by Dr Stephen Hamil
1. The importance of specification
Many smaller practices work on less complex construction projects. While there is no universal definition of what a ‘small works’ project is, it is generally characterized by being simple, using straightforward methods, and it is typically procured following a traditional methodology.
The RIBA describes firms that have fewer than ten employees as ‘small practices’, and estimates that they represent almost 80% of UK architecture practices.
Most of the ‘standard form’ contract publishers produce ‘small works’, using building contracts such as JCT Minor Works or the RIBA Concise Building Contract, potentially with some parts of the work identified for contractor design. These projects could be new build or refurbishment projects for private or public sector clients.
On these projects, the drawings and specification will normally define the quantity and quality of work, without the need for extensive measurement of quantities.
Research carried out at NBS (such as the recent NBS Specification Report and NBS Contracts and Law Report) show that specification is a job that is not often done well. Here are some of the worrying findings:
- 59% of practices rush specification writing.
- 55% of practices do not have enough people that know how to write specifications.
- 35% of projects do not have contract documentation signed before construction commences.
- 34% of projects go into dispute each year.
- 27% of projects have had progress impeded due to poor (or lack of) specification.
This research is from across the industry, but it is expected that these challenges could be heightened for small practices: especially those practices that are beginning their journey. Through qualitative research, we at NBS also occasionally hear opinions such as ‘We don’t need a spec on this job as the contractors will charge more’ or ‘We don’t need a spec on this job because we have a good relationship with our builders’. These are approaches that can often lead to problems later on in the project.
If an architect ever finds themselves in the unfortunate situation where there is a dispute on one of their projects, they will likely be in a far more comfortable position if there is a well-written specification to hand. A well-written specification is fair to both client and contractor as it clearly sets out the kind and quality of products, and how these products will be installed and inspected. A robust set of contract documentation that includes a well-written specification should be at the heart of every project.
2. Meeting the needs of the small practice
Over recent years at NBS, we have listened to the needs of the small practice, and have worked very hard to produce a specification solution that is right for this type of work. It is hoped that the Small Works content offering within NBS Chorus is the perfect proposition for all of the UK’s small architectural practices.
2.1 Not tied to a Microsoft Windows computer, and flexibility on licensing
NBS now works on a Mac. We have listened to a growing percentage of the architectural community that choose Apple Macs over Windows PCs for their offices, and now with the launch of NBS Chorus, specifications can be written on Mac or PC.
Furthermore, with NBS Chorus being a cloud-based platform, specifications can be accessed from a tablet device when in the meeting room, or even from a handheld device when inspecting work on-site. Provided that there is a 4G connection as a minimum, specification writing can now take place wherever you are.
There is flexibility over licensing too. Licences are not tied to a single machine. A practice pays for a number of concurrent licences, and these may be used by all colleagues. Therefore, at a five-person practice, a single concurrent licence could be used by any one of these five colleagues at any one time. If the practice is working on a number of projects then they could upgrade to a second concurrent licence to meet the growing needs of the business.
With more and more homeworking taking place in the UK, this flexible licensing works particularly well if colleagues are spread across various physical locations.
2.2 A simple checklist of specification clauses with associated guidance
The Small Works content set is structured in specification sections grouped by the Common Arrangement of Work Sections (CAWS) classification structure. This provides a simple checklist of specification clauses grouped by similar trade. For example, all specification clauses for in situ concrete are contained in section E10, while the clauses for concrete reinforcement are in section E11.The animated sequence below shows how clauses that are not relevant to a project can be quickly excluded, and those that are relevant to the project can be modified to be made project-specific. The screenshots show the NBS drop-down values and associated technical guidance. In this example project, the specifier has excluded clauses for facing brickwork, reclaimed brickwork and concrete facing blockwork, and is amending the clause for manufactured stone blockwork.
A checklist of pre-written specification clauses and guidance
Once completed, the specification may be published in Microsoft Word format for post-processing, or exported directly to PDF. NBS Chorus contains the base specification data as the project progresses, but the published output is a record of each formal issue that can be recorded and distributed.
2.3 An easy way to keep on top of changing industry standards
One of the challenges for any practice is keeping on top of the changes to industry standards. At NBS, we have a team of 30 technical authors who write the template specification clauses and guidance, working alongside librarians who carry out research.
The illustration below shows that technical guidance relating to the standard BS EN 771-1:2011 (+A1 2015) is presented to the specifier. By clicking on this standard, it can be seen that the NBS team has tracked the revisions to this standard since 1985.
It is an almost impossible task for a smaller practice to keep on top of these industry changes without support. By subscribing to NBS, the capability of any practice is immediately boosted by gaining access to this content. As NBS Chorus is a cloud-based platform, neither the software nor the content requires any complicated technical installation. We take care of this, so whenever you sign into the platform, you always have access to the latest content and the most up-to-date software.
2.4 Access to product specifications and technical support from UK manufacturers
In addition to the generic specification clauses, there are also tens of thousands of pre-written specification clauses from the leading UK construction product manufacturers.In the screenshot below, the specifier has added a particular product specification from a rooflight manufacturer. As the generic rooflight clause was selected, almost 300 relevant products were presented to the specifier to support them in the specification process. Technical support details and linked information (such as third-party certifications, guidance on application and links to associated manuals) are also presented to the specifier.
2.5 Flexibility on pricing
Finally, flexibility on pricing is something that we know is important for small practices. Project fees are received throughout the year, so paying for an annual subscription as a lump sum is sometimes a challenge. With this in mind, NBS allows the price of the subscription to be spread out over monthly payments.
There is also the ability to upgrade a subscription at any time. So, for example, if a practice grows and needs more specification content from NBS for a larger, more complex job then it is possible to upgrade to the full content set. A larger job such as a new office block or a new school building may call for a curtain wall cladding system or a green roof system. In one of these examples, the building contract may be design and build, and therefore detailed performance specifications are required. Where this is the case, the NBS subscription can be upgraded in line with the needs of the specifier.
In addition to upgrading the content set, it is also possible to upgrade the functionality to further lower the risk on projects and create internal efficiencies.
The entry-level package for Small Works is Chorus 1, which allows specifications to be assembled, edited and published. It also includes use of plug-ins that allow NBS to be accessed from inside some of the leading design tools used by UK architects. The screenshot below shows NBS Chorus being accessed from within Vectorworks as the design progresses. Specifications can be created and edited from within the design tools Revit, ArchiCAD and Vectorworks, and the references used in annotations and schedules.
The Small Works package, combined with Chorus 1, performs the essential functionality needed for a small practice. However, the upgrade to Chorus 2 includes the following additional features:
- Add user-created project notes to record specification decisions.
- Create office master content that can be maintained and quickly reused on similar projects.
- Maintain an audit trail of all published specifications on a project, and automatically indicate revisions to the contractor.
- Export submittals to a single report for use in the construction phase of a project.
- Invite external collaborators (such as specialist sub-consultant designers) to work in the cloud on the same specification.
For a full feature comparison matrix, see NBS Chorus Features and Pricing.
3. Next steps
Get in touchto find out more information about NBS Chorus for Small Works.