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Specification is the guardian of quality

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Specification ensures clients get value for money and what they paid for, explains Nick Schumann

Designers are in the business of creativity, followed by information production in a predetermined format, to a set quality level. Construction information is complex and has to be aligned with detailed contractual terms, in order to see the client’s investment realised to the satisfaction of all.

Specifications are crucial to this whole process as they represent, in a construction contract, what the client is buying. That is what specifications are, a contractual description of all the constituent parts of a building, such that when they are assembled a prime asset of a pre-determined appearance, functionality and quality results.

Specifications are crucial as they represent, in a construction contract, what the client is buying

In an ideal world the specification would include precise details of every single building element by name, component part, supplier, etc. all having been pre-tested and prototyped such that there are no surprises – we wish!

Specifications in the modern world have to be clever and intuitive, and as such there is no such thing as a standard specification, and certainly very few buildings of any scale or inclusive of any project specific manufacturing process can be specified by the press of a button, or simply the collection of a list of manufacturers and products.

Even if that were possible, European Regulations for the procurement of public buildings does not allow the naming of products and in many other parts of the world clients insist on listing at least three products and manufacturers for every element, which for natural materials or those of particular aesthetic appearance creates quite a challenge for the designer.

Time is the other factor to be considered; there is never enough time and getting a building on site as soon as possible is very important to most clients because they want their investment to start generating income or carry out their function for political reasons as soon as possible. The Cost-Quality-Time conundrum is now more critical than ever, so it is just as important for the specification to deal with elements that have not been fully designed at the time of appointing the contractor, as it is dealing with those elements that have been fully designed.

The Cost-Quality-Time conundrum is now more critical than ever

In a design and build scenario this is even more critical because nothing will be fully designed when the contractor is appointed, and the only defence the client and designer has against reduced quality is the specification included in the construction contract. Contractors are committed to complete the building on time and on budget, which during the construction process drives everything, but post handover quality becomes the most important factor for success, as it is permanent, whereas time and cost are temporary and can be quickly forgotten.

The specification is therefore the guardian of quality, seeking to ensure that the client gets value for money and what he paid for.  You wouldn’t accept a new car without the alloy wheels you ordered, just because the dealer said it was the only way he could meet the delivery date, and by the way the price stays the same! The same should apply to buildings no matter how complex they happen to be.

So some tips:

  1. Understand the form of procurement and produce your specifications to suit.
  2. Do not ignore elements that are yet to be designed in detail, rather provide the QS and tenderers with the best descriptions, visual requirements and performance criteria so that the QS can prepare an accurate, compliant, tender price.
  3. If you are being novated to the contractor post-contract remember that you will have to deliver the final detailed design based on your requirements, so make sure they are achievable.
  4. Once novated remember that the contract specification is your only defence when pressured to find a faster and cheaper solution.
  • Nick Schumann is director at Schumann Consult, specialising in specification and design management
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