September 11, 2012

Specs: The Sexy Part of Architecture?

Think specs aren't the sexy part of architecture? They should be.

King's Cross Station, photo by Peter Burgess
Strength in a veil. King's Cross Station.
I stayed in architecture, when engineering was looking awfully tempting in college, because I love working with the surfaces people touch, walk on, hear, and smell. And I discovered, later, that I love specs for the control they give me over these very senses, as people experience the finished work. If you want a sexy project, you need sexy specs.

Now, I'll admit, specification format and language don't give specifiers a lot of leeway in self-expression. You can't use a sexy, lingerie-ad font; there's really no suspense, because there's no story line; and no one would ever write a romance novel in outline form. In any case, I'm really talking about sexy the way architects mean sexy,  like this sexy retaining wall. No, all the sexiness in specs is between the lines.


In drawings and models, especially during the most exciting parts of the design process, you control shapes and spaces. It's easy to see what's sexy about a project in the drawings. But what about your other senses? That's what specs are good at. Don't ruin the rich leather smell of your high-end shoe store; control unwanted smells with low-emitting panels and carpets and low-odor paints. Looking for a quiet room with a luxurious hushed, feel? Specify the sound transmission and noise absorption of the surfaces. Performance specifications aren't just for structural engineers; they can also define the perfect firmness of a cushion. Texture, reverberation, even keeping the steam in your steam room -- specs are great for sensory requirements you can't see.

The Hard and the Soft

Specs are all about levels of control. In any project, there are experiences the designer wants to tightly control: veneer matching and quality, the resonance of a performance hall, or the crispness of the edges of metal or stone. At the same time, there are aspects of a project that can be controlled with a looser grip, like the core beneath the veneer, or the method used to hang the acoustical panels in that performance hall. That stuff has to perform, but it doesn't have to be exactly the same as the last project in order to perform. The specifier knows when to hold tightly, and when to guide more gently.

Just For You

We've all seen specifications (well, I have, anyway) that yammer on about standards and techniques that have nothing to do with the work at hand or that entirely ignore features of the project. Like a good listener, or a great lounge singer, specs should let the reader know, "I'm talking directly to you, and I understand what you're looking for." Good specifications make you feel as if there is no other project in the world, only yours.

So, next time you're tempted to pass over specifications to get to "the sexy part of architecture," remember -- it takes sexy specs to build a sexy project.

About This Post

I started writing this post some time ago because of Bob Borson's post The Not-So-Sexy Side to Architecture. I was feeling a little defensive about people not thinking of specifications as interesting, sexy, or even really design, so I had to see what Bob thought wasn't the sexy part. I was relieved to find that he was talking about the part of architecture when he's about as far away from design as he ever gets - emails, deadlines, taking flak for problems he probably didn't cause. He didn't say it wasn't specs, but I was inspired to pick up a fat pen and write this little romance. Thanks, Bob!

The photo is by Peter Burgess.

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