by Kate Foster
This article is from the RIBA Construction Contracts and Law Report 2022. It has been reproduced for the NBS website with added illustrations showing how NBS tools can be used to address the challenges raised in the article.
A changing world
As the COVID-19 pandemic was starting to become endemic, the industry began to return to normal working practices last autumn, closely followed by the rescinding of self-isolation requirements this spring. With the industry seemingly running at full tilt once again, the effects of lost productivity over the last two years may well be mitigated for the foreseeable future, with many contractors searching for contract provisions that will protect them from potential delay damages, as well as any loss and expense accrued.
The sector is also grappling with escalating material prices that initially began with the monolithic jolt to the supply chain caused by the pandemic – the aftermath of which persists to the present day. Now add to this the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, which has further compounded the challenges presented by COVID-19: so much so that the Construction Leadership Council recently announced the formation of a board of industry experts to provide advice on how to navigate the current situation.
It is difficult to know how all these factors will ultimately culminate and when the pressures may subside, but a return to normality is not currently forecast until the end of next year.
Meanwhile, there are three things that we can be sure of, namely:
- the Building Safety Act 2022 is now an Act of Parliament, after the Bill received royal assent in April. There is now a transition period, currently expected to last 12–18 months, before the full regime, including the ‘golden thread’ requirement, comes into force
- the Procurement Bill 2022 was introduced into the House of Lords in May with the intention of reforming existing procurement practices that were originally based on European Directives
- the net zero target was enshrined in law back in 2019 in an amendment to the Climate Change Act 2008.
Implications for the production of specification documents
With the upcoming introduction of the digital golden thread requirement, as well as the push towards net zero, it is now more important than ever to collaborate effectively to produce high-quality specifications that take all project needs and outcomes into consideration. The specification should accurately reflect the client’s requirements and be kept up to date as required; it is a crucial piece of contract documentation and will constantly be referred to throughout the course of any project.
The results of this year’s RIBA Construction Contracts and Law Survey highlight that poorly coordinated project information can impede project progress, and that collaborative projects are more likely to lead to positive outcomes. Five practical tips on coordinating project information and specifications for project teams are provided below.
1. Use a single classification system for all information management on a project
Committing to a single classification system, such as Uniclass, makes it possible for information to be organised in a logical structure that can be more effectively disseminated by the receiving parties. This is true for all information, whether it is shown on drawings, schedules or specifications, or included within models.Whatever may be specified on a given project, a common classification system should be agreed by the design team at the outset and maintained throughout the project stages for consistency. This is particularly useful across schemes where similar specifications will be required for multiple projects, such as hospitals, care homes, schools and retail chain shops.
2. Coordinate project information
Specifications frequently make reference to relevant supporting documents: typically, consultant drawings, as well as various schedules, reports, room data sheets and a myriad of other potential sources of information, depending on the nature of the project. Effective cross-referencing between these documents should be utilised so that it is clear to the reader which aspects of the specification should be read in conjunction with other documents.
Drawings containing overly descriptive annotations can create clashes in information that may result in a ‘drawings over specification’ rule of thumb being applied on projects, which diminishes the value of the specification documentation. To avoid these discrepancies, it is important to take full advantage of the tools that the digital era provides (for example, by using hyperlinks to tie cross-referenced documents together seamlessly and utilising collaborative software packages to regularly share and update project information).
A quarter of respondents to this year’s survey stated that poorly coordinated project information stymied project progress, reiterating the need to capture and present project information in a logical and meaningful way. Most respondents also agreed that collaborative working on projects improves the delivery of client project objectives and reduces the number of disputes that arise.
Now that the industry is further along in the process of adopting software solutions such as cloud computing, the need for the seemingly endless shuffling, searching and dog-earing of hard copy documents can be eliminated by directing the reader to exactly what they need to see.
3. Determine the extent of design responsibilities
All projects should begin with an outline performance specification; whether each aspect of design becomes prescriptive or descriptive will largely depend on the chosen procurement method and the form of contract on which a given project is let. The roles of design team members should be agreed and clearly stated within the project preliminaries and general conditions, and each member should fully understand what part they are obliged to play in taking a project to completion.
According to the recent survey, over three-quarters of projects had an element of contractor’s design. This allows client design teams to apportion design responsibility to suitably qualified specialists, where appropriate, while maintaining a greater degree of control when setting out or amending specifications for the remaining elements of the project. These days, there are likely to be multiple parties contributing to the design of various trade packages; therefore, a clear onus exists for the initial outline specification to be tailored into a fully comprehensive specification before it is put out to tender on this basis.
Any vagaries left unaddressed by the specification will have to be accounted for by those bidding for the work, and any control over this resolution will be lost when the design responsibility shifts to the contractor. It is for this reason that any critical requirements or constraints are stated in the relevant specification, at the earliest opportunity, so that they may be adequately considered as part of the whole building solution.
Where there is a novation agreement in place, it is imperative for the design team to clearly state which design responsibilities will remain with them and which will be passed down the supply chain. Collaboration with any specialist subcontractors undertaking design should take place during RIBA Plan of Work Stage 4, Technical Design, so that they can be included as responsible parties in the Stage 4 Design Programme. With professional indemnity insurance (PII) challenges currently facing the industry, designers must be vigilant and steadfast about which aspects of design they are covered to take on, in order not to commit to work beyond their actual capabilities.
4. Use the specification to describe what cannot be seen on a drawing
This is, after all, the purpose of a specification! There is a multitude of intangible items that must be considered while undertaking the preparation of project documents, including quality of workmanship and materials, how works are to be executed, checking and inspection procedures and subsequent covering up of completed work, and procedures for testing, commissioning and completion of the project.
If the above factors are clearly identified and described within a set of well-written project preliminaries and trade specifications, this should go a long way towards quelling any disagreements about these aspects further down the line, when resources to address the concern efficiently may be limited due to competing workload priorities.
This year’s survey has shown that defective work was the second most common cause of dispute, slightly behind extension of time claims, demonstrating that there is significant room for improvement when specifying these conditions on a project. Poor specification also played a part in impeding the progress of projects, further highlighting the importance of having the required information ready at the right time.
5. Avoid unwanted substitutions
Attitudes towards possible product alternatives and preferred subcontractors should be decided in conjunction with client requirements and reflected within the project documentation.
The preliminaries document can be used to strictly prohibit any deviation from any proprietary products already specified, or to prescribe the procedure that is required by the contractor to propose alternative or ‘equal approved’ products. This is of particular importance where there may be sustainability outcomes on a given project – as was the case for nearly half of this year’s survey respondents – therefore, any accepted alternative products or methods of working must comply with these predetermined goals. Furthermore, any deviations from working methodologies that are required for health and safety reasons must be carefully and comprehensively assessed before approval.
There is also the option to compile a shortlist of preferred subcontractors or suppliers, which may be drawn from a trade or supplier-specific framework agreement, or to implement other periodic quality submission procedures. Similarly, the design team may choose to name a specific supplier or subcontractor, where their participation is considered integral to the project.
No stranger to change, the industry must continue to capitalise on the new technologies brought about by the information age. Industry surveys, such as the RIBA’s, provide invaluable insight into what is happening on the ground in the sector. Not everything can be foreseen, but a company-wide strategy for specification and information management has the best chance of capturing what is known on any project.