In a rare quiet moment recently I started to think about how the world of specifications had changed and improved over the last 30 years and quickly came to the conclusion that yes they had indeed changed but whether they have improved is less certain. One thing for sure is that our industry has once again contrived to make something, which was once relatively straightforward, complex and often confused. How has this happened and why do we always seem determined to complicate things?
When construction was simple the demarcation of responsibilities was clear, in that designers completed the design; quantity surveyors produced bills of quantity, managed procurement and agreed final accounts; builders built using their own labour force and clients paid for what they got.
From a specification perspective all materials and workmanship information came from notes on drawings, preambles and item descriptions in the bills of quantities. This sat well with the procurement process, which was predominantly a total sum, calculated according to the quantity surveyor’s quantities, which was then re-measured on completion. Specialist design elements were dealt with by using PC Sums to appoint nominated subcontractors and suppliers all of which was managed by the design team and quantity surveyor. Remarkably this process still exists in some parts of the world.
Things today are generally very different, the consultant team has changed considerably and the construction process is all about supply chain and subcontractors. These changes continue unabated, as clients seek faster, cheaper and better buildings, using various procurement techniques driven now by lawyers and project managers, neither of whom actually take any responsibility for time, quality or cost.
Designers increasingly seek to pass on responsibility to manufacturers and constructers through “contractor design” elements, which often extends to any item or system that is manufactured off site.
Specifications have had to evolve to reflect and cater for these changes, to the point where there is now no such thing as a standard specification, and the term “specification” itself is used in different ways, such that it means different things to different people. Specification production is now a complex operation that has to determine not only materials and workmanship but also procurement, process, design parameters, performance, legal requirements, plus numerous checks and balances related to materials and workmanship, which have yet to be defined at the point of contract.
The term “specification” itself is almost a generic term used to cover many different documents such as design brief, output requirements, employer’s requirements, contractor’s proposals, manufacturing manuals, installation procedures and of course contract specification.
It is essential therefore, when starting to prepare a specification, to determine and understand its purpose and use. For example I recently reviewed a set of manufacturers specifications, which named every component, stated every element making each component, listed all performance data, repeated numerous test results and gave an extremely detailed set of instructions of how to apply/install the product.
When I enquired as to whom this incredibly detailed set of instructions was aimed the answer was “everybody” meaning architects through contractors to applicators. This was a classic case of not understanding that different specifications are required by different people at different times and also demonstrated a lack of understanding with regard to procurement rules or the need for procurement flexibility.
This specification was trying to do too much, and be all things to all people, and as such was really of little value to anyone. This is a difficult issue for product manufacturers who have to influence designers early in the design process such that they have an opportunity to sell their products, often through an applicator, to contractors months or even years later.
By breaking the document down into relevant parts I was able to demonstrate who needed what level of information when and how to build significant flexibility so that it could be presented in different formats and locations with little or no adjustment.
Just a small example of how specifications can be made more relevant and therefore simpler.
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