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Writing specifications

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Practice

The 11th edition has appeared of a book on specification writing*, originally written in 1953, writes Adam Whiteley, and contains a 'worked example' based on a garage extension from circa 1963 - it appears only to have been updated in terms of factual references such as caws, British Standards and nbs revisions. In the last 45 years a range of contracting methods have developed in the uk, which are simply not addressed in this book. Furthermore, while it contains some sound advice, the book is couched in archaic language, and makes points with which I fundamentally disagree, for example'. . . It may mean some duplication but this does no harm: in fact repetition helps to impress . . .' Beware! Repetition in specification writing threatens consistency and concision.

This book also betrays its authors' limits of vision. Both quantity surveyors, they perceive the purpose of specification only in relation to construction (and tender) documentation. Even in its own terms, this book has been superseded by the well researched book on the specification of production information - Project Specification (1987) published by the Building Project Information Committee.

It is essential for architects to be able to communicate in writing as well as through drawings - and this skill should be developed by students in parallel with the skills of design and visual presentation. What is still needed is a stimulating 'primer' for students, written with an appreciation of the breadth of today's client, project and procurement types. This should cover the following ground:

Firstly: functional and descriptive project briefs - many clients can talk about their needs and discuss their existing accommodation or other buildings which they like, but it is one of the architect's first tasks to frame up the brief - in writing.

Secondly: when sketch and scheme designs are being developed and presented, outline specifications and descriptions are an essential complement to the visual material.

Thirdly: the growth of diverse contracting methods over the last 20 years has led to the need for new forms and levels of description or specification. For example there is the 'Employer's Requirements', a fundamental component of the 'design and build' contract. The architect should not relinquish his responsibility for this document which, in the absence of a detailed design and full specification, represents the only benchmark for the standard of quality to be met by the contractor-designer.

Fourthly: a discussion of the different ways in which production information can be organised to suit the scale and nature of particular projects - and the form of procurement - is essential. Many contracts, from small but fast-track retail projects to vast commercial developments, now 'package up' the construction work (and hence the production information) into separate trades, enabling the detailed design of the elements that will be built later in the programme to be carried out while earlier works are proceeding on site.

Finally, there is the co-ordination of the design and specification carried out by the architect, other designers, consulting engineers and specialist subcontractors, and this also introduces another 'layer' - performance specification, that is the description of the characteristics of materials, components and combined systems, by the consultants, for specialist subcontractors to 'design to'.

With the input of a practising architect the authors could write a new primer to engender an interest in, and appreciation of, the value and diversity of specification writing. But they should put this much-patched old teddy bear away in the loft.

* Specification Writing for Architects and Surveyors by Christopher J Willis and J Andrew Willis, Eleventh Edition Blackwell Science (1997 ) £17.99.

Adam Whiteley is a partner in HyettSalisbury Whiteley

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