Paying attention to detail with specifications

Following on from October’s ‘The Watchful Protector of Quality’ article for Architects Journal, Nick’s contribution for November discussed why it’s important to pay attention to detail with your specifications.

Having spent time in Dubai over the past couple of months meeting and working with local clients and colleagues from around the world I was reminded how important it is to pay attention to detail when preparing specifications and other contractual documentation so as to avoid errors through misinterpretation or inconsistencies.

The proper use of defined terms is important but often ignored, because of a lack of attention to detail. Specifications are key contract documents so they should all use the same defined terms throughout, however this is not always the case in the rush to meet deliverable dates under separate appointments.

Ill defined or inconsistent terminology can cause problems and claims in extreme cases. The simplest way to deal with this issue is to make sure that all documents follow the terminology used in the Main Contract, as this is the head legal document in the arrangement between client and contractor.

For example when making referencing the Party carrying out client duties various terms can be used such as Employer’s Representative, Employer, Owner, Architect, Engineer etc. The Main Contract will use only one term in this regard and it therefore follows that the specifications and other tender/contract documentation should do likewise. There is often a tendency for the architect to use the term “Architect” and the engineer to use the term “Engineer” (sometime not even capitalised), out of habit but it is often not correct. A good way to check which defined terms should be used is to check the Quantity Surveyor’s Preliminaries, which summarise the Contract Conditions for pricing purposes and provide the requisite information.

A favourite, misused term of mine, is Performance Specification which is often used to describe or define any specification that contains a portion of performance data or that is used when procuring a building element requiring a specialist supplier to detail the final design on shop or working drawings and a detailed material and installation specification. A good example of this would be cladding or curtain walling specifications that are often described as being performance specifications, which they are not.

I can imagine a number of readers immediately disagreeing so let me explain my thinking. I consider a performance specification to be exactly what “it says on the tin”, in that it only specifies performance – nothing else. The consequence of a pure performance specification is that the contractor can use whatever material, product or system he chooses so long as it meets the performance requirements without any need to consider what it looks like. This works well for many engineering and MEP elements that are hidden from view in a finished building or on an engineering project where visual intent is not a consideration (e.g. power stations). However where elements are visible and form part of the architectural design, it is critical that the specification includes visual, quality and process information which, when combined with the performance criteria, provides the supplier with all the information with which they must comply throughout the detailed design, prototyping, testing, manufacture and installation phases.

The term that is used by specifiers for a specification of this type is a Descriptive Specification. Interestingly traditional materials and workmanship specifications that are very prescriptive in nature providing fully detailed information for construction may also include some performance data.

Today most specifications combine all three types depending on procurement route, design complexity and best practice, so it is important to understand the difference and use the correct terminology.

Mark Schumann

Mark Schumann

Mark Schumann is the Founder and Director of Schumann Consult.
Mark Schumann

Posted on December 16, 2013 in Specifications

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