MASTERSPEC HOW-TO

WRITING AND EDITING A SPECIFICATION

The rules of writing a specification are simple, yet unfortunately not always followed. An Australian survey found that designers rate accuracy of documentation top priority, followed closely by clarity, final checking, coordination and completeness (Tilley & McFallan, 2000). However the same survey found that these objectives were not always achieved, completeness suffering the biggest decline over a 15 year period, followed by final checking, certainty, accuracy, coordination and clarity.

When preparing your documentation and specification keep in mind the “Seven C’s” - by following this simple guide in every job you'll not only produce a quality outcome but help protect your business commercially and legally.

1.1 The Seven C’s of Specifying

Clear, Concise, Correct, Complete, Comprehensive, Consistent, Co-ordinated

These ‘rules’, as well as for specifications, apply also to contracts, regulations, drawings, and schedules. 

Be Clear

Use plain English. The trend in legal drafting is to avoid Dickensian legalese and aim instead for ease of understanding by all intended audiences (not just the lawyers). But sophisticated content still requires sophisticated expression.

In particular, avoid ambiguity. An independent internal ‘devil’s advocate’ review is a useful safeguard. Trimming waffle exposes ambiguity (and redundancy) and makes the whole thing easier to edit. 

Be Concise

Avoid repetition and streamline your phrasing as much as possible. In particular start each phrase with a simple instruction or action. A streamlined specification would replace

'Contractors installing equipment on the site should ensure that that said eqipment is in all cases installed plumb and level as per manufacturer’s recommendations and specifications'

with

'Install equipment plum and level'

It's important however to be aware that too much concision can lead to ambiguity - make sure only what needs to be said is said.

Be Correct.

Develop some quality control procedures. Cross-references must be correct – check NZS numbers, check NZ Building Code numbers, check the currency. Requirements covered elsewhere do not need to be stated again – the builder must comply with the contract documents as a whole, including referenced documents. Avoid redundancy.

Be Complete

Ensure appropriate breadth, but remember to be concise. External cross-references are often required to complete a specification, e.g. asking for a fire rating of 30/30/30 makes no sense unless the relevant standard (where the 30s are given meaning) is cited as well. It cannot be left as ‘understood’.

Be Comprehensive

Ensure appropriate depth. For example, ensure that all relevant characteristics are covered in performance specifications, and that all relevant items are described in the specification and drawings taken together.

Be Consistent

Watch terminology and style. Referenced documents are inevitably inconsistent (with each other, and occasionally within themselves) so, rather than trying to fit in with them where they are inconsistent, the specification should provide independent overall consistency.

Be Co-ordinated

Across all work sections, and between all contract documents.

1.2 A few more things worth noting

Be logical.

For example, do not specify for non-conformance. Some clauses, such as ‘contractor shall’, ‘or equal’ or ‘unless otherwise specified’ should, if they are to be used at all, be added to every clause – so they are best added to none. It is a useful discipline to take ideas to their logical conclusion in this way and see if they still make sense.

Be fair and objective.

The specification must be objective. Subjective descriptions such as ‘to approval’, ‘adequate’, ‘neat’ should be avoided as far as practicable, as they cannot be priced and may lead to dispute. Likewise, avoid ‘everything necessary’ and other catch-alls. Be specific.

Here is an example of what to avoid:

“The subcontractor should, unless otherwise specified, ensure that all brickwork is constructed to any relevant standards and to approved manufacturer’s recommendations, or equivalent, using tradesman-like workmanship, and as detailed. Materials and goods shall be the best of their respective kinds.”

Leave no gaps and no overlaps.
‘No gaps’ should be understood in terms of Pareto, where a certain amount of silence in the documents might be desirable. ‘No overlaps’ should be applied absolutely, to avoid the risk of conflict and double pricing. ‘Dead clauses’ are a related issue, and are best avoided.

If in doubt, leave it out.
Too often, specifiers with not much confidence in their own technical ability insert, or leave in, material that they don’t understand, assuming that it might be important. But if they don’t understand it, they won’t be able to enforce it anyway. Besides, it might not be important, or relevant, and may reflect badly on the whole specification if it is reviewed at a later date.

Do not retain material just in case it will be useful later on
e.g. in the event of a substitution or non-conformance. The requisite material will be added in the authorising instruction.

Consider document control, particularly maintenance, tracking and archiving.

1.3 Navigation

Numbering and internal cross-references

Use of names and numbers for sections and clauses is usual, along with page numbers. Cross-references in the CPI schema (Co-ordinating Committee for Project Information, 1987) use section and clause numbers, but mistyped numbers can be difficult for readers to correct. Accordingly, Masterspec uses section and clause names for cross-referencing, as errors are more easily spotted and corrected, and the names are unlikely to change through the drafting process (unlike clause numbering). Although bulky, the number of such cross-references is likely to be small.

Section names or numbers should be given on every page, on the bottom left, as an aid to navigation. Page numbers are also essential for navigation.

Contents

Contents lists for specifications and for each work section are easily prepared. contents lists for sections are preferred to ‘scope of work’ clauses, which tend to presuppose a certain contractual situation which may not apply, e.g. pattern of subcontracting, and which may also be incomplete etc.

1.4 Format

Readability

Better readability enhances comprehension. Line length should be optimised for readability, as should font size, fonts (e.g. headings vs body text), leading, line spacing and so on. Left justification assists readability.

Consider users

Your specification should be available in electronic format for easy revision and dissemination. However it must also work well as a usable printed document. Specifications are meant to be working documents often photocopied, broken up and shared between contractors and project management. Consider the specification’s printed layout given the end-use and end users of the document. They might prefer loose leaf single-sided A4 for photocopying, a good size font for reading in poor lighting, and a wide margin for notes.

Binding in other documents

Binding other documents in with the specification, e.g. for convenience in handling, does not mean that they are part of the specification. This can be problematic - if they are initialed at the same time as everything else they do become part of the contract - if you meant this to happen all well and good. However if you had included extra documentation in the bound document for reference and it does inadvertently become part of the contract this may cause difficulties at a later date. It's best to be sure and separate the specification and supporting documentation from any other material.

SUMMARY

Specifications should follow the seven Cs: clear, concise, correct, complete, comprehensive, consistent, co-ordinated.

Specifications should be logical, fair, with no gaps or overlaps. They should be edited.

Consider navigation, e.g. clause numbers, page numbers.

Consider format, e.g. font, colour.

This article has been based on information supplied by The NBS. It had been re-purposed to match New Zealand Standards and Codes and industry best practice.

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