Digitisation’s impact on specifying

Words:
Jennifer Dobson

In an increasingly digital industry are architects' specification habits changing?

The construction industry is rapidly progressing towards becoming a digital industry. With the rise of BIM there have been many technological transformations in the design process. But what does this mean for the specification and how it is created? In November 2016, NBS research set out to explore how the rise in the use of digital technology and the government’s April 2016 BIM mandate were affecting the specification process, and what expectations the industry had for the future. The 2016 Specification Survey received over 500 responses; 41 per cent were from architects, so the data allows us to get a detailed understanding of what architects think about specifications.

When and how are specifications created?

Specifications are an important part of an architect’s role: 93% of architects write them compared to 65% of other disciplines (including architectural technologists, architectural technicians, surveyors, engineers and landscape architects). In its 2013 specification report NBS introduced the concept of a lifetime specification: where it is created during the strategic definition of the project, and then amended and developed as the job progresses right through to when the building is in use. Most architects, as with other disciplines, do much of their specification writing during Stages 3 and 4 of the RIBA Plan of Work (during the developed and technical design stages). 

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Overall, this year we can see some movement toward this type of lifetime specification; however architects are lagging behind other disciplines. In 2016 only just over a quarter of architects are starting their specification at the concept design stage or earlier, compared to around half of other construction professionals.

There are various ways in which architects and other professionals can produce specifications; the top three methods are to collect information from manufacturers and put it together, copy and paste from previous specifications, and re-use specifications written for other projects.

Clearly architects value help from manufacturers more than other disciplines, which may partly be down to the sheer number of architectural products available.

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Compared to 2013, fewer respondents said they re-used specifications they have written for other projects, a practice that has reduced especially among architects. In 2016, we also started to see more draft specifications being shared with specifiers outside the respondent’s own company.

Specifications difficulties

Difficulties producing or using specifications are common, and are increasing for the whole industry. Such difficulties are commonly cited as being a result of specified materials being substituted, contradictions between the specification and the drawings, and incomplete or inaccurate technical data. But the size of these issues can vary. Both substitution and the drawings contradicting each other are a problem for many disciplines, but the scale of the problem is larger for architects. This is nothing new: substitution was also the main cause of frustration among architects in 2013. Architects are also more concerned about the length of a specification than other disciplines: 40% of architects cite this as a cause of difficulties compared to 28% of other disciplines.

Specifications now and in the future

We wanted to look at specifiers’ views about specifications, and what they expect for the future. In the past specifications have too often been seen as one of the less interesting parts of a construction professional’s role and are left until the last minute. We wanted to find out if these perceptions still exist. Architects are less likely than their counterparts to tell us they often rush the specification writing process: 52% of architects agree with this statement compared with 65% of other disciplines. Despite this, 39% of architects consider producing specifications is a chore. This, in part, could be influenced by 56% of architects believing that not enough people in their practice know how to write a specification.

So what does the future hold for specifications? Some in the industry have questioned the specification’s relationship to the model.  It is clear that for many architects the specification and the model will work alongside each other: only three out of 10 architects (30%) agree that BIM will eventually replace specifications. For 69% of architects, specifications will also involve more collaboration in the future.

So the findings show that specifications have an important role in architecture and as such architects recognise the importance of these documents and try to devote time to them to ensure they are robust. The process of creating specifications is gradually changing. The construction industry as a whole is moving towards a lifetime specification, but architects are lagging behind. Therefore, a true lifetime specification is still several years away. There is much else the survey uncovered for the construction industry, and you can read the full findings at thenbs.com/specificationreport2017.

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