U.S. Department of Transportation
Federal Highway Administration
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20590

Skip to content U.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway AdministrationU.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway Administration


Note: The National Highway Specification Website (NHSW) is no longer available.

Technical Advisory

Development and Review of Specifications


March 24, 2010


  1. What is the purpose of this Technical Advisory?
  2. Does this Technical Advisory supersede other Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) guidance?
  3. Who is the intended audience of this Technical Advisory?
  4. What are specifications and what role do they play on a project?
  5. What do specifications provide to a State DOT?
  6. What do specifications provide to contractors?
  7. What are the different forms of specifications used in highway construction?
  8. What is the relationship between plans and specifications?
  9. How should conflicting specifications or contract requirements be resolved?
  10. What are the different types of specifications used in highway construction?
  11. What is FHWA's policy on construction specifications?
  12. What role do Division office personnel play in the development, review and approval of State DOT specifications?
  13. What are some best practices related to Division office participation in a State DOT's specification development efforts?
  14. What are some best practices related to the specification review and approval process?
  15. What are the key focus areas for Division office personnel when conducting a review?
  16. How can a Division office remain involved with a specification after the review and approval period?
  17. What are some common reasons for nonenforcement of specifications?
  18. How can the effectiveness of a specification be evaluated?
  19. What is the National Highway Specifications Web Site (NHSW)?
  20. How can the Division offices help maintain the NHSW?
  21. How can the State DOTs access and help maintain the NHSW?
  22. What initiatives have helped to advance quality and consistency in specification writing?
  23. How have specifications evolved and what are the emerging trends in specification writing?
  24. How does the use of alternative contracting methods affect specifications?


  1. Types of Specifying
  2. Specification Review Guidance
  3. Specification Review Checklist
  4. Basic Specification Writing Principles ("Five C's" of Good Specification Writing)
  5. Voice and Mood in Specifications
  6. Word Usage
  7. Vague Adjectives and Adverbs
  8. Needless Words and Jargon
  1. What is the purpose of this Technical Advisory? This Technical Advisory:
    1. describes the role the FHWA Division office staff plays in the development, review, approval, and evaluation of specifications prepared by State departments of transportation (DOT);
    2. identifies specification review points related to:
      1. legal and administrative issues,
      2. material and technical requirements, and
      3. general organization and writing style;
    3. describes the various types of specifications (i.e., method, performance, reference standards, and proprietary) used in highway construction, including the required elements of each specification type and appropriate conditions for their use; and
    4. describes the FHWA's National Highway Specifications Web site (NHSW) and encourages active participation by the Division offices to help ensure that the contents of the Web site remain reasonably current.
  2. Does this Technical Advisory supersede other Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) guidance? Yes. This Technical Advisory supersedes FHWA Technical Advisory 5080.16, Development and Review of Specifications, dated August 7, 1992.

  3. Who is the intended audience of this Technical Advisory?

    1. The primary audience for this document is FHWA Division office staff that review and approve specifications.  The document emphasizes Division office oversight and the role of Division office staff in the development and review of specifications.
    2. While the primary audience is the FHWA Division offices, the information presented in this document will also be of interest and use to State DOT personnel and others that draft and enforce contracts and specifications.  The best practices and recommendations contained herein may be used by all to encourage and facilitate the writing of specifications that are clear, concise, correct, complete, and consistent.
  4. What are specifications and what role do they play on a project?

    1. Specifications are written instructions describing the work that is to be undertaken.
    2. Specifications are part of the contract documents, which also include the drawings, bid or proposal documents, agreement forms, and contract modifications.
    3. Specifications communicate to bidders prior to contract award, and to the selected contractor thereafter, the definitive directions, procedures, and material and equipment requirements the State DOT considers necessary for completing the contract work.  In this context, specifications can directly affect the quality of design and construction of every highway product, as well as the cost of construction and maintenance.
  5. What do specifications provide to a State DOT?  For a State DOT and its engineers and inspectors, specifications provide:

    1. a standard set of procedures for managing a project, including changes, and
    2. the minimum standards against which to evaluate the contractor's work, including allowable tolerances.
  6. What do specifications provide to contractors?

    1. Specifications provide instructions on:
      1. how the prescribed work is to be performed, including material and equipment requirements and any restrictions or conditions on that performance;
      2. how the quality and acceptability of the work will be determined;
      3. allowable tolerances and how deviations from these tolerances will be handled;
      4. how payment for the work will be made; and
      5. how changed conditions are to be handled.
    2. Such information is important to contractors as they develop their bids and as they manage and execute the work if they are awarded the contract.  After contract award, no additional duties or restrictions can be imposed on the contractor without a contract modification.
  7. What are the different forms of specifications used in highway construction? The extent to which a Division office will participate in a State DOT's development of a specification may vary based on the form of specification involved.  It is therefore important to differentiate among the following forms or types of specifications commonly used in highway construction.

