and confusing, one might almost have some sympathy for the spec writer in this instance. The selections entail 30 and 33 mils, but then the waters are muddied by the so-called EQ (equivalent) 20-gauge studs that may range from 19 to 29 mils. When the spec writer designates one of these thicknesses to mean 20 gauge, he invariably creates a conflict with the limiting height tables, which may appear in the same section or somewhere on the plans. Lump this in with a confusion between a standard G40 coating and a recent tendency to overkill with the upgraded G60, and it’s plain to see the calamity that the over-choice in stud metal can create for an estimator perusing the light-gauge framing section.

Board Problems

Common problems with the gypsum board assemblies section (the drywall spec) are too numerous to itemize in this writing. Redundancies and conflicts flourish here. Consider some of the most frequent errors:

  • Redundant levels of abuse or high-impact board.
  • Both cement board and Dens shield designated for tile-backer.
  • Cement board appearing in both drywall spec and tile specs (who provides?).
  • Textured and smooth finishes appearing side by side.
  • Level of smooth finish never indicated.


The primary issue with the ACT spec lies in the frequent naming of only one qualifying manufacturer, thus eliminating the application of fair competition in choosing material.


Clearly, the cafeteria-style format that spec writers use these days contributes to careless errors in developing spec sections that should but rarely do pertain to the specific project. This one-size-fits-all notion is a profound source of frustration for bidmeisters everywhere.

Vince Bailey is senior estimator at Berg Drywall of Phoenix.

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