Green Term Defined: Specifications


Construction Specifications are the cornerstone of the project design. In most cases they override the project drawings in the event of conflicting information. The purpose of the construction specifications is to define the requirements regarding materials, products, installation and quality aspects pertaining to the execution of the work and contract. There are multiple types of specifications – performance, prescriptive, and proprietary. None of these are a simple list of product selections as many in the industry claim as their specifications.


A performance specification is a document that tells the contractor what the final installed product must be capable of doing. The concept behind this type of specification is for the architect to tell the contractor what they need and the contractor to determine the best way to get there.

A prescriptive specification explains the project through detailed materials that the contractor must use and the means to installing those materials. This approach gives the architect more control over the execution of the project.

A proprietary specification is used when you want a specific product type for a particular installation. This approach should be used when there is a specific piece of equipment or material needed to meet a particular requirement.


When you are building in commercial construction, specifications are very common. However, in green residential it should also be a mandatory part of the design process!


Architects have a huge responsibility in front of them – will they accept the challenge?

Why change, after all, we have “always done it this way?” This is an interesting attitude that does not solely exist in the construction industry but throughout society. We don’t like change. Doing things that we are used to, comfortable with, and know the expected outcome does not cause us stress. We want things to be simple. So why rock the boat now?

Lego Architecture

Things have changed, continue to change, and are changing at a very rapid pace. Look at technology within the last 4 years. If you go to the job site now you may find a site supervisor with an IPad in their hands looking at the drawings, specs, searching product data sheets, logging time, or checking the radar. It was just a few years ago I was working on a project in Charlottesville where I had to fight to get the site supervisor to EMAIL me his question because the quality of his fax was not readable.

Beyond the changes on the job site, technology is changing how we build. It was just two years ago that I designed a home in Harrisonburg and sent it out to bid. I asked for advanced framing techniques to be used in some places on the home and most of the bidders charged extra for that “green stuff” the architect added. Last week when I visited a job site in Charlottesville I found an insulated header I did not ask for from a contractor that told me “I want to do this right.”

A home, commercial building, or warehouse are all very complicated machines that need someone looking at the system in a holistic manner. Buildings are complicated, there are many moving parts, and every decision impacts three or four hundred other items. This is not an industry that should NOT be solely focused on aesthetic solutions when building owners are struggling with energy costs and comfort issues.

Architect Harrisonburg

Architects need to take responsibility and lead our industry. Architects need to talk about the importance of well thought out designs, specifications, building science, documentation, and functional solutions. Architects need to know building materials, who to call with questions about building materials, and where to find the factual information about building materials. Architects need to demand clear lines of communication, offer documentation is that clear, concise, correct, and complete.  Architects as a profession need to reestablish their value to the construction industry as more than just someone to make it look beautiful. Architects have a huge responsibility in front of them – will the industry step up and take on the challenge?

Architecture is not just about being Sexy!

When you pick up a magazine about architecture the cover is most likely an oasis of proportion, grace, and detail. The work that we as a profession celebrate most often is beautiful, skillfully done, and probably touched up just a little with Photoshop.… This is not unique to the architectural industry of course, we are a society that loves the book cover before reading the book. We are trained to go see a movie based on 5 seconds of action in the trailer. We are drawn to purchase a car by the smooth lines and sleek curves. We are a society that loves aesthetically beautiful, sexy, dynamic solutions.

Architecture schools spend countless hours teaching design based on drawing hypothesis of connections and focusing of the spatiality of modernity while the functionality of the dynamics are metamorphosised into a instatiation of visualization. OK I just started putting random words together there at the end, but we spend a lot of time training aesthetic thinkers and not much time training functional problem solvers. I am not condemning the profession or academia by any means. I see that successful architects have learned the functional problem solving skills, they simply learn it on the job. The problem that I see is that society gives little value to this functional problem solving side of the equation with so much of the focus in magazines, schools, television on the sexy side of the solutions equation.

There is a lot that goes into the process of design. Architects have to understand the sexy side of the design process and I believe they get that completely. What is eroding the profession is that too many only focus on that part and that part is being taken by others that are not trained in the functional solution part of the design process. The majority of the buildings built in a community are not going to be earth-shaking architectural creations. They are going to be nice looking buildings that hopefully meet the program needs. I see in this community so many people who are not asking for or demanding someone who fully understands design to help them through the process of creating the building. Rather they are relying on someone who can make the building look good and the program fit in the square footage allowed. There is little attention paid to the flow from space to space, the proportions of the spaces, the light coming in, the comfort of the space, the efficiency of the framing, the quality of the indoor air……….. I could go on. We have to raise the bar for the architectural profession and start talking about the not so sexy parts of design that we bring to the table. A high level of understanding of building science should be demanded. We have to stop making partial solutions that lead to big problems. For example, there is a project I ran by yesterday in our mixed humid climate that I am sure will have granite countertops and an incredible front facade, but also has a vapor barrier in the wall system and a vented crawl space. This owner paid good money for a design that is not energy-efficient and will have poor indoor air quality. They are getting an impressive house that will look good from the street, but it will not be durable and long-lasting – if for nothing else the energy bills will be outrageous compared to a well designed efficient home.

Architects should be the leading voice in design solutions, not sexy solutions, design solutions. I don’t believe that any of us have all the answers, in fact I know enough now to know that there are no perfect solutions and many more questions than answers. We need architects that are willing to listen and stop talking. We need to be open to learning new ways and techniques every day. We need this profession to step forward and lead, not just be being loud, but by being examples in the community. Architecture will always be celebrated for being Sexy, we just need to add some practical problem solving specification writing building science efficiency to the equation!