    1. Standard specifications – Specifications approved for general application and repetitive use, typically compiled and made available in book form.
    2. Supplemental specifications – Additions and revisions to the standard specifications used to update the standard specifications between publications.
    3. Special provisions – Additions and revisions to the standard and supplemental specifications that apply only to an individual project or a small group of projects.
    4. Developmental or pilot specifications – Specifications developed around a new process, procedure, or material with the prior knowledge that subsequent adjustments might be necessary prior to adoption for standard usage.
  8. What is the relationship between plans and specifications?

    1. Plans or drawings contain graphical or visual portrayals of the work required.  Specifications contain written descriptions of the quality of materials, processes, and workmanship required to complete the work in a manner acceptable to the owner.
    2. The information contained in drawings and specifications should be complementary; there should be no duplication or overlap between these documents.  Hence, what is better described in the specifications should not be shown on the drawings, and, likewise, what is better shown on drawings should not be described in the specifications.
    3. Drawings should generally show the following types of information, as appropriate:
      1. Location of the work,
      2. Details and dimensions,
      3. Schedules of construction items, and
      4. Plan notes.
    4. Specifications should generally describe the following types of information, as appropriate:
      1. Type and quality of materials,
      2. Quality of workmanship,
      3. Methods of fabrication, installation, and construction,
      4. Testing requirements,
      5. Alternates and options, and
      6. Method of measurement and payment.
    5. In preparing plans and specifications, the question often arises as to whether a particular instruction should be placed in the specifications, shown in the form of notes on the plans, or both.
      1. As a general rule, information should not be included in both the specifications and the plans.  Covering requirements in multiple places could lead to ambiguities or conflicts, especially if information is changed in one location but not the other.
      2. Plan notes should be used when it is necessary to communicate and clarify information that cannot be represented by a particular plan or detail alone, and the information cannot be highlighted advantageously in a specification.
      3. If the instructions apply to only one particular item, plan notes may be appropriate.  For example, if only one connection requires a high strength bolt, a note to that effect should be placed beside the detail for that connection.  If instead, all field connections are to be high–strength bolts tightened to a specific tension; this information would be better suited to a specification, as it would then be unnecessary to repeat this information on all affected plans.
      4. Plan notes may also be appropriate if it is necessary to highlight specific information (e.g., references to existing underground utilities, dimensional clarifications, work zone limitations related to noise or dust, locations of suitable soil, etc.) that could otherwise go unnoticed in a specification.
      5. Permitting agencies may also require the inclusion of certain notes on the plans.  For example, agencies issuing National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits for construction activities often require plan notes to address the total area of disturbance, characteristics of the in-situ soil, and the design capacity and associated maintenance schedule for erosion and sedimentation control measures.  In this case, it would be important to verify that the associated soil erosion control specification does not duplicate or conflict with the requirements already stated in the plan notes.
      6. Plan notes are not a specification and should not be used to revise the approved specifications.  Revisions to the specifications should instead be handled through a supplemental specification or a special provision.
  9. How should conflicting specifications or contract requirements be resolved?

    1. Conflicting specifications or contract requirements may be resolved using an order–of–precedence (or coordination) clause.  In highway contracts, such a clause is often found in the Control of Work or Scope of Work sections of the General Conditions (Division 100).
    2. Under a typical order–of–precedence clause, project–specific information governs or takes precedence over the more generic, and written specifications govern over drawings.  Thus, the hierarchy of documents imposed by a typical order–of–precedence clause is as follows:
      1. Project special provisions
      2. Project plans
      3. Supplemental specifications
      4. Standard specifications
      5. Standard plans
    3. The order–of–precedence clause also typically states that calculated dimensions take precedence over scaled dimensions.
  10. What are the different types of specifications used in highway construction?

    1. Generally, four different types of specifications are used:
      1. Method specifications,
      2. Performance specifications,
      3. Reference standards, and
      4. Proprietary specifications.
    2. It is important for reviewers to understand each of these methods, particularly the content that they should contain, their relative advantages and disadvantages, and the conditions under which they can be best applied.  See Types of Specifying for a full discussion on each of these methods.
  11. What is FHWA's policy on construction specifications?

