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Building 101: What are construction specifications

Building 101: What Are Construction Specifications?

Have you ever failed to be specific? When was the last time you didn’t describe something specific enough? Failing to do so might have resulted in someone getting lost from your incomplete directions, or worse, loss of a job or project that was meaningful to you. During construction, specifics are everything and failure to communicate specifically could create massive change orders, cost overruns and schedule delays, which can negatively impact your bottom line. In fact, specifics are such a key element of construction that there is an entire formal process dedicated to them; enter construction specifications.

Although blueprints and certain documents can illustrate what a building should look like visually, an in-depth written explanation is needed to describe the construction process. Simply put, construction specifications are documents prepared ahead of construction to describe how building should be carried out by contractors and subcontractors. As its name implies, they are descriptions that go beyond what photos and videos can explain and require a high-level of detail. As a rule of thumb, specifications will usually never over-explain how to build. The vast majority of problems occur when specifications fail to provide enough information. Without the dedication and proper execution of these documents, issues will likely arise when the project is finally executed.

To improve your construction specifications, and in turn, the success rate of your project, it starts with a firm understanding of what these documents are and how they are prepared. As part of our Building 101 series, below, we’ll discuss what specifications are in construction, why they’re important, what are the common types on projects and how to improve the process to increase overall project efficiency.

What Are Construction Specifications?

Construction specifications, also known, as specs, detail the work and workmanship needed to complete a construction project. And there’s no way to get around them. As required documents during the design phase, they’re part of a formal process. According to the Dictionary of Architecture & Construction a specification is, “a written document describing in detail the scope of work, materials to be used, methods of installation, and quality of workmanship for a parcel of work to be placed under contract; usually utilized in conjunction with working (contract) drawings in building construction.”

Furthermore, according to The Construction Specifier, “specification sections are customized in order to accurately describe the intended materials, and then these sections are used by the team to identify the type of products that should be used onsite.”

As mentioned, construction specifications are prepared before construction begins, in the design phase as part of the contract documents. Although their structure varies project-by-project, typically they reflect packages to be given to subcontractors from contractors. Specifically, this is extremely helpful in the tender process.

Who Handles Construction Specs?

Typically, specs are prepared by the architect or designers. Generally, architects will delegate them but oftentimes project engineers will be involved due to their breadth of technical knowledge. Sometimes, on large-scale projects, companies will even call for specialized and professional specification writers to ensure all details are covered.

Although they are separate from design drawings themselves, specs should be complementary to these documents and prepared in tandem. So, if the design advances, so should the specifications, with more and more details being added as plans get more complex.

Why Are Specs Important?

If you’ve been around the construction industry for more than a minute, you know the more details, the better. The clearer a description is, the more likely it will be executed correctly. Specifications can be considered a lot of like data. Without access to the right and an abundance of data, projects can easily fail. As construction projects become more complex and budgets become scrutinized, access to ample data is critical to making the right decisions when building. Most importantly, if specifications are done correctly, they reduce risk. In construction, controlling risk is essential to managing end-to-end project lifecycle.

Furthermore, specifications are particularly important during the tender process for pricing. With solid specs, the contractor should have no doubt about pricing during this process.

Main Types of Construction Specifications

Each project is unique and will need a different set of specifications and most likely corresponding packages. However, there are three main types of construction specifications commonly used on projects:

  • Prescriptive: Provides details on the types of materials and installations needed to complete a project. Additionally, prescriptive specifications also describe how to measure installations to ensure that they were up to project quality and standards.
  • Performance: Describes the operational requirements. Fundamentally, the performance specifications should describe to the contractor what is needed for the final product and how it should essentially function once completed. 
  • Proprietary: Although not as common as prescriptive and performance, proprietary specifications are used if only one specific product can be used for an installation.

How Can Specifications Be Improved?

Construction specifications will no doubt need dedicated time and resources to get them right. In general, the design phase is critical to setting up the success of a project and specs should be taken seriously. In the past, specifications were one of the last items to be written before tender. However, this is changing. As the industry faces increased competition and new technology like BIM provides a better analysis of what needs to be done before construction begins, specifications have increased in importance. A natural first step in creating valuable specifications is not waiting until the last minute. By including specifications early in the project lifecycle, performance requirements are established from the start and project risk is reduced on a whole.

Nonetheless, software can also make submittals easier and more collaborative. Certain construction apps will let you upload all your documents in one place, letting you link specifications to design documents for a full picture. Additionally, if your software includes past versions, you can revisit older specs for clarification if project changes aren’t entirely clear. As a result, your whole project team works more efficiently and collaboratively because they’re all on the same page.

Be Specific, Be Really Specific

Construction specifications, although time-consuming and sometimes part of a tedious process, are a necessary step in a successful project. If you’re a designer or architect, spend the time to get these documents right so your vision for the project is executed correctly. If you’re an owner or contractor, ensure you have all the information you and your team needs to carry out the details of your project on time and budget. And just remember, being overly specific never hurt anyone in a construction process.