by David Watson
When a team first comes together to design a project, each member brings a different approach to the preparation of the documentation required. Many design consultants allot far more resources to the development of drawings than they do to specifications, which are commonly prepared near the end of the design process. As a result, development of specifications tends to be rushed. Specifications are often based on old project specifications which contain out-of-date standards and may require clauses that were deleted on the old project. The job of authoring specifications is highly specialized, and thus normally performed by senior colleagues with a wealth of technical understanding.
In North America, we are fortunate to have standards for specifications in the buildings industry that are widely adopted. Accordingly, all of our specifications are formatted to meet these de facto standards for numbering (CSC/CSI MasterFormat), article titles (CSC/CSI SectionFormat) and page layout (CSC/CSI PageFormat).
Applying a common classification system across a project will result in BIM objects and specifications having a consistent structure, regardless of which item in the project they describe, and regardless of which discipline or organization generated the information.
At NBS, we are pooling expertise from around the world, researching and authoring specification content. These resources enable NBS to offer digital content containing both common product knowledge (international) and local product knowledge (national), and to make that knowledge available through our published specifications.
Specification and BIM
With respect to writing and assembling specifications, there are generally a couple of choices for a practice. The most common is to prepare your project specification based on word processing files that are maintained and managed by internal experts. The drawback to this approach is that effort is required by experts to monitor and update the Word documents on a regular basis, which includes product research (a non-income-generating time investment by senior personnel).
The better method is to adopt a commercial digital master specification system that self-manages content updating as standards, codes of practice or the National Building Code of Canada are modified, and as new building technologies emerge.
By adopting such a digital master specification system, more time can be spent by all staff on fee-earning work as the base reference content is managed centrally by the provider of the master system. In addition, functionality that is unavailable in Word is suddenly possible, such as synchronized technical guidance, reporting, linked clauses, contextual insert suggestions and updates on currency.
Across the world, at universities, aspiring architects and engineers receive hours and hours of training in how to design and prepare drawings, but in general receive little support or instruction on how to prepare a written specification. A master specification system will have template text that is well written, using a consistent editorial style. A good master specification system should follow the principles of the seven Cs:
- Clear – use language that is unambiguous. It should be understandable by the person performing the work, as well as the lawyer.
- Correct – ensure that the standards cited are current, and that any references to the content within the standards are accurate.
- Concise – use keywords and colons to be direct and succinct. Do not write ‘The Contractor will indicate critical dimensions on all shop drawings’. Instead, write ‘Shop drawings: Indicate dimensions’. Four words are far clearer than ten.
- Consistent – adopt a coherent classification system and structure across every item specified by all disciplines on the project.
- Complete – include all the necessary information. Citing the standard AS 1234 may not be enough information. There may be a critical difference between grades or finishes within AS 1234 that also needs to be specified.
- Comprehensive – cover all the components that need to be included. If specifying by brand, the product reference is potentially enough to specify a product. When leaving the product selection to the Contractor, be specific on the precise criteria by which the Contractor must select the product, and how these will be verified and accepted.
- Coordinated – ensure that any cross-references are correct and current, whether you are cross-referencing items within the specification or items documented in other sources, such as drawings or schedules.
A standardized approach to digital objects will also unlock the true value of BIM. Without consistently structured information, any BIM object will only provide value for geometric modelling and drawing generation. With standardized information within BIM, it is possible to quickly generate meaningful schedules, perform data analysis, and annotate and colour code drawings to give them greater clarity. Most importantly, consistent structure and terminology ensure that model data and specification data remain synchronized.
In order encourage consistent structure in BIM models, NBS has published a free-to-use BIM Object Standard that includes International Standard properties and classifications from sources such as IFC, COBie, Uniclass and OmniClass. The standard is a collection of online resources such as guidance documentation, shared parameter files and software plug-ins for tools such as Autodesk Revit and Graphisoft ArchiCAD.
NBS also has a free-to-use National BIM Library – a database of thousands of generic and manufacturer-specific objects verified as authored to the internationally recognized NBS BIM Object Standard.
The combination of a master specification system and a collection of standardized BIM objects provides project teams with the best possible start on a project. In addition to this, practices may gain further advantages through embedding their own knowledge into the information structures that are provided.
It is common for a practice to specify similar items from one project to the next. Unfortunately, it is also the case that a mistake on the first project may then be repeated on the second due to a lack of communication.
By using a managed office master system, lessons learned (both positive and negative) from previous projects can be captured and shared across a practice. So if a particular ceiling system works well for a high school classroom, then this specification can be turned into an ‘office master’ that can be reused on the next high school. During the project specification development, clauses are never deleted – unwanted clauses are merely disabled and can be re-enabled at will.
Every project provides opportunities to learn new methods or techniques; ensure that the lessons learned are captured in an office master system so that colleagues can view these at the point where specification or design decisions are being made on subsequent projects, while also embedding a culture of continuous improvement.
Manufacturers across all disciplines can author standard specification clauses for their products that match the structure that specifiers use across the project specification. A standard structure allows manufacturers and suppliers to insert their product-specific information in a way that conforms to the 7 Cs. Equally, manufacturers can create high-quality BIM objects that will not burden large models, and which include information that can be used for scheduling or data analysis.
For too long, the construction industry has produced poorly structured, badly coordinated, convoluted and inconsistent information. With standards for information structures and classification now aligning around the globe, and with technology to guide this trend, all practices may take advantage of these improvements to improve their own productivity, at the same time as providing a better service for their clients, clearer documentation for constructors and improved outcomes for the project.