    1. Title 23 CFR 630 – Preconstruction Procedures, Subpart B, requires FHWA approval of plans, specifications, and estimates (PS&E) packages prepared for Federal–aid highway projects.
    2. Specifications are an essential part of the overall PS&E package, conveying how the contractor is to perform the contract work, and how the State DOT will measure, accept, and pay for the work performed.
    3. To facilitate the specification approval process, FHWA encourages the State DOTs to develop and maintain standard and supplemental specifications to address routine work items and requirements.
    4. Use of approved standard and supplemental specifications minimizes the need for project–specific special provisions, which reduces the time and effort to develop, review, and approve a PS&E package.
  12. What role do Division office personnel play in the development, review, and approval of State DOT specifications?

    1. The FHWA Division Administrators have been delegated the authority to review and approve State DOT construction specifications developed for use on Federal–aid construction projects.  The FHWA Delegations and Organization Manual, Chapter 5, outlines these delegations in detail.
      1. Typically, this review and approval authority is further delegated from the Division Administrator to a designated staff member that has been assigned responsibility for specification coordination and review as a collateral duty.  In this role, the specification engineer should coordinate review of State DOT specifications with technical specialists in the Division office, resource center, and Washington Headquarters as necessary.
      2. Some Division offices have identified technical specialists or have formed subcommittees in specific program areas (e.g., traffic and safety, materials, pavement, geotechnical and environmental, finance and legal, etc.), and have assigned responsibility to such specialists for specifications developed in their specific area of expertise.
    2. A Division office can capitalize on its review and approval authority by requesting to participate in the State DOT's specification development efforts.  Such participation could include attending regular specification committee meetings, facilitating outreach efforts to industry and other local agencies, and promoting and disseminating information developed by Washington Headquarters and the resource center.
  13. What are some best practices related to Division office participation in a State DOT's specification development efforts? 

    1. Participate in the State DOT's specification development process as early as possible.
      1. Early involvement in the development of specifications provides the opportunity to improve the State DOT's environmental, design, construction, and maintenance processes without micromanaging at the individual project level.  By approaching specifications at a program level rather than at an individual project level, the Division office can influence both the process itself and individual products.
      2. The Division office should designate a staff member to regularly coordinate with the State DOT on specification matters.  Coordination activities could include setting up and participating in specification committee meetings with the State DOT.  Regular participation in such meetings will help keep the Division office informed of upcoming specification activities contemplated by the State DOT, such as major revisions to the standard specifications or development of new specifications.  Advance notice of these activities can be used to schedule the necessary resources to ensure the timeliness of the review process.
      3. A standing relationship with State DOT personnel also facilitates communication and helps identify technical areas of need for which additional training and assistance may be beneficial.
    2. Recommend that the State DOT develop a written policy regarding specification updates (if it does not already have such a policy in place).
      1. Specifications often require regular updates to keep up with technological advances, product changes, and lessons learned on prior projects.  A written policy that defines the State DOT's procedures for developing and revising specifications and obtaining FHWA approval can facilitate the specification updating process, particularly for new staff.
      2. Documentation could range from a guidance manual, complete with forms and checklists, to a simple flowchart that depicts the basic review steps and assigns responsibility for each step.
      3. The exact procedures a State DOT chooses to adopt must meet its own unique needs; however, some best practices include the following: 
        1. Establish standing committees with specialized expertise to focus on specifications in one particular functional area (e.g., soils, asphalt, concrete, general conditions, materials, etc.).
        2. Create an executive committee to oversee the work of these committees and make decisions regarding implementation of the revised specifications.
        3. Hold regular specification meetings, both with internal staff and with representatives from FHWA and industry.
        4. Gather feedback on the effectiveness of the specification after use on a project(s) and revise the specification as necessary.
    3. Participate in joint State DOT/industry committees and activities.
      1. State DOTs often seek input from industry representatives as they develop specifications, especially if it appears as though a specification may hold particular relevance to a certain industry or group (e.g., Associated General Contractors of America, concrete and asphalt associations, etc.).
      2. Such involvement is designed to identify constructability issues or past problems related to enforceability or inconsistent administration in the field.  For major revisions, State DOTs may also want to reach out to industry representatives to get their perspective on how the change may impact business or operations.
      3. Often a State DOT will engage industry representatives before the Division office's formal review.  However, it may be beneficial for Division office personnel to attend joint DOT/industry specification development meetings to provide a national perspective on the issues and concerns that may emerge, and to enhance interaction and outreach among State DOT staff and industry representatives.
    4. Promote and disseminate information developed or provided by Washington Headquarters, the resource center, other State DOTs, and industry on specification issues, best practices, and new and emerging materials and technology.
      1. The Division office, with assistance from Washington Headquarters and the resource center as necessary, can often provide a broader perspective on new ideas and trends than may be available or known to specification writers at the State DOT.  This knowledge can be used to promote (or alternatively, to dismiss) material trends and new and emerging materials and technology.
      2. Continuing involvement and coordination with the State DOT on specification matters allows the Division office to be proactive rather than reactive in promoting new concepts and best practices.  Such involvement can be used to foster a culture that seeks to continually improve the quality of specifications.
  14. What are some best practices related to the specification review and approval process?   The process of reviewing and approving specifications provides the Division office with a clear opportunity to influence the quality and completeness of specifications.  A Division office's specification review and approval procedures will be largely driven by the internal processes of its counterpart State DOT.  However, it may be beneficial for the Division office to formalize its own internal procedures, if for no other reason than to retain continuity as new staff is hired.  Development and documentation of review and approval procedures will not only help streamline coordination and review efforts at the Division office level, but may also provide a framework to assist or influence the State DOT's own specification development activities.  Some recommended elements to consider when developing procedures are discussed below:

