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NBS Educator: Specifications: problems in practice

NBS Educator
Specifications: problems in practice

NBS

November 2008

NBS Educator: Specifications: problems in practice


0.

Content

1.

Introduction

2.

Unsound specifications

3.

Unused specifications

4.

Summary

5.

References and further reading

NBS

November 2008

NBS Educator: Specifications: problems in practice


1.

Introduction

1.1

This document

NBS is the producer of the national building specification, and part of RIBA
Enterprises Ltd. This presentation is part of the NBS Educator suite. Related
presentations in the suite include:

Contract documentation: an introduction.

Briefs: an introduction.

Specifications: an introduction.

Specifications: product selection process.

Schedules of work: an introduction.

The content was developed by John Gelder BArch (Hons) RIBA RAIA CSI.
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1.2.

Topics

What is wrong with current specifications practice? As far as possible,


documentary evidence is used to back up claims of problems in practice.
Unsound specifications: The key problem is that specifications are often not
well written. Is this because they are not much used?
Unused specifications: Specifications are not used as much as they should
be. Is this because they are not well written?
1.3

Key points

Specifications are often not well written.


Specifications are often underused.

NBS

November 2008

NBS Educator: Specifications: problems in practice


2.

Unsound specifications

2.1

Misuse of national master specification systems


'The inclusion of practically every NBS clause which results in
contradiction.
Severe pruning which means that important [NBS] clauses are omitted.
Failure to read the [NBS] guidance notes the result of which is
frequently the use of the wrong clause or the inclusion of contradictory
clauses' (Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland [RIAS], 2000).

The misuses listed here arise mostly because not enough time was allowed
for the preparation of the specification. They do not reflect on NBS or master
specifications in general. In an Australian survey, contractors ranked release
of unamended standard specifications (first point) 12th of 18 problems with
documentation (Tilley & McFallan, 2002).
While it could be argued that master specifications should be crafted to be
fool-proof, it is reasonable for national master specification systems (NMSSs)
to assume a minimum level of competence among their users otherwise the
guidance material would run the risk of being patronising, and would certainly
become too cumbersome to use. To achieve this level of competence,
NMSSs could offer training themselves, as indeed NBS does (on use of its
software and here, on specifying generally).
2.2

Misuse of standards
' instead of putting according to a specific BS at each stage of the
specification he inserts a sentence at the beginning of the specification
to say that all work must be according to the current British Standards.
However, when he checks this, he finds that he had neglected to insert
this sentence. He is unconcerned by this revelation ' (Williams,
2002).

Individual standards cannot be cited baldly they contain options and defaults
which need attention, and may not cover all relevant technical issues. If this is
the case for individual standards, then it is even more the case for global
citation of standards, as in this example. This is lazy specifying, inequitable to
the contractor and unenforceable by the CA (contract administrator). It does
not reflect a professional attitude to contract documentation.
We might ask: Which are the standards, what is meant by current, what if the
relevant standards are not British (as is the case for much air conditioning
plant & equipment, for example)?
On the other hand, in the event of dispute, the courts often start with
published standards, to determine the quality that might be reasonably
expected, even if they are not cited in the specification. This is perhaps why
he is unconcerned by this revelation. However the courts might also find that
specifications that dont call up relevant standards individually, are faulty
(Gelder, 2007).
2.3

Compliance with regulations

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November 2008

NBS Educator: Specifications: problems in practice


Specifications submitted to building control officers (BCOs) are often full
pseudo-specifications more content than needed, and not job-specific.
BCOs dont want to wade through 100s of pages of irrelevant material
compliance specifications should address regulatory issues only, nothing
more, and should be project-specific.
Compliance specifications dont restate or harden Building Regulations
Approved Documents, which (a) are not mandatory, (b) are not written as
specifications (they use 'should') so cant be cited, and (c) do not apply unless
you say so in the specification. The suggestions you choose to run with from
the BR ADs should be restated in an enforceable way in the contract
documents, in the drawings or in the specification, as appropriate. If you
choose to comply with the mandatory performance regulations in some other
way, then this must be stated too.
Compliance specifications are usually not aligned to Building Regulations
structure, e.g. fire, energy, hygiene. Some specifiers do so, but not many.
This would be very helpful for BCOs and for those preparing or checking the
compliance specification, so they can easily check that regulatory
requirements are covered.
But, how often do BCOs ask for a resubmission?
2.4

On site
on issues of workmanship, the specification invariably gave no
information at all, or was ambiguous, or was unclear in some way
(Bentley, 1981).

