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Are Project Manuals Necessary for Small Projects?

By Nina M. Giglio, CSI, CCSI, Assoc. AIA, SCIP

Should design professionals provide project manuals for small projects, or are spec sheets more than adequate — even if something goes wrong?

Product specification drawings indicate design intent, while written documentation generally provides qualitative support of the design intent. The size or complexity of the project does not necessarily dictate whether a project manual is needed. Nor is a project manual a tool to safeguard against construction litigation.

Determine the Needs of the Project’s Documentation

To determine whether a manual is needed for a small project, design professionals should first answer the following questions:

  • What is the method of procurement and contracting for the project?

    When the contractor is under contract to the owner, or the delivery method is design-build, the need for procurement documentation is limited. Additionally, contracting requirements in this scenario often already have been addressed and require no additional documentation.

    Additional documents and sections are necessary, however, when procurement and contracting are part of the project.

  • How many specification sections need to be included or addressed?

    “Small project” can mean many things to many people. Small can be a 3,200-square-foot Magnetic Resonance Imaging suite in an existing hospital. Though small, it can require extensive documentation.

    Though this type of project doesn’t include much real estate, on a recent project, the number of specification sections — not including procurement and contracting or general requirements — exceeded 55 medium-scope sections for the architectural, mechanical, plumbing and electrical disciplines.

    Conversely, a 150,000-square-foot warehouse required less than 15 sections because most of the work could be combined within a specification for metal building systems.

  • What information needs to be conveyed, and to whom?

    A good argument for “sheet specs” rather than project manuals is when minimal product installation information is required. Designating interior finishes and their locations, for example, may be addressed adequately in a simple schedule.

  • Who will be using the information?

    Design professionals may use the information to verify compliance of submittals. Contractors may use it to obtain pricing. The owner may use it to verify that his requirements have been addressed. The design professional must determine what format of information is most usable to all of them and prepare the documentation accordingly.

  • What purpose will the information perform after construction?

    Under certain conditions, the specifications may become part of a facility information database once the project is completed. This would determine the level of detail required in the project manual and how it should be conveyed.

What Happens When Something Goes Wrong?

The answers to the above questions will enable design professionals to determine which specification method — project manual or spec sheets — is appropriate for their small project.

But what happens when something goes wrong and the attorneys arrive?

Actually, construction litigation, which is growing at an alarming rate, is not about how the information is presented. Rather, it is about the information itself. So, the best way the design professional can minimize exposure is to provide adequate information.

But adequate information is a nebulous term. What may be adequate for the design professional may not be adequate for the builder or owner.

As each party attempts to minimize exposure to litigation, the onus is placed elsewhere. For example, the design professional may indicate within the documentation that a manufacturer’s installation recommendations, or that a reference standard, dictate installation procedures.

Properly Organizing Specifications for Small Projects

No matter how construction information is conveyed or presented, it needs to be organized so that it is not lost

The U.S. National CAD Standard (NCS) — a joint publication of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) and the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) — provides recommendations for the organization of drawings. CSI and Construction Specifications Canada (CSC) have jointly addressed the organization of written construction information through MasterFormat and SectionFormat.

  • MasterFormat is accepted as the standard for organizing construction project manuals into a series of “divisions” that broadly organize construction practices. The divisions are made up of specifications “sections” with standardized titles and numbers for each.

Due, in part, to changes in the industry, the 2004 MasterFormat edition expanded this arrangement from 16 to 50 divisions, though not all of those are currently populated with titles and numbers.

Many of the architectural divisions that were in earlier editions have been maintained with only minor changes.

Facility services areas — including the mechanical, electrical and plumbing disciplines — have been expanded so that each now has its own division.

Additionally, new divisions have been assigned, such as communications, process engineering and transportation, that were limited at the time the initial 16 divisions were developed. (For more information, visit www.csinet.org.)

Is there a need to have all 50 divisions documented for a small project — especially when many, or at least some, of the divisions have no bearing on the needs of your project?

The design professional should use his or her judgment to determine the scope of the sections — broad, medium or narrow — and how many are needed to adequately document the project.

It can be generally stated, however, that by using narrow scope sections, more sections may be required to cover the work. 

  • SectionFormat, on the other hand, establishes a structure for organizing the content of each specification section consisting of three primary parts — General, Products and Execution.

General describes administrative, procedural and temporary requirements related to that individual specification section. This part should also amplify information covered by the General Requirements that govern the entire project.

Products describes the materials and assemblies to be incorporated into the project and the associated required quality level.

Execution describes the associated work required for installation of the materials and products described in the Products section.

Is the three-part SectionFormat the answer for small, simple projects? It is certainly recommended industry practice. But in reality, only the design professional can weigh what any specific project demands.


Small projects require written documentation to support and protect the design intent. This documentation may be in the form of a project manual or it may be included as part of the graphic documentation — including notes, sheet specs and schedules.

The design professional needs to address the user audience and use the most appropriate information delivery method to meet their needs.

Ultimately the design professional needs to clearly express the design intent while avoiding duplicating information, which only creates the potential for confusion and conflict.

When “something” goes wrong on a construction project regardless of its size, it is unlikely that the number of words used will determine if the information is adequate. If abbreviated text is used, it should be just as clear, complete, correct and concise as if the amount of text required is lengthier. Specifications content should be coordinated with the graphic documentation to ensure clarity of design intent.

Specifications for small projects can adequately be conveyed and presented in a variety of forms. It is up to the design professional to determine the best method for conveying both written and graphic construction information based on the demands of the project and the design intent that he or she is trying to convey.

Nina M. Giglio, CSI, CCSI, Assoc. AIA, SCIP, is the director of specifications for Hall Architects, based in Charlotte, N.C., and a member of the Construction Specifications Institute. She is a member of SectionFormat/PageFormat Update Task Team (SPUTT) and the national secretary for Specifications Consultants in Independent Practice (SCIP). For more information, e-mail Giglio at Hall Architects.

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