    1. Responsibilities of Division office staff
      1. A Division office's review and approval process should address the following:
        1. Who coordinates with the State DOT on specification matters on a regular basis?
        2. Who has approval authority (e.g., Division Administrator, or delegated to other staff member)?
        3. Who has expertise in different technical areas?  When should technical experts be engaged?
      2. When selecting reviewer(s), note that detailed knowledge of both the technical and the administrative requirements and concerns is not always available from one or two individuals. The use of a committee or group of knowledgeable individuals to develop and evaluate the specifications is preferred.  Technical specialists should be consulted as necessary; however, a non–expert may also be well suited to identifying basic problem areas such as reliance on assumed knowledge and inclusion of unnecessary requirements.
    2. Review guidelines
      1. When evaluating specifications, reviewers should be alert to the types of issues discussed in the document Specification Review Guidance.
      2. Development of a review checklist can facilitate reviews of specifications and PS&E packages.  Specification Review Checklist is a generic form that can be adapted to fit the needs of a particular State, agency, or project.
      3. The timing of a review can be critical to maximize the ability of the Division office to influence the quality of specifications.  Typically, the best results can be achieved through early and continuous involvement with the State DOT in the development of the specification or update.  Other options could include before, after, or concurrent with industry review, or at some predefined stages of development (e.g. 60 and 90 percent).  For a major update to a State DOT's standard specifications, the Division office may also want to consider approving specifications on a section by section basis, rather than wait until the entire document is ready.  A staged review can fast–track the approval process as well as identify and resolve some common problems early on.
      4. The review effort may vary based on the type of specifications or revisions involved.  For example, correction of a spelling mistake would not warrant the same level of review as a new supplemental specification.  Some general guidelines are provided below.
        1. Standard and supplemental specifications – Traditionally, the most intensive reviews are reserved for the State DOT's standard and supplemental specifications.  Such specifications should be carefully reviewed for need and engineering merit, compliance with Federal laws and regulations, and format and clarity of language.  Technical specialists should be consulted as necessary.  Also note that a single review done at one sitting may not adequately complete the evaluation. Once reviewed, the material should be set aside and rechecked later to provide a fresh approach to the language and content.  The need for subsequent review will be reflected by the comments and revisions noted.
        2. Major revisions – Once standard and supplemental specifications have been approved, all major revisions to these specifications that could affect the way the work is performed, tested, inspected, measured, or paid should go through a formal review process.  If technical specialists were involved in the review of the original specifications, specialists should similarly review and comment on the proposed revisions as well.  The State DOT should highlight and explain all proposed changes to the existing specifications.
        3. Minor revisions – For minor revisions that do not alter or change the intent of the specifications, a more cursory review will likely suffice.  The State DOT should be instructed to include with the revised specifications an explanation as to why the revisions do not change the original intent.
        4. Errata – Although a formal approval by the Division office of minor changes to correct typos, outdated information, and other grammatical errors is not necessary, the Division office should reach an agreement with the State DOT on how errata will be handled.  At a minimum, the Division office should obtain a copy of the revised specifications and update its files and records accordingly.
        5. Pilot specifications – If the State DOT wishes to use Federal funds to pilot a specification as a new or experimental feature, FHWA will have to review and approve the related work plan.  In reviewing a work plan, consider the risk involved in incorporating the new feature on the project with respect to safety, quality, and cost (both initial construction and long–term maintenance).  The length of the monitoring period should also be considered if the Division office will have to assign some of its staff to the monitoring effort. 

          Developmental or pilot specifications are typically not finalized until after they have been field tested and shown to have met the State DOT's intended goals and objectives. 