If specifications are to be used regularly during the construction process, as


the drawings are, then they must be sound. Only then will the CA and the
contractor have enough confidence in them to use them. And only then would
lawyers desist in putting catch-all materials and workmanship clauses into the
contracts themselves (Gelder, 2003).
2.5

Conflict between drawings and specifications


Failure to check the specification with the drawings the drawings
show one thing whilst the specification describes another (RIAS,
2000).

Such conflict is responsible for 19% of change orders (i.e. variations US


terminology) (Preston, 1999).
This conflict can lead to dispute, but it is also a drawings problem, of course.
2.6

Dispute

Some specification faults are so problematic that they lead to dispute. Not all
of these get to court (some are resolved out of court, in arbitration etc.). Those
that do are therefore the worst of the worst. Causes of spec-based claims,
litigation, or arbitration include the following. The percentages are from a 1981
American study of court-based disputes:

Or equal specifications: 25%. Jobs have ground to a halt over arguments


about just what is equal to the proprietary specification, and whose
decision this is (Gelder, 2004).

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November 2008

NBS Educator: Specifications: problems in practice

Conflict between drawings and specifications: 12%. Remains a major


issue.

Ambiguity: 12% (Bingham, 2005).

Defective specifications, e.g. buildability: 12%.

Inaccurate technical data: 12%.

Product performance deficiencies: 8% (Nielsen & Nielsen, 1981).

Unfortunately, there is little such evidence available. For example, arbitration


discussions arent published, and no-one systematically collects this data from
court reports, except maybe insurers for their own use. Hence the usefulness
of published court decisions, such as those for the England and Wales High
Court (Technology and Construction Court), and summaries such as Gelder
(2007) which illustrates several of the claims causes listed here.
2.7

Specification quality

Failure to provide a proper specification accounted for over 25% of


professional indemnity insurance claims in the UK, according to a 1994
survey (Rogers, 1994). This is not trivial.
Rarely, architects don't prepare any specification at all, perhaps relying on
other documents, or on the contract administrator's 'approval'. All sorts of
problems can arise from this approach, including demolition by a frustrated
client, and a costly visit to the courts (Gelder, 2007; 2008)!
An Australian study of the quality of design and documentation found that
most designers and contractors agreed that there had been a decline from
1985 to 2000, and that it had been worse for documentation than for design.
For documentation, the survey found that completeness had seen the biggest
decline, followed by final checking, certainty, accuracy, coordination and
clarity. A pair of American studies (Doran, 2004 & 2005) found similar
concerns.
In the Australian study, most designers felt that as a consequence, the
following had increased: additional drawings, drawing revisions, contractual
claims, contract variations, requests for information (RFIs), rework and
component clashes. Contractors agreed, with RFIs showing the most marked
increase. In addition, they reckoned that about 55% of RFIs and 45% of
disputes and variations are down to deficient design or documentation.
The single most frequent and influential documentation problem (out of 18)
was seen by contractors as use of catch-all clauses (such as that quoted
under 2.2). The next five problems were, in descending order of impact:

Critical notes hidden among non-critical notes.

Unclear.

Insufficient detail.

Incorrect or inadequate information.

Conflicting information.

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November 2008

NBS Educator: Specifications: problems in practice


Other spec-related issues identified by the contractors included reliance on
specification notes where drawings are required (7th), mixing performance
and prescription (15th), use of out-of-date or inappropriate specifications
(16th), and specifications not designed to be split into packages (17th).
Contractors said that, if dealing with very poor documentation at tender, they
would increase the quoted cost and time by 11% (on average). If the
documentation was seen as excellent, these would have been reduced by
about 1% (Tilley & McFallan, 2000).
This is not just an Australian or American problem. Davey (1996), for
example, said:
'Defects on handover [in social housing] were attributed to short project
time-scales, non-standard designs, insufficient detail in the
specification and a lack of communication [within the construction
company] arising from poor record keeping and the dispersed
casualized nature of the workforce.'
Client's view: The RIBA deals with calls from clients concerned about the
service they are receiving from architects. Although one might expect the
specification to be of little interest to clients, especially non-expert clients,
some calls involve specification quality, for example:

The client is reluctant to start with the contractor, believing that he does
not have enough specification information from the architect to provide a
realistic costing.

