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Schumann: It's important to get specification right

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Change or die is Nick Schumann’s advice to architects pondering the future of specification procedures

On my return to the UK in 1986, after three years living and working in Hong Kong, I was asked by Foster + Partners to help them prepare specifications for Stansted Airport. The relationship developed during my time working on one of the world’s most innovative and exciting projects, namely 1 Queens Road Central (Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank) which remains an iconic building today.

I wasn’t a member of the design team, but a quantity surveyor for the management contractor, which may seem like a strange place to build what has become a very long, close and trusted relationship with the architectural fraternity.

Those years in Hong Kong gave me a unique insight into the minds of talented designers who wanted to challenge the way buildings were designed, procured, manufactured and built, using tools like ‘performance specifications’ and terms like ‘working with industry’.

They understood that to deliver the unique design of 1QRC they needed to take a different approach which included awarding trade contracts, based on performance and design intent information, adapting to management contracting procedures and working very closely with manufacturers around the world to ensure that when products and systems were delivered to site they fitted together rather like a giant 3D jigsaw puzzle with minimal adaption.

This was very challenging and was only made possible by having a very enlightened client who trusted the design and construction team. Much of what we do now can be traced back to 1QRC, including the way we specify buildings where we have evolved from BQ Preambles to the national and procurement specific documents that we use today.

1QRC taught me how important it was to get specifications right

1QRC taught me how important it was to get specifications right, so when given the opportunity to directly influence their style and use on Stansted I jumped at it and for the last 27 years I have been fortunate to work with many leading architects on projects around the world - and it is my intention to share in this column much of what I have learned.

I will address three key questions:

  • What is a specification, what are the different types and what does a designer need to consider when producing them?
  • Why do we need specifications now or in the future?
  • How are they produced and used at home and abroad?

One thing for certain is that our industry is changing and we all need to change with it. Change, done for the right reasons, is good although it is often resisted because people worry that it might affect their status, influence or even worse the need for them at all. I believe in the premise ‘change or die’ and to succeed and prosper the best approach is to innovate and lead change rather than passively follow and carry on doing things as we did in the past.

Our industry is changing and we all need to change with it

The way we design, procure, manufacture and build varies enormously from project to project, region to region, country to country, but the basic need to ‘design it’, ‘buy it’, ‘manufacture it’, ‘assemble it’ and ‘maintain it’ is constant everywhere and as such there will always be a need for specification in one shape or another.

I’ve always looked at specifications as key contract documents that define what the client is buying for a defined sum - they aid successful procurement, manufacture, assembly and maintenance dealing with defined design solutions and with elements not fully defined at the point of contract award such that the contractor can provide a reliable lump sum price for the client.

I will endeavour to educate and instigate debate.

  • Nick Schumann is director at Schumann Consult, specialising in specification and design management
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