        6. PS&E packages – The Division offices are responsible for reviewing and approving PS&E packages developed for full oversight projects.  The specifications contained in these packages typically consist of standard and supplemental specifications and recurring special provisions that have previously received FHWA approval.  The prior approval of such specifications allows the review effort to focus on general contract coordination issues to identify conflicts and missing information.  Additional review points include ensuring that:
          1. the package contains all required Federal and State provisions;
          2. specifications and provisions represent the current approved versions and are applicable to the project at hand (having a listing of all current approved specifications can facilitate this effort); and
          3. project–specific special provisions are needed, technically correct, and written using clear, concise, and consistent language.

          In reviewing a PS&E package, it is also important to identify and track all elements for which Federal funds will not participate.

      5. To help provide some context for the review effort, request that the State DOT provide an explanation of the following, preferably in written form:
        1. For proposed revisions to approved specifications, an explanation as to:
          1. what is being changed,
          2. what the change will accomplish, and
          3. why the change is necessary.
        2. For new specifications, an explanation as to:
          1. why the specifications are required,
          2. what the specifications consist of, and
          3. what other standard specifications, supplemental specifications, standard drawings, or standard details, if any, pertain to, or will be affected by, the proposed specification.
      6. Procedures should also be developed to document the Division office's reviews and approvals.  Consider the following types of issues:
        1. Should reviewers use the editing features available in word processing programs (e.g., track changes feature in MS Word) to highlight added or deleted text?
        2. Should all comments be coordinated through the designated specification engineer?
        3. Should comments be included in the text itself or formalized in a written letter?  Because several individuals may comment on a specification, should the designated specification engineer compile the comments in a single letter before forwarding to the State DOT?
        4. How should approvals be identified (e.g., with a stamp and date)?  Should a cover letter accompany all approvals?
        5. How should the Division office's comments and the State DOT's responses be tracked to ensure that all comments have been satisfied?
        6. How should the final specifications and any supporting documentation (e.g., approval letters, history of comments, and responses) be maintained?
    3. Tracking systems
      1. The Division office should establish and maintain systems to track the specification approval process. 
        1. A tracking system that identifies the Division office's comments along with the State DOT's resolution can streamline the specification approval process.  This system should also record the final approval or disapproval action.  For most agencies, a spreadsheet can provide the necessary level of detail and functionality to record a specification's development history.  Ready access to such information reduces subsequent efforts in approving updates to the standard specifications.
        2. As new versions are developed and approved, the new effective date of the specification should be recorded.  The revised specifications should be filed by subject, whether revised as a special provision or as a supplemental specification, and maintained in a master file.
      2. An up–to–date special provisions list should be maintained to allow a quick comparison of the contract requirements and the provisions available.  This information can assist the review of PS&E packages.
      3. The Division office should develop an internal process to track the receipt and approval action of requests for a public interest finding (PIF).  The duration the PIF remains in effect should also be tracked and monitored.  Changes in market conditions, product availability, and technology may eliminate the continued need for a PIF.  In addition, the Division office should support the resource center's PIF Database (accessible to FHWA personnel only) by submitting approved PIFs for inclusion on the site.  This database is a valuable resource, storing hundreds of approved PIFs, which can be used as examples to promote efficiency and uniformity in the development and approval of PIFs.
      4. Specifications are influenced by the legal requirements of the States and the Federal Government.  Therefore, a file should be maintained of State and Federal laws that impact the design and construction of highway contracts.  Extra care in the purging or updating of these files is recommended.
  15. What are the key focus areas for Division office personnel when conducting a review? The specification review effort should focus on the following general areas:

    1. General administrative issues (i.e., compliance with Federal or State policy),
    2. Materials issues (e.g., proprietary products, agency–provided materials, experimental features),
    3. Technical content, and
    4. Organization, formatting, and writing style
    The document Specification Review Guidance provides reviewers with detailed guidance related to each of these areas.  To further support the review effort, the following documents contain writing tips intended to ensure specifications are clear, concise, complete, correct, and consistent:  Basic Specification Writing Principles, Voice and Mood in Specifications, Word Usage, Vague Adjectives and Adverbs, and Needless Words and Jargon.
  16. How can a Division office remain involved with a specification after the review and approval period?

