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Specification Writing Advice – Poacher Turns Gamekeeper

Specifications – Poacher Turns Gamekeeper

This is a guest post by Stephen Walton, a Director of Schumann Consult, who joins us to share his thoughts on specification writing.

For twelve years I have been working as a specification consultant with Davis Langdon Schumann Smith and last summer, I was delighted to team up with Nick and Mark Schumann at Schumann Consult.

Over that time I have been privileged to work on some wonderful projects and with a number of exceptional architectural teams.

Have I got a favourite, well yes, unquestionably the refurbishment of the Royal Festival Hall with Allies and Morrison, which started for me around 2004.

Looking back on that, I wonder if one of the reasons I had that connectivity with that particular project was in fact my contracting background in refurbishment, which is the subtext for this article.

Specification consultants, in common with most things in this world, come in all different shapes and sizes, and of course, professional backgrounds.  Predominant, understandably, were former architects and to a lesser extent, cost consultants.

My background however was construction procurement, or as we used to call it years ago, ‘Buying’!

Hence, the perhaps over-used analogy of Poacher turned Gamekeeper.

I have certainly no intention in boring you with my career path since 1976, other than to mention my spell with Walter Lawrence/Hall & Tawse between 1983-1998 which formed the mainstay of my purchasing career, and also gave me a background in joinery when I was responsible for an in-house joinery shop for a number of years during that period.

During that time, as you can doubtless imagine, I encountered many specifications, some good but most not.

Being on the receiving end of specifications does serve to focus the mind on how to make them better when you are the person chiefly responsible for their composition.

The most common problem was not that they were technically flawed or particularly riddled with obsolete standards, but the fact they were poorly edited with what one might refer to as ‘boilerplate’ text, which often ends up in the need to err on the side of caution when tendering.

So, when I am writing a specification now, I ask myself whether I have left any opportunities for variations if I was the person receiving it in the procurement team.

With all that said, I also believe it not particularly helpful to create a document that one could describe as the ‘sum of all fears’, packed with the consultant’s anecdotal baggage of catastrophic events from a bygone era.

When I first began my specification consulting career in 2002, it was gratifying to immediately realise that it was in fact completely bespoke specifications we were being asked to draft, informed by face to face engagement with the designer, rather than a perfunctory or volume churn of the type of document I referred to earlier.

My years in contracting also made me appreciate the role manufacturers and specialists can play in ensuring that the specification is commercially astute and technically correct. I frequently liaise with manufacturers and would like to put on record my sincerest appreciation of their almost universally good-hearted and best-intentioned help.

My contracting background also gives me some empathy with the contractor, insofar that for years, particularly in the London refurbishment sector, the competitive tendering process entailed going in at next to nil mark up whereby on occasions, it was the contractor dropping the biggest clanger who ended up securing the project! It then fell upon the procurement team to try their best to exploit shortcomings in specifications and secure buying margins on materials and subcontracts to accrue some sort of return.  This was just a recipe for corner cutting and adversarial relationships.

It is against this background that on the occasions I meet with contractors, I am at pains to stress that our document is not meant to be a trap or to set a bar at far too high a standard, but instead its intent is to hopefully accurately convey our clients’ design intent and aspiration to deliver the best project we can as a team.

It is against that background that documents produced for Henry J Lyons’ stunning Central Criminal Courts building in Dublin were described as being the best series of subcontractor proposals/returns the contractor had ever received. I mention that in no remote context because I drafted them, but because they were expressly bespoke and as a consequence managed to convey the quality aspiration of the client architect and his employer.

When setting about a new spec, there is typically a number of what I can only describe as ‘hot-spot’ topics about which I try to raise an awareness of very early on.

These include and are not limited to:

  • Finishes to in situ and precast structural concrete
  • Slip resistance of floors and paving
  • Design responsibility
  • Natural stone
  • Tolerances
  • Specifying elements, not finishes.

One in particular, which always baffles (and does not form part of the aforementioned) is that of painted doorsets. Architects will always strive for a visually flawless finish best achieved by a full factory, pre-finish. By contrast, the contractor will move heaven and earth to avoid this because it is next to impossible to achieve an adequately indiscernible touch-up of damage sustained on site before handover.

What is the answer? – there isn’t one, but there is at least awareness to consider it before it turns septic at practical completion.

I hope this account might, if nothing else, convey the benefits of ‘specification consultancy’ rather than ‘specification writing’ and go some way to illustrating why many designers elect to retain specification specialists on signature projects.

I often describe our work as ‘another pair of eyes’ for the designer before their documents go external, and whilst to the uninitiated, writing specs for a living might be perceived as akin to watching a newly emulsioned wall slowly drying, it can and has been enormously rewarding.

StephenWaltonAbout the Author: Stephen Walton is a Director of Schumann Consult with over 30 years experience in the construction industry, 14 of which as a Specification Consultant for many of the worlds leading Architectural practices. For further reading, check out the Schumann Consult blog.

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