Communication channels broke down with the architect following


persistent time delays, specification faults, planning delays & the client
having to change builders due to poor workmanship.

The architect was criticised for not citing current BSs in the specification,
and was threatened with a charge of 'unprofessional conduct' by the client.

Two items missing in a school specification were on the drawings, which


led to a dispute with contractor over costs (Jane Oldfield, private
communication).

2.8

Key points

National master specification systems are often misused, under pressure of


time.
Standards are often not cited properly.
Compliance specifications are not geared to the needs of building control
officers.
Specifications are often found wanting on site.
The drawings often conflict with the specification.
Problems with specifications can lead to dispute, especially 'or equal'
specifications.
Problems with specifications account for 25% of PI claims.
The quality of specifications has declined over the past 20 years.

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November 2008

NBS Educator: Specifications: problems in practice


Poor documentation can increase times and prices tendered.
Faulty specifications can lead to disgruntled clients.

NBS

November 2008

NBS Educator: Specifications: problems in practice


3.

Unused specifications

3.1

Unused by contractors

Bottom drawer: Use of the specification is the victim of the bottom drawer
culture:
When, as a last resort, it was sometimes referred to (Bentley,
1981).
the specification was used only very exceptionally and then merely
as a list of materials and suppliers (Bentley, 1981).
This accords with the experience of most architects. What it tells us is that the
execution (workmanship) clauses are not used, even though they constitute
the bulk of the specification.
Does this mean that builders always follow the good practice that should be
described therein? Unlikely deskilling of site workers is flagged in articles
over and over again. For example, an Australian study found that bricklayers
did not read, and did not follow, the standard for brickwork, e.g. wall ties were
placed in the wrong places at the wrong intervals. We can imagine wed see
much the same in the UK.
It also suggests that the materials and suppliers content could usefully be
separated out, for ease of reference.
Substitution: More evidence for under-use by contractors is the extent of
surreptitious substitution found in a UK survey (Billingham, 1994; Coomber,
1994):

40% of UK contractors broke specifications.

25% of UK subcontractors broke specifications.

That is, unauthorised and unnoticed non-compliance is rampant. If


specifications were more systematically enforced, this wouldnt happen
(Gelder, 2006).
3.2

Unused by contract administrators (CAs)

Third party product certification: This is under-used for many product classes
which indicates little or no demand, which in turn indicates that CAs are not
checking conformance against cited standards. Looking at KiteMark licensees
for example:

Ready-mixed concrete, BS 8500-1: 101 licensees, but

Cellulose fibre roof insulation, BS 5803-3: 0 manufacturers.

Building sealants, BS EN ISO 11600: 0 manufacturers.

Underlays for textile flooring, BS 5808: 0 manufacturers.

Pozzolanic pfa cement, BS 6610: 0 manufacturers.

BSIs KiteMark is the best known third party product certification system in the
UK. But, even though licenses are available against many standards, take up
is very uneven (it is high for things like safety glass and plumbing goods,