    1. Division office personnel should follow–up with their counterparts at the State DOT to determine if new or revised specifications were used on a project and to what degree of success (i.e., were expectations in terms of quality, cost, time performance, contractor innovation, or other desired goals met).
      1. If application on a project suggests deficiencies in an approved specification, such problem areas should be noted and coordinated with the State DOT for future changes.
      2. If specifications are to be credible, all provisions must be enforceable and enforced.  Provisions not enforced in field application may point to a flaw in the specifications or to administrative actions that must be corrected.
      3. The procedures used by the State DOT to administer the contract, monitor construction, design the work, and sample and test compliance with the contract requirements must complement the specifications.  If a standard procedure might counteract the specifications, it may be necessary to recommend either a change in the procedures or a revision of the specifications to suit the State DOT's internal processes.
    2. The Division offices should also strongly encourage the State DOTs to upload new and revised specifications to the FHWA NHSW and provide any necessary assistance to support the ongoing maintenance of this Web site. (See paragraphs 19 through 21 below)
  17. What are some common reasons for non–enforcement of specifications?

    1. Use of improper administrative procedures,
    2. Conflicts with other contract documents (plans and specifications),
    3. Lack of clarity in the specifications,
    4. Lack of understanding of the purpose for having the requirement in the specification, and
    5. Specifications that are punitive, without justification, or are used to cover basic failures in contract administrative procedures or contract preparation.

    The reason(s) for non–enforcement need to be identified and corrected wherever they exist.

  18. How can the effectiveness of a specification be evaluated?

    1. Specification evaluation should be performed by a multi–disciplinary group that includes FHWA and State DOT representatives. A multi–disciplinary review group within the Division office is also recommended.
      1. The group members evaluating the specifications should be carefully selected to minimize organizational "mind set" problems and bias on the part of any individual members. A free and comprehensive exchange of information between all members of the groups is needed.
      2. Feedback should be sought from the State DOT's field personnel as well as industry representatives to determine if the specification was fairly administered and enforced.
      3. If the evaluation suggests a revision to the specification is needed, the Division office's designated specification engineer should follow–up with the State DOT to ensure that the specification is updated accordingly.
    2. A good guide for determining the success of an existing specification is to review the bid tabulations for the item in question. When the range of bidding is close, it indicates that all contractors are reading the specification in the same context. Conversely, a wide range of bidding may indicate confusion and ambiguity in the specification that calls for a rewrite.
    3. After specifications have been implemented in the field, problem areas can become apparent by reviewing the field inspection report findings prepared by the Division office and the State DOT. Comments from industry groups should be considered as well.
    4. Year-end summaries of common change orders, requests for information, variance requests, time extensions, and claims may also suggest that a specification revision is necessary.
    5. The specification should also be validated both before use and after use to ensure it provides the desired level of quality.
      1. Prior to use, statistical analysis may be performed (e.g., through the use of Operating Characteristic Curves and Expected Pay Curves) to ensure that the sampling and acceptance plans as designed provide the desired level of statistical risk to both the State DOT and contractor.
      2. Maintenance of a construction quality database would assist efforts to objectively evaluate specification effectiveness with regard to product quality. This would require the State DOT to conduct statewide evaluations of product quality as achieved through the use of the specification.
      3. Inconsistent performance or quality or routine processing of downward pay adjustments may suggest that a specification is too strict. Conversely, routinely paying maximum pay incentives may suggest a specification is too lax.
  19. What is the National Highway Specifications Web Site (NHSW)?

    1. In 2003, FHWA launched its NHSW, a fully searchable electronic library of highway construction information obtained from all 50 States, the District of Columbia, and the FHWA Office of Federal Lands Highway. Consolidation of this information in one place has proven to be a valuable resource to its AASHTO and FHWA community of users. As a one–stop source for specification information, the Web site has saved users time and money, while improving practices and promoting higher quality in construction end products.
    2. The NHSW allows users to browse, search by keyword, and download standard specifications, innovative and emerging specifications and special provisions, and construction manuals. The NHSW also provides links to other online resources that may be of interest to specification writers, including State DOT Web pages containing standard drawings, specifications, and manuals.
  20. How can the Division offices help maintain the NHSW?

    1. As part of the specification review and approval process, the Division offices should actively work with the State DOTs to ensure that all updated specifications are placed on the NHSW in a timely manner.
    2. Because the NHSW is an FHWA information system, State DOT personnel may only access the site if they are registered in FHWA's User Profile and Access Control System (UPACS) and are granted a UPACS ID and access rights to the NHSW.
    3. The process for a State DOT user to register and gain access to the NHSW requires approval by the UPACS Administrator within each Division office, as well as a Division office sponsor. The complete process for obtaining access rights is outlined in the reference Accessing FHWA Information Systems.
  21. How can the State DOTs access and help maintain the NHSW?

