The case for stronger design documentation
Quality specifications not only bring design to life but can also safeguard design firms against communication failures, project slow-downs, and even litigation. As contractors intensify their demands for more detailed specs, AIA partner Deltek explains how your firm can set itself apart.
A project manual is more than just a written document. It contains non-visual product information that augments graphical information shown in BIM that transforms a design from concept to reality and becomes a powerful reference tool during design, bid, build, and ownership.
We tend to think of building specifications from the design perspective, and for good reason. Proper specifications ensure that the design intent of the architect or engineer is understood by the contractors and brought to life by providing detailed descriptions and requirements of the products shown in BIM. They can also safeguard the design firm against the risk of litigation and are essential to reducing project slowdowns and miscommunication.
Contractors, however, are getting more vocal about the importance of specifications to their workflow, especially when building projects incorporate sustainability requirements. Specifications become the basis of their build, a rubric for product procurement, and a vital set of instructions for subcontractors on the jobsite. Without quality specs, contractors run the risk of having to submit several RFIs or even take on the burden of product and manufacturer research themselves.
What contractors want
At the 2019 Greenbuild International Conference and Expo, a panel of sustainability directors spoke to a group of architects, engineers, and specification writers about product selection and specifications from the contractor perspective.
The overarching message: Be more specific because contractors usually aren’t product or design experts.
This becomes particularly important when sustainability schemas are involved. While contractors and subcontractors are experts in sourcing, procurement, and vendor management, most do not have dedicated staff to research products or spend ample time filling in the gaps of vague specifications.
“Don’t leave the onus on the contractor to go get 20 EPDs,” says Jenelle Shapiro, sustainability director of Webcor Builders. “I wish I could say that works, but it just doesn't. If the project requires certain products, spell them out or even provide a matrix of recommended sustainable products and accepted alternatives.”
As subcontractors get involved, the need for clarity is even more important. When it comes to ensuring that the project meets the requirements of the sustainable design schema, all parties involved must be clearly aware of the project goals. This includes how product selection decisions have been carefully made and often modeled as an integrated system by the architect.
Firms that deliver high-quality design documentation and take into account the various stakeholders involved in the project are easier to do business with and ultimately improve their competitiveness and efficiency. Yet building or transforming this practice doesn’t happen overnight.
Paula P. Gillette is a veteran specification writer for MasterSpec with vast national and international experience in the design and construction industry, focusing on mechanical engineering for a broad range of building types, with particular focus in healthcare. In her view, specifications and drawings go hand-in-hand, and that’s where firms can make the biggest impact when it comes to developing quality construction documents.
“Don’t duplicate information in the specifications and on the drawings,” Gillette advises. “The specifications and the drawings are complementary, and together will inform the contractor of the work results that will accomplish the architect or engineer’s design intent.”
One of the most powerful steps a team can take while documenting the design project is to put themselves in the contractor’s shoes, Gillette suggests.
“Ask yourself, ‘If I were bidding this project and knew only the information presented in the specifications and on the drawings, would I be able to fully discern my own design intent?’ Only when the answer is ‘Yes’ will the contractor be well-equipped to successfully execute the design, reducing the chance of frequent RFIs.”
Small steps toward better spec management
The art of specification writing as a dedicated practice seems to be shifting. Firms that develop a more integrated approach, while their experienced specification experts are still on staff, can help launch their project efficiency to the next level.
This can be done in a number of ways, including developing a high-quality office master and investing in a collaborative editing tool for specification and BIM integration. Incorporating shared firm data that is unique to projects, regional considerations, and local code and AHJ requirements not only reduces leg work for future projects, but encourages diverse teams to join forces rather than store product data in silos.
Another key aspect of improving and integrating specification management is to foster an environment of mentorship and cross-functional learning.
Gillette advises that firms begin to introduce more junior team members to the importance of specifications, along with the structure, process, and types of content use.
“This is the only way to ensure that they are there to continue the work as senior staff retire,” she says.
If your firm is struggling to keep up with the ever-changing demands and workplace challenges of construction specification management, Deltek’s Specifications Solutions team can help. As the exclusive developer of MasterSpec, a product of AIA, Deltek provides premier solutions used by leading industry firms. Backed by a team of experts from all corners of the AECO industry, their solutions and services benefit the building life cycle from end to end.
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