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The Legal Difference Between Standards, Specifications and Code

Illustration of legal considerations

The artistic expression and technical precision in glass systems is found in installations regulated by standards, specifications and code requirements. Understanding the differences between these regulations can help identify where artistic and technical expressions cross into the legal realm. In normal business scenarios, these terms are often used interchangeably. In the legal realm, however, each is unique and has a different source, obligation and penalty for failure to comply.


At the most basic level it can be helpful to visualize standards as agreed-upon “how-to” guides. These guides are often prepared by organizations with an interest in developing broad, consensus-based approaches to particular problems, systems and questions. While not always perfect for every situation, these industry standards tend to offer technical guidance and uniform approaches that allow a diverse set of market participants to operate with a common approach. 


Specifications often operate in a gray area between standards and contract. Most are familiar with the term specifications as the contractual requirements and directives for performance. But “standard specifications” also exist. They can be developed in the consensus-based approach or offered by specific industries or manufacturers. Regardless of source, these standard specifications can establish contractual pass/fail criteria touching on materials, tolerances and performance when adopted into agreements. But as creatures of contract, standard specifications can 
be negotiated. 


Code is somewhat of a catch-all term, but the most important. The importance of code is that while it can include references to standards and specifications, it is the “law.” Official legislative action has specifically adopted particular standards, specifications and models into the binding legal requirements of every project to which they apply. While often subject to modification, the governmental validation and adoption of specific requirements for design, fabrication or installation means that code cannot be avoided by contract and is enforceable by law.


It is in this question of enforcement and penalties that the true difference between standards, specifications and code appears. Working backward, code sets minimum criteria that must be met, regardless of what the parties’ contract says. The failure to meet aspects of code can jeopardize completion of entire projects and their permitting, and even be subject to statutory fines.

As creatures of contract, specifications find both their enforcement and penalties within the project documentation. The failure to meet a specification can be either a major or minor breach of contract, depending on the nature of the specification and the violation. Equally, the consequences for failing to meet specifications fall into contractual remedies negotiated by the parties.

Standards, unless incorporated into code or contract, are guidelines that can be useful direction for performance of work. Whether a particular failure to meet a standard carries weight tends to focus on the specific violation and guidance being provided by such standard. On the other hand, where issues of contract are concerned, there is more flexibility regarding equivalent performance and other mitigating circumstances.

Risk mitigation

Vocabulary lessons aside, the real issue to appreciate is that standards, specifications and codes are separate things. Each has its own source, impact and consequence. The risk mitigation point comes from an appreciation of those differences and where the opportunities to mitigate exposure rest with each.

The most direct opportunity for mitigation comes when negotiating contracts. Keep a specific eye out for referenced and incorporated standards and codes. Ensure full compliance with specifications or standards can be met or negotiate the specific parts that apply. Specifically disclaim responsibility to meet standards/codes that are not referenced or the portions of individual standards where compliance has been negotiated away. And be mindful of opportunities for missing small aspects of technical standards so that there are contractual rights to cure or that a minor breach of a standard does not become a reason to blow up an entire contract.

General opportunities for risk avoidance also lie with education and participation in the groups developing standards and even adoption of those standards into code. Active contribution to the formation and revision of standards and codes provides the chance for meaningful industry input into the specification, standards and codes that can govern work for years to come.


Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson is a member of The Gary Law Group, a Portland-based firm specializing in legal and risk issues facing manufacturers of glazing products. He can be reached at