    1. The intent of the NHSW is to provide quick access to the latest approved specifications and related information from each State DOT and the Federal Lands Highway Divisions.
    2. To ensure that the NHSW remains reasonably up–to–date with the latest specifications available, it is essential that the State DOTs update the NHSW after their specifications receive approval from the Division office.
    3. On the administrative side of the NHSW (accessible from the site’s homepage via a UPACS login and password), designated State DOT personnel may upload, replace, or delete their respective agency's resources (e.g., standard specifications, construction manuals, Web site links) and contact information.
    4. The administrative home page also contains links to online training assistance related to maintenance of the Web site and creation of accessible documents that comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.
  22. What initiatives have helped advance quality and consistency in specification writing?

    1. This Technical Advisory is an outgrowth of several ongoing initiatives emphasizing the need for complete, clear, and fair specifications. These initiatives include the following:
      1. FHWA National Highway Institute, Course No. 134001, Principles of Writing Highway Construction Specifications — A course developed in 1991 and still offered today to provide instruction on general writing principles for ensuring the development of clear, concise, complete, correct, and consistent specifications.
      2. NHI 134077 Contract Administration Core Curriculum (FHWA) — Training that addresses contract provisions and administrative procedures related to Federal–aid projects.
      3. FHWA National Highway Institute, Course 134061, Construction Program Management and Inspection — Training that promotes program management starting at the beginning of a project's "cradle to grave" development rather than solely in the construction phase.
      4. FHWA National Highway Specifications Website — A Web site launched in 2003 to provide users with a fully–searchable database of highway construction information. The Web site also contains pages dedicated to new and emerging technical specifications and alternative contracting provisions.
      5. AASHTO Guide Specifications for Highway Construction — Guide specifications that provide specification writers across the country with information on standard topics that frequently appear in transportation construction projects. Specification writers can adapt these guide specifications to project–specific conditions. In doing so, the State DOTs can increase the uniformity by which construction is performed across the country. In addition to serving as a technical resource, the guide specifications also act as a model of clear and concise specification writing. The 1998 edition was updated using the active voice and imperative mood to clarify contractor responsibilities. The ninth edition, published in 2008, carries on this tradition, and also includes sample alternative contracting provisions.
      6. Plain Language Movement — An ongoing effort promoted by Federal Agencies since the mid–1990's to write using language that is easy to read and understand. The Plain Language Web site provides information regarding the history of the plain language movement, along with related guidelines. Although the plain language movement was driven primarily to eliminate the use of complex language and sentence construction in Federal regulations and government reports, several of its general principles, as identified below, can be directly applied to specification writing as well.
        1. Organize material to serve the needs of the reader.
        2. Write sentences in the active voice.
        3. Use common, everyday words instead of technical jargon and abbreviations.
        4. Use easy–to–read design features, such as lists, tables, graphics, and "white space."
        5. Write short sentences and sections.
    2. Several initiatives have also focused on improving the technical quality of specifications, particularly with regard to statistically based acceptance procedures. Such initiatives include the following:
      1. Development of software, such as OCPLOT, used for developing Operating Characteristic (OC) and Expected Payment (EP) curves, and SpecRisk, designed to assist users in analyzing and appropriately balancing the owner's risk of erroneously accepting defective work against the contractor's risk of having satisfactory work erroneously penalized or rejected.
      2. FHWA National Highway Institute, Course No. 134042, TCCC Materials Control and Acceptance – Quality Assurance — A course developed to provide a basic understanding of statistically–based quality assurance programs, including a discussion on how such concepts can be incorporated into specifications.
      3. FHWA National Highway Institute, Course No. 134070, SPECRISK Quality Assurance Specification Development — A Web–based course providing instruction on the use of SpecRisk software to help generate effective, statistically valid specifications.
  23. How have specifications evolved, and what are the trends in specification writing?

    1. Method specifications have been a mainstay in construction since the introduction of professional licensing laws and separation of design and construction services in the early 1900's. The Interstate Highway System was built through the use of method specifications.
    2. Advances in design, technology, research, and testing have improved our understanding of the construction process and the materials incorporated into the work. These advancements, together with reductions in both the numbers and experience levels of DOT inspectors and engineers, have fostered the development of specifications that place more responsibility on the contractor to control the quality of the work. As a result, the trend in specifications has been moving towards greater use of performance specifications.
    3. As a practical matter, today's specifications for highway construction projects often still include a combination of method and performance requirements. Portions of the work that can be described in terms of end–product performance and that have measurable and testable criteria are developed as end–result specifications. Other portions of the work for which it is not yet feasible to measure end–result performance or performance over time, or which have no testable criteria, are maintained as method specifications. (See the attachment Types of Specifying for a more complete discussion of method versus performance specifying.)
  24. How does the use of alternative contracting methods affect specifications?

