The spec writer's lot is not a happy one. Ignored most of the time, they often get it in the neck when things go wrong. But there are ways to maximise the positive and minimise the brickbats.
Specification writers cannot win. They spend many hours investigating and documenting the design requirements of others, frequently under great pressure and time constraints, in the knowledge that their work will often be ignored until there is a dispute. When a dispute or the need for clarification arises, all parties pore over every word to prove that their point of view or interpretation of what should or should not be provided is confirmed.

At this point, the specification writer is at his most vulnerable. If the clause in question is not clear and succinct, disputes can rage endlessly, and the specification writer is blamed for not having had the foresight to solve a particular problem many months before it arises.

The ultimate test of any specification is that it provides a clear answer during construction, and satisfies the designer.

The trick is to read and use specifications properly, and to prepare them adequately, paying no heed to those who falsely advise that a thick specification will lead to an inflated price.

Documenting, explaining, recording

Content, clarity and co-ordination are the fundamental principles of good specification writing, remembering always that specifications have two main functions.

First, they document and explain design information during the procurement phase. (Drawings and specifications only represent the design in a recognisable format. They are not the design itself, which continues to develop through manufacture and construction.) Second, during the construction phase they act as a record to which all parties can refer in order to determine what was agreed at the time of contract in respect of the permanent works.

Just as in any contractual arrangement that includes a bidding process, the intention of the buyer and the product offered by the supplier has a habit of changing. For this reason, specifications should be allowed to evolve up to the point where both parties agree on what is being bought and what is being sold.

There is no such thing as a construction issue specification, as the final specification is that which is included in the contract. Of course, specified elements will continue to change during the construction phase, but, under the terms of most contracts, these have to be dealt with as variations, which may in turn adjust the contract specification without the need for a reissue. A client may wish to put all such changes into a single document on completion to form part of the as-built submissions, but this is surprisingly rare.

The use of specifications during the procurement phase has been explored in this column before, and in many instances is still misunderstood. The whole debate over the size of a specification also causes problems.

When I was requested to reduce the size of a specification, I reduced the font size, expanded the page layout and printed it on two sides, without changing a single word. This was immediately issued for tender

In my experience, contractors crave clear and concise information on which to base tenders – the clearer and more complete the better.

It is the contents that are priced, not the number of pages.

Weak and vague content will increase risk and therefore inflate tenders. I recall one occasion when I was requested to reduce the size of a specification, simply because it was said to be too thick. I reduced the font size, expanded the page layout and printed it on two sides, without changing a single word. This was immediately accepted and issued for tender.

Architects supervising the construction phase of a project should find the specification an invaluable tool, almost a bible. It provides the architect with the power to demand detailed design input, samples, prototypes, benchmarks, materials and levels of workmanship, all of which directly affect the quality of the finished product.

All too often, however it is difficult to find a copy on site, and if one is there, it is not used. Once constructed or installed, it is very difficult to get elements replaced purely for visual or design reasons and designers are constantly faced with time and cost constraints, which quite properly have to be balanced against quality.

Demand what is specified

The detailed specification of samples and so on is fundamental, but often these are neglected in order to meet the programme.

If the contract specification states that deliverables are required, the designer should demand them as they have been priced and programmed for.