Canadian Architect

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Put on Your Specs

A return to technically competent specifications is required: specifications that are firmly rooted in performance, with product listings that illustrate the design intent, as well as execution requirements.

January 1, 2015
by Keith Robinson

Text Keith Robinson

Writing project specifications is a detailed time-consuming task that can require review and evaluation of very large amounts of information. Some would say they are an expensive proposition: the time involved detracts from time spent more productively on drawings. Many believe that if the design intent can be indicated graphically, then there is little need for the bulk of paper represented by the specifications. Contractors would tend to agree, citing poorly written and ill-coordinated specifications as cost burdens.

However, there is a major distinction in the world of project documentation between drawings and specifications. The domain of drawings is intended to indicate relationships, dimensions and quantities of building components, while specifications more appropriately enforce performance requirements by describing the quality of materials and quality of workmanship.

Often, our design community falsely sees generic technical requirements as a sound approach to obtaining competitive bids in the publicly procured project world. By avoiding the use of proprietary specifications, we reason, the marketplace will best be able to provide the lowest-cost solution. On the other hand, we also fear that the constructor will use proprietary specifications as a shopping list and incorporate listed products without consideration for constructability. As a result, our specifications often make constructors responsible for interpreting design intent, through reliance on the means-and-methods clauses in most construction contracts. Because of this approach, we end up being dissatisfied with the outcomes in building quality and durability.

Public-spending authorities further perpetuate the myth of the generic specification. These clients often fail to recognize the contribution of the architect and constructor in delivering projects that have the best lifetime value, rather than the lowest initial cost. Private-sector owners, for their part, often insist on the lowest price to the detriment of the required performance of the project.

As an architectural community, we are challenged by pressure on fees, which are usually affected by the same misguided pursuit of the lowest cost. Lower budgets affect the amount of time spent on document preparation, resulting in increased costs during construction administration. According to a 2014 survey of professional fees, the cost of specifications has fallen to about 1% to 3% of the production budget, while costs for administration have risen to 25% to 30%. As an estimator friend points out, “that puts the cost of production for specifications at less than the cost for providing temporary toilets on the construction site.” It begs the further question: what is the true value of the specification? In his experience as a senior risk analyst, he maintains that a well-prepared specification has the potential to reduce construction cost overages by 60% to 70%, when compared to similar projects having less than adequate documentation.

Ultimately, as the professional of record, the architect or engineer is responsible for the performance of the built structure, which is based on the program requirements established by the owner. Failing to meet the program requirements is a leading factor in insurance claims by owners against professionals. Moreover, inadequate descriptions and insufficient coordination of the design intent is leading to increased numbers of delay claims by constructors, and increased costs as a result of errors and omissions being corrected through the change-order process.

The solution to all of these issues is rooted in the specifications. Specifications need to move away from the overly simplified and technically inadequate approach that we have adopted over the last few decades. A return to technically competent specifications is required: specifications that are firmly rooted in performance, with product listings that illustrate the design intent, as well as execution requirements. It is a fine line of distinction, but specifications should indicate the required outcome, and avoid telling constructors how to perform their work. The contractual responsibilities should be kept clean: the consultant describes design intent, the constructor responds with appropriate means and methods.

Maintaining a technically detailed master specification involves building it up over time to contain project history and incorporate constructive feedback through the construction administration process and other contributions from the constructor. This makes for a better set of documents that will be read and accepted by the whole of the project team. Overall, this lays the ground for a construction solution in the best interest of the owner and client.

In addition to maintaining an in-house master specification based on accumulated project experience, there are several industry groups that have published master-guide specifications. These master specifications are “living documents” that are updated when required to account for comments from users, and to reflect changes to performance standards referenced within the body of the documents. This is a critical user advantage, since the architects and others using the master specification can specify with the assurance that they are working with the most up-to-date information available.

The return on investment for the professional design team is immense. Every hour spent working with master-guide specifications that incorporate beneficial history from projects (as provided by trusted advisors, technical representatives and salespeople) has a direct correlation to a reduction in requests for information, fewer contractor-instigated changes, and higher owner satisfaction.

To dispel the fear of using proprietary specifications as a tool, keep the following points in mind (I am not a lawyer, but 35 years of experience has provided a certain amount of wisdom):
• Proprietary specifications do not violate anti-trust laws. Architects, engineers and specifiers are the most competent judges of what products best suit the technical requirements of the project.
• Proprietary specifications can recognize that there may be several solutions to achieve performance. There are no such things as equals, but there is potential for many acceptable materials.
• Proprietary specifications may allow for material research by the professional. Rather than providing a shopping list, the specifier may include several acceptable materials as illustrating the performance requirements, and further allow for competitive bidding based on a selection of materials.
• Proprietary specifications may also allow for single material selections, particularly where performance requirements have a tight tolerance. They may include the provision that manufacturers and suppliers can propose substitutions having similar or superior performance to the named products, to be submitted to the architect for evaluation.

The master specification—whether purchased, developed and maintained in-house, or a combination of the two—is a collaborative tool that opens communication between product representatives, architects, designers and other project decision-makers.  Using a well maintained and researched master spec can significantly reduce the time needed to write project specifications, improve the clarity of project requirements, reduce disconnects between the specification and drawings, and provide time for the team to work on what needs to be done.

Construction Community-Driven Master-Guide Specifications
There are many construction associations in Canada and across North America that see value in well-prepared, industry-supported master-guide specifications. Since the specifications are written by tradesmen and product manufacturers who are directly involved with the required work results, the content is typically supported with accompanying technical manuals to
aid the architect in making the choices needed to tailor the document for the specific needs of a project.

In Canada, several associations provide master-guide specifications that are reviewed and updated on a two- to five-year cycle. This means that the specs consistently reflect the most current reference standards, quality testing and installation practices acceptable to that particular industry segment. These master-guide specifications provide the architect with a script to aid in research when meeting with knowledgeable product representatives and installers.

One example of a helpful master specification is that of the Terrazzo, Tile and Marble Association of Canada (TTMAC). In addition to being easy to download and edit, the document includes “spec notes” throughout. These provide educational and informational references in blue text to guide the specifier through some of the most common choices and decision points in the process. Attention is called to new standards, deletions and acceptable alternatives so the specification writer can be sure he or she is using the most relevant, current standards. For instance, the current edition references a new testing apparatus that makes slip resistance of flooring products more predictable—a development that may not otherwise be known to the specification writer.

Additional examples of master-guide specifications that are available as downloadable documents include the following (fees may apply):
•    Architectural Woodwork Manufacturers Association of Canada (AWMAC)
•    Canadian Precast-Prestressed Concrete Institute (CPCI)
•    Master Painters Institute (MPI)
•    Various roofing contractor associations (RCABC, ARCA, CRCA)

Keith Robinson, FCSC RSW LEED® AP, has worked as a specifications writer since 1981, and is currently an associate at DIALOG in Edmonton. Keith sits on several standards-review committees for ASTM and NFPA and is the current president of the CSC’s Executive Council.  



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