by Dr Stephen Hamil
Prior to the 1990s, construction specifications were written using a typewriter. In the 1990s, personal computers became affordable for businesses, and specification writing moved from the typewriter to the word processor. Word processor applications such as Microsoft Word added new benefits of efficiency and accuracy, which transformed the industry. Functionalities such as the ability to check for and easily correct mistakes, to copy and paste text and to modify the formatting of a page were huge benefits for anyone writing documentation.
Following this period, software was produced that allowed construction specifications to be written in a way that is demonstrably better than using a word processing system.
In this article, Stephen Hamil, Director of Research and Innovation from NBS, looks at the top ten reasons why the use of a digital master system for writing and managing specifications is better than using a tool such as Microsoft Word.
1. An enforced structure
Over the years, standard structures have been developed for classifying and structuring construction specifications. Examples of these include Uniclass and NBS in the UK, and MasterFormat and SectionFormat in North America.
The structure and language used with the specification clauses themselves is also very important. The language must be clear and concise, and the content must be correct and comprehensive.
This standard approach to specification writing creates efficiencies and lowers risk within the organization that produces the specification. It also hugely helps those receiving the specification. Clients, planning authorities, constructors and cost consultants all benefit from receiving information in a standard format.
A digital master specification system can enforce these standard structures. A system such as this acts as a strict data entry system that enforces quality control. A word processor gives the user too much flexibility, and the result is more than likely a finished specification that is not aligned to a standard structure.
Figure 1 – Enforcing a standard section format for specification writing (illustrated using the NBS Chorus platform)
2. The provision of contextual technical guidance
A digital master specification system separates the template specification articles and the associated technical guidance. This separation creates a clear differentiation between the article content that will be shared with the recipient and the associated guidance that is there to inform the specifiers’ decision-making process.
Figure 2 – Associated guidance to help the specifier (illustrated using the NBS Chorus platform)
3. The ability to pick from suggested specification options
The guidance within a digital master specification system may suggest options for the specifier’s consideration. Where this digital system can offer greater support over a word processor is by displaying these options so that the specifier can quickly select the correct value for the project that they are working on.
Figure 3 – Suggested options, from which the specifier can make a selection (illustrated using the NBS Chorus platform)
4. Using and referencing the latest content on every new project
When we’ve spoken with construction industry professionals over the years, one of their biggest sources of frustration is the reuse of old specifications from previous jobs that reference out-of-date standards and practices. There is also a real danger of needing requirements that may have been deleted from the previous project.
Where a practice manages the specification content internally, keeping this up to date with industry standards is a huge job. It is also a job that takes colleagues away from fee-earning project work and onto content maintenance. This is an unnecessary job when there are national master specification companies with teams of experts who are spending each day researching and maintaining this same content.
When a word processor is used, the job of updating the system is quite often manual, and offices may discover that they have been sent the latest content but have not found the time to update this on specifier’s computers.
Subscribing to a cloud-based specification system is the lowest risk and most cost-effective solution to mitigating the referencing of out-of-date standards. This ensures that the content used on projects is always the most current provided.
Figure 4 – Alerts the specifier when specification content and guidance is updated (illustrated using NBS Create software)
5. The capture of specification knowledge across an organization
By subscribing to a master specification system, an organization benefits from the knowledge written and maintained within the platform. However, further benefits can be realised when the organization itself uses the master system as a host for their business’ knowledge.
The structure provided allows knowledge to be captured in the form of guidance notes and office master template specifications. It is commonplace for knowledge to exist within an organization and for it not to be shared. It is also very difficult to retain knowledge when colleagues move to different companies or retire. A master specification system allows this knowledge to be retained and shared across an organization.
Figure 5 – Office knowledge captured within the master specification system (illustrated using NBS Create software)
6. Improved team work
Specification writing on a construction project is almost certainly a collaborative effort. If you’re working in a tool such as Microsoft Word then this collaboration can only really take place by emailing copies of documents between team members and merging revisions. This can lead to errors and confusion over which copy of the document is the latest.
In a cloud-based digital master specification system, those with specification writing responsibilities can work from the same ‘single source of truth’. This ensures that the latest version of the content is always being worked on.
7. Access and quality control
Collaboration on specification requires a level of quality control. Design responsibilities should be defined and then a permission model agreed that states which project team members can administer and contribute to which specifications. In addition, restrictions are required to define which project team members can have read-only access (or indeed no access, where relevant).
Once a Microsoft Word file is emailed to a team member or provided on a USB stick, it is impossible to impose any level of access control.
8. Task-specific functionality
A tool such as Microsoft Word has to work well for all types of documentation production across all industries. A master specification system has functionality developed especially for specification writing in the construction industry.
Examples of specific functionality include synchronized guidance and the optional drop-down value suggestions already covered. It also may include the ability to quickly add or copy entire blocks of structured text, to add milestones for revision information or to add a manufacturer product specification with one click.
9. An audit trail of decision making
On a complex project, thousands of decisions will be made by many construction professionals. An audit trail is essential to provide clarity on who made which decision and when.
Within a word processing tool, the ‘last modified’ information tends to be at the level of the document. Within a digital master specification system, it is possible for this information to be captured for each decision. Furthermore, with revision functionality, it is possible to compare changes across key project milestones.
For those developing the specification throughout the project timeline, this provides the potential for an audit trail from briefing, through design and construction, and then through to handover.
10. Part of a digital ecosystem
Specifications are rarely written as documents without external dependencies. On most projects, they provide information that is supported by the drawn information within the model.
Within digital master specification systems, functionality may exist to view the model whilst assembling and writing the specification. When the model or the specification then changes, any corrections to annotations or missing items can be quickly made.
A BIM environment is not simply the information contained within a 3D model. It is the wider information set that is linked together, and this most definitely includes the specification. Having software that allows information managers to coordinate project information is now as essential on BIM projects as clash detection functionality of geometry.
In summary, an internal process using word processing files will inevitably lead to those involved in specifications being frustrated. Too much time will be unnecessarily spent on non-fee-earning work and poor quality specifications will be produced, raising the risk of problems later on in the project.
When you are developing a specification writing strategy within your organization, there are a number of considerations. These include time efficiencies, knowledge sharing, quality of information and risk mitigation. Introducing a digital master specification system will deliver production and quality improvements across your organization.