The popularity of sustainable design has spawned a number of “green” things within the industry; green materials, green building consultants, green roofs, green wash, and yes, even green specifications. What are green specifications, anyway? Who writes them? Where can one get them?

Before diving into the who, what, where, and why of a “green” specification, it is necessary to have a full understanding of what garden variety specifications are and how they relate to other documents that make up what are called the contract documents. Contract documents form the agreement between the owner and the contractor to build buildings. Section 5.1.4 of the Construction Specifications Institute’s Project Resource Manual defines contract documents as follows:

“The contract documents describe the proposed construction (referred to as the Work) that results from performing services, furnishing labor, and supplying and incorporating materials and equipment into the construction. Contract documents consist of both written and graphic elements and typically include the following:
  • Contracting requirements
  • Specifications
  • Contract drawings.
The contractor signing the agreement with the owner has the responsibility of accomplishing the work in accordance with the contract documents. Therefore, the contract documents are addressed only to the contractor.”

Contracting requirements are legal documents that describe contractual requirements and include general and supplementary conditions. Specifications, along with contracting requirements, are bound together into the project manual. 

Specifications fall into two main categories: Division 01 General Requirements, and Divisions 02 through 49 which are technical specification sections. Division 01 General Requirements sections expand and elaborate on the broad provisions of the project’s General Conditions. An example of this is Allowances. AIA A201 General Conditions of the Contract for Construction includes the following language to address Allowances:

“3.8.1 The Contractor shall include in the Contract Sum all allowances stated in the Contract Documents. Items covered by allowances shall be supplied for such amounts and by such persons or entities as the Owner may direct, but the Contractor shall not be required to employ persons or entities to whom the Contractor has reasonable objection.”

Specification Section 01 2100 - Allowances expands and elaborates on this by defining various types of allowances, stipulating submittal requirements for allowances, and incorporating a schedule of allowances, among other things.

General Requirements specification sections apply to all technical specification sections from Division 02 onward. Division 01 sections need to be written broadly enough to satisfy this requirement. Individual technical sections may include requirements that are specific to the scope of work described within those sections, but should duplicate requirements found in General Requirements sections. For example, I include the definition of volatile organic compounds in Section 01 4200 - References, under the article heading “Definitions,” which includes definitions of things in addition to those found in the general conditions, and applies to all technical specification sections. This definition is not duplicated in technical sections that address VOC content, such as painting, carpeting, and sealants.

It is worth stressing that specifications, as part of the contract documents, are legally binding. Poorly written specifications can be ambiguous and unenforceable. They can result in serious legal consequences. The Project Resource Manual states:

“As legally enforceable contract documents, construction specifications should be prepared with concern and respect for their legal status.”

Even a small, poorly written portion of a specification can cost millions of dollars in damage. For a fascinating account of just how badly things can go wrong when a spec is poorly written, read Ambiguous Specifications: The Federal Duty to Inquire by John S. Mrowiec (which can be found at The article summarizes a legal battle that one small part of a single specification section, a handful of words, ultimately ended with a judgment handed down in favor of the Contractor in the amount of more than $40 million.

There have been a lot of green specifications written by well meaning (but untrained and non-credentialed) “green” building consultants and organizations. One such consultant I had occasion to work with maintained that even though the proposed green specifications were unenforceable and poorly written, it was important to establish the tone, to introduce a green flavor. The only spice I want flavoring my specifications consist of the CSI’s Project Resource Manual:
  • CORRECT: Present information accurately and precisely. Carefully select words that convey exact meanings.
  • CLEAR: Use proper grammar and simple sentence construction to avoid ambiguity.
  • CONCISE: Eliminate unnecessary words, but not at the expense of clarity, correctness, or completeness.
  • COMPLETE: Do not leave out important information.

The Four Cs are the foundation of well-written specifications. They can be used as a sort of litmus test. If any portion of a specification is not clear, complete, concise, and correct, then it isn’t ready to be incorporated into the Owner’s agreement with the Contractor.

What Green Specifications are Not

Below are some examples of poor specification language from “green” building consultants and “green” building publications that I have collected over the years:

“Contract Documents have been prepared to maximize environmental consciousness, recycling, and reuse of recyclable and reusable materials.”

“Participate in promoting efforts of Owner to create an energy