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November 2008

NBS Educator: Specifications: problems in practice


where there is statutory control in place). Sometimes the manufacturers with
KiteMarks are based overseas, and use the KiteMark as a means of breaking
into the UK market. Local take-up can be slight to non-existent.
This reflects lack of demand from specifiers and CAs. If they routinely asked
to see evidence that the product complies with the specified standard, then
manufacturers would find it worthwhile having the KiteMark. But the simple
fact is that manufacturers are rarely asked for evidence, even where the
products are usually specified by reference to the BS.
Standards: Under-acquisition of standards also suggests that their citation in
specifications isnt taken seriously, e.g. there are 1480+ CIS online
subscriptions but 7500+ NBS subscriptions (Construction Information Service
subscribers are often not specifiers, so the overlap with specifiers is even
lower than these figures suggest).
How many architectural practices have a full set of building sector
standards? Do we know what such a full set might comprise (does RIBA
make any recommendations, for example)? How many have current
standards in their possession,i.e. how many practices subscribe to standards?
How many specifiers have read any of them?
Substitution: Perhaps the most telling point is that the CAs hadnt noticed the
surreptitious substitution admitted to by contractors and subcontractors:
Some trades feel that by not standing by their specifications or not
bothering with them at all architects are to blame for lowering building
standards (Coomber, 1994).
Manufacturers working to standards naturally get upset when they lose work
to competitors not working to the standards. Many trade associations are set
up to weed out the cowboys; it would help if architects and other designers
did their share by insisting that specified quality levels are met.
Client's view: Some of the calls the RIBA receives from clients concerned
about the service they are receiving from architects involve specification
enforcement:

3.3

'Architect signs interim certificates for work that has not been done yet or
is not as per specification. Work is obviously sub-standard and the
architect says its fine. We are not talking about picky clients here wanting
everything perfect.' (Jane Oldfield, Ribanet, December 2006).
Key points

Specifications are used reluctantly, if at all, on site.


Specifications are often broken by contractors and subcontractors.
Specifications are not enforced.

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November 2008

NBS Educator: Specifications: problems in practice


4.

Summary

Specifications are often not well written.


Specifications are often underused.
National master specification systems are often misused, under pressure of
time.
Standards are often not cited properly.
Compliance specifications are not geared to the needs of building control
officers.
Specifications are often found wanting on site.
The drawings often conflict with the specification.
Problems with specifications can lead to dispute, especially 'or equal'
specifications.
Problems with specifications account for 25% of PI claims.
The quality of specifications has declined over the past 20 years.
Poor documentation can increase times and prices tendered.
Faulty specifications can lead to disgruntled clients.
Specifications are used reluctantly, if at all, on site.
Specifications are often broken by contractors and subcontractors.
Specifications are not enforced.

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November 2008

NBS Educator: Specifications: problems in practice


5.

References and further reading

5.1

Standards

BS 5803-3:1985 Thermal insulation for use in pitched roof spaces in


dwellings. Specification for cellulose fibre thermal insulation for application by
blowing.
BS 5808:1991 Specification for underlays for textile floor coverings.
BS 6610:1996 Specification for Pozzolanic pulverized-fuel ash cement.
BS 8500-1:2006 Concrete. Complementary British Standard to BS EN 206-1.
Method of specifying and guidance for the specifier.
BS EN ISO 11600:2003 Building construction. Jointing products.
Classification and requirements for sealants.
5.2

Other

Bentley, M.J.C. (1981) CP7/81: Quality control on building sites, BRE.


Billingham, B. (1994) Breaking the chain: contractors, Building, 16
September.
Bingham, T. (2005) 'Shock and or', Building, 4 March.
Coomber, M. (1994) Breaking the chain: subcontractors, Building, 23
September.
Davey, C. et al (2006) Defects liability management by design, Building
research & information 34/2, March-April.
Doran, D. (2004) FMI/CMAA Fifth annual survey of owners, FMI.
Doran, D. (2005) FMI/CMAA Sixth annual survey of owners, FMI.
Gelder, J. (2003) 'Quality in contracts', NBS Journal 03.
Gelder, J. (2004) 'Or equivalent', NBS Journal 05.
Gelder, J. (2007) 'Yes! We have no specifications', NBS Journal 11.
Gelder, J. (2008) 'An inspector calls', NBS Journal 12.
Nielsen, M. & K. Nielsen (1981) Risks and liabilities of specifications in
reducing risk and liability through better specifications and inspections, ASCE.
Preston, P. (1999) Change orders, The Construction Specifier, January.
Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (2000) 'N1535: Incorrect use of
NBS', RIAS Practice Information, Winter.
Rogers, L. (1994) PI in the sky?, RIBA Journal, April.
Tilley, P.A. & S.L. McFallan (2000) Design and documentation quality survey,
CSIRO (Australia).
Williams, W. (2002) CAP Assignment: Specifications, University of Newcastle
(unpublished).

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November 2008