    1. As an additional trend, several State DOTs are now implementing alternatives to the traditional design–bid–build delivery approach to accelerate project delivery, reduce initial or life–cycle costs, improve quality, or promote innovation. Nontraditional methods may include:
      1. Alternative delivery approaches, such as design–build, public–private partnerships, project alliancing, and construction manager (CM) at risk;
      2. Alternative procurement approaches, such as best–value procurement, cost–plus–time (A+B) bidding, alternate design, and alternate bid; and
      3. Alternative contracting methods such as incentive/disincentives related to time or quality, flexible notice to proceed dates, lane rental, and performance warranties.

      The NHSW includes specifications, provisions, and guidance related to these methods on its innovative contracting Web page.

      Note: Use of certain nontraditional contracting methods that deviate from the competitive bidding provisions found in 23 U.S.C. 112 require FHWA approval under Special Project No. 14 (SEP–14). Design–build contracting, cost–plus–time bidding, lane rental, and warranty provisions are no longer considered experimental and do not require this approval process.

      The FHWA has also recently established Special Experimental Project No. 15 (SEP–15) under which the State DOTs may propose to conduct trial evaluations of new public–private partnership approaches to project delivery.

    2. Implementation of alternative contracting methods may require modifications to standard specification language to allow more risk and flexibility to be assigned to the contractor.
      1. Use of certain methods, such as design–build, will significantly alter traditional contract administration procedures. This may require changes to a State DOT's General Conditions.
        1. Definitions and terms
          1. Terms may have to be added to define the delivery process (e.g., design–build, CM at risk) and the participants in this process (e.g., design–builder, engineer or designer of record)
          2. If the contractor is taking on design responsibilities, any existing definitions for terms such as Work, Plans, and Drawings should be reviewed in the context of the contractor serving as the engineer–of–record.
          3. If the procurement process has changed to incorporate a two–step process or a best–value system, it may be necessary to introduce additional terminology (e.g., Request for Qualifications, Statement of Qualifications, Request for Proposal, Proposal, Price Proposal, and Technical Proposal).
          4. If the contractor will be assuming more responsibility for quality management, it may be necessary to add or modify definitions related to this process (e.g., Quality Management Plan, Quality Assurance, Quality Control, Verification Testing, etc.).
        2. Bidding requirements — Existing language may require modification if a State DOT's standard Invitation to Bid process will be replaced with a two–step Request for Qualifications/Request for Proposal process.
        3. Award and execution of contract — Existing language may require modification to incorporate elements related to a proposal evaluation and/or scoring process if award will be to the contractor offering the best–value rather than the lowest bid.
        4. Scope of work — The project scope may require modification if the work entails more than just construction services. For example, the scope should be revised to include design as well as construction services under a design–build contract, and preconstruction as well as construction services under a CM at risk contract.
          1. Requirements related to differing site conditions, Right–of–Way, environmental permitting, and third–party (e.g., Utilities and Railroad) coordination should also be reviewed and modified to reflect the risk allocated to the contractor.
          2. If the contract work will be paid for on a lump sum basis, references to variations in unit–priced quantities should be removed from the Changes clause.
        5. Control of work and control of materials — Provisions related to inspection and testing may require modification if the contractor will be responsible for both quality control and quality assurance, as the State DOT assumes more of a verification role.
        6. Legal relations and responsibility — Insurance requirements may require modification under design–build contracts to include the area of professional liability or Errors and Omissions (E&O) insurance.
        7. Prosecution and progress — Scheduling provisions may require modification if the schedule will be used as a basis for measuring progress for payment (e.g., under a lump–sum contract). Special provisions related to time incentives, lane rental, or flexible start dates may also modify standard language.
        8. Measurement and payment — Measurement and payment provisions may require modification if a lump sum or guaranteed maximum price contract is being used.
      2. Technical specifications used with alternative contracting approaches should, to the extent possible, incorporate performance requirements that assign more risk and provide more flexibility to the contractor. This may require expanding the contractor's quality assurance requirements and the owner's verification role, and modifying the measurement and payment terms (particularly if a lump sum contract is being used). (See the attachment Types of Specifying for more information on performance specifications.)
    3. Additional References
      1. FHWA Briefing on Innovative Contracting, Practices, SEP–14
      2. FHWA Contract Administration Core Curriculum Manual - October 2014 -Section III.B.c.iv. Alternative Contracting
      3. FHWA National Highway Institute, Course No. 134058A, Alternative Contracting Methods (ACM) - in development
      4. AASHTO Primer on Contracting for the Twenty–First Century, Fifth Edition, 2006

King W. Gee
Associate Administrator for Infrastructure

Updated: 06/03/2022
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000