Specifications - A QA Process

checkmarkWho is best to write project construction specifications - the project architect or a dedicated specifier? Arguments will go both ways, depending on point of view. Both answers have merit. So let's take a closer look at specifications as a Quality Assurance (QA) process.

The Project Architect

The project architect (PA) will be involved in each project from nearly the beginning. Only the principal-in-charge and project manager are likely to be involved sooner. The PA will attend the project meetings, hear the discussions, and begin implementing the design as it develops.

The initial concentration will be on the drawings to show design image, layouts, sizes, and relationships among the various programmed spaces. The graphic emphasis during schematic design and even during design development is common. Images are used to convey color, texture, and ambiance of the building and individual spaces. The technical intent may be known only as a result of discussion rather than documentation.

As the design progresses the PA's attention may be split among managing the design team document detailing and production, staffing, and consultant coordination. As each design delivery milestone approaches, another task may be required: specifications. PAs typically have little or no training writing specifications. Architecture schools certainly don't teach the subject. Architects are graphic beings and tend to have a natural affinity with drawings rather than words.

Human nature causes us to put off unfamiliar or difficult tasks until there is no choice but to complete them. Delaying specifications until near project deadlines will cause undue stress for the PA because all the other normal tasks will need additional attention during the same time.  Since there are only 24 hours in a day and PAs may need every bit of 48 hours instead, specifications writing is the task that may suffer most.

When each of several PAs is responsible for writing specifications, maintaining a consistent level of quality and office product selection standards becomes problematic. This may require an additional function to manage office master specifications and to review completed project specifications for conformance.

Checking your own work is one of the most difficult tasks to do well. The PA, who is intimately familiar with the design, is likely to imagine what is supposed to be rather than to see what actually is when reviewing the drawings to begin the specifications. The assumptions may rule the spec development without being communicated to the design team - all the while imagining that the design team will realize what must be developed to complete the documentation.

The PA may be able to supplement the drawings in a manner that a specifier cannot. The PA can specify what the drawings do not show, do not intend to show, and have no time to show. The PA can most appropriately make these decisions since the PA controls both the drawing and specification production.

The specifications can act as a checklist of design, drawing, and spec decisions that have to be made as the PA produces the specifications.  It also brings a greater awareness of the project in general, in the same way as drawing by hand produces a greater awareness of a subject than simply taking a photograph.

The Dedicated Specifier

Typically, specifiers are not involved in each project from the very beginning. They may learn of a project when the first document submission deadline is approaching. Because of the specialized training the process will always be similar, even though individual steps may vary. A dedicated specifier may be one, or more, steps removed from the project team. This will require greater effort to gather required data and to ensure proper coordination of specifications with the drawings.

The initial step is to gain a quick understanding of the project and the major building systems. Reviewing the drawings will help discern some of this information. Preliminary drawings are often sketchy, without detail and notations. Much may be left to the specifier's imagination and experience to develop the preliminary table of contents (TOC). The specifier will document the concerns using notes along with drawing markups and TOC supplements as the beginning outline of what must be specified in each section.

The TOC will list each specification section that is expected to be needed for the project. Naming the party responsible for writing each section in the TOC is helpful - especially when multiple design consultants are involved. The TOC becomes the roadmap for what must be done to complete the project documentation.

The contents may be informed by the basic building type, its use, and the design firm's own history of similar, familiar systems and assemblies. No doubt, the specifier will develop questions, comments, and even some opinions during the drawing review about issues the design team must address.

The specifier's reliance on the available documents to tell the design story, becomes the first "informal" quality assurance review. Much like the contractor's estimator, the specifier tries to quickly decipher the design intent in sufficient detail to allow the specifications to be started. The specifier's notes, drawing markups and TOC all help inform the design team what details require more attention to fully explain the intent. If the issues are not addressed, rest assured the contractor will be asking the same questions during bidding, or worse, during construction.

Make Specifications Part of the QA Process

QA checking is vital when producing construction documents. The coordination between design disciplines and even among the same discipline is absolutely required to reduce the liability exposure from having the building official or the contractor find what the specifier could easily have found for the design team.

Relying on a dedicated specifier does not relieve the PA and the design team of responsibility. However, it does focus the responsibility on answering specific questions about specific issues and reviewing the result - minimizing the time devoted to data gathering and writing the specifications.

Take advantage of a dedicated specifier (in-house or consulting does not matter). Use (but do not abuse) your specifier to aid the QA process and deliver better coordinated documents for bidding and construction.

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