“Specifications”, “Specs”, “the Project Manual”, the undying king of our A/E/C bookshelves, collecting dust long after the phone books, vendor catalogs, and dictionaries have quit. Does anybody still read these things (specifications)?
Great, I got your attention! Engineering design specifications have grown to become both a massive mountain of text that few people have time to read, and a foundational part of contract documents in A/E/C design-bid-build projects. Do specifications, as they commonly exist today, effectively meet the needs of our projects and our industry?
Design Specifications In Contract Documents . . . Why?
The relevance of specifications, like any other written document, is based on the purpose of the author and the needs of the audience. The audience for specifications includes contract bidders, product purchasers, product vendors, and installing contractors. Installing contractors need to know requirements for the “execution” (i.e. installation) of systems and equipment. Product vendors and product purchasers need to know the requirements for product performance and characteristics, and how they shall demonstrate compliance with those requirements. Contract bidders need to know all of the aforementioned requirements so that they may estimate the cost of purchasing and installing systems and equipment.
The author of design specifications is of course, the designer. However, the original text may be drafted by a third-party specification writer. Sometimes, the author is a product vendor, in which case the author is also the audience(!). Specifications may be used to “lock-in” a particular vendor or product, which can be really bad for competitive pricing or really good for ensuring particular preferences are met, depending on the needs of the client/owner.
In my view, the large volume specifications in contract documents today are not fully aligned with the needs of clients, designers, and contractors. In many cases there is too much verbiage on non-applicable requirements (e.g. copy-paste content from prior projects that is not focused on the systems or equipment of a given project), and too much verbiage for applicable requirements (e.g. over-specification of product characteristics that are not essential to either the needs of the client/owner good or the well-being of the public/occupants). On the author side, designers often allocate insufficient priority and time to tailor specifications to fit project requirements. There is also a common practice of designers “covering themselves” with voluminous verbiage that may be used to defend against an accusation of deficient standard of care. Ironically, the potential for error is proportional to the volume of verbiage. On the audience side, contractors often spend insufficient time and attention to completely review and comply with specifications. This is evident in the ubiquitous product submittals that bear no resemblance to the submittal requirements described in a design specification. Understandably, it takes considerable time to format the presentation of product information as requested by a design engineer. However, it is more costly to a project for an engineer to dig through hundreds of pages of product information to see if a product meets all of the requirements. If specifications and submittals were sufficiently succinct, would submittal reviews be the time-consuming and revision-prone activities that they are today?
Design Specifications In Contract Documents . . . How?
Projects are best served by information that is both essential and clearly communicated. In terms of communication format, design specifications complement design drawings. Design drawings provide a unique format in contract documents for communicating the configuration, connections, and spatial relationships of systems and equipment in a project. However, project drawings often contain a significant amount of text (e.g. notes, tables, sequences of operation, etc.). Much of this content could be, or should be, specifications. For example, why note on a drawing that an air handler shall have MERV 13 filters when there is a specification section for the air handler? I see this done many times on design drawings. Information in drawing notes is very often redundant to the specifications, either unintentionally as a result of the author's inattention to specifications, or intentionally as an acknowledgment of the audience's inattention to specifications. In my commissioning work, I frequently find printed copies of design drawings within reach of installing contractors – I never find a printed copy of design specifications. Hence, the existence of specification drawing sheets. If a specification can be drafted and edited to fit on a drawing sheet, it has a better chance of meeting the eyes of an installing contractor.
A clear and consistent specification format within and across projects helps writers convey concise and complete requirements, and it helps readers find information that is relevant to their work. The Construction Specification Institute (CSI) MasterFormat® has helped the A/E/C industry communicate requirements in a manner that is consistent, complete, and readily navigable. However, the quantity of content for each of the specification divisions, sections, and parts can easily become excessive and misaligned with the needs of project clients. Clients with experience on multiple projects eventually find value in standardizing their requirements with concise standard specifications. Why spin the requirements roulette wheel with each designer and each contractor if you already know what you want? Rather than collecting dust on a shelf, design specifications can evolve to serve the recurring and successive stages of project delivery – from facility standards, to requests for proposals, to design development documents, to bid documents, to contract documents, and back to facility standards.
About the Author
Brent Weigel has left Hallam-ICS to pursue other endeavors, but his contributions to the company continue to be valued.
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Hallam-ICS is an engineering and automation company that designs MEP systems for facilities and plants, engineers control and automation solutions, and ensures safety and regulatory compliance through arc flash studies, commissioning, and validation. Our offices are located in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Vermont and North Carolina and our projects take us world-wide.