Specifications are all about the details, big and small, that ensure a building project goes smoothly and that all stakeholders, owners, design professionals, and contractors are on the same page. A well-coordinated project is vital to achieving a build that reflects the owner’s vision without too many delays and change orders along the way.
The distinctions between design guidelines, guide specifications and project specifications can be confusing, so we put together this free webinar to help break it down with the help of Janet Diercks, Registered Architect and Director of Professional Content at BSD, and Laura Dempsey, BSD’s Vice President of Sales for the owner’s channel.
Transcript: About the Presenters
I’d like to introduce you to today’s presenters. Today’s hosts include Janet Diercks; Janet is a Registered Architect and Director of Professional Content here at BSD SpecLink. Janet has served as a specification writer and a consultant for major architectural firms and has been a member of the construction specification Institute or CSI for over 25 years, serving in positions including Atlanta Chapter President and Certification Chair.
Also joining us is Laura Dempsey. Laura is the Vice President of Sales for the owner channel here at the BSD. Prior to BSD, Laura managed the consulting arm at RSMeans for seventeen years, focused on life-cycle studies, facilities budget validation, and legal disputes between owners and general contractors.
And now I’d like to turn it over to your host Laura Dempsey. Laura?
Laura: So, I thank you all for joining the webinar and I wanted to start off by explaining a little bit about why we put this series together. Part of the history of working at RSMeans is we’ve been constantly looking at life cycle costs, facilities, their input into the design, and trying to figure out how we can stop all of these change orders and figure out what was happening at the back end.
When we came in to BSD here at SpecLink I started to learn more about what was happening at the front end that was causing all the cost overruns at the back end. So that’s really the reason and the impetus behind why we put this series together, and so wanted to stop and take a step back to create a benchmark and understand what documents we have, what their uses are, what their formats are, little bit about the history of them.
What’s the importance of them? At what part of the design phase do we use them? And, what’s the current common practice that we’ve seen? Why has it evolved the way that it has? What is the impact downstream? And then, to have a quick discussion of what’s next and is there a different path and how to manage this?
There’s been a lot of technology that has entered the space and a lot of processes. So we wanted to kind of stop first, take a deep breath, and take a look at the history of how we got here. And then explore in the next couple of webinars coming after this: How do we look at the future? And what can we do differently to be more effective and efficient moving forward?
With that, I’ll leave it with Janet to start us off with the history of specifications.
History of Specifications
Janet: Hello. Just as a brief history of specifications, after World War II, the Construction Specifications Institute was founded, and that was the time that it began to address the organization of specifications into a standardized numbering system. Prior to that, it had not been as standardized, and that led for confusion in communication.
In 1963, CSI published data and an organizational system which evolved into what we know as MasterFormat today. This was organized into 16 major divisions of work, everything from site work to mechanical and electrical engineering, interior finishes, and so on. It was a broad range that covered, at that time, all aspects of construction for buildings.
In November 2004, MasterFormat expanded from 16 divisions to 50 divisions. In between that time, from 1948 – 2004, the Canadian sister organization, CSC, produced the Building Construction Index, which was also an organized standard for construction specifications. In 1972 CSI and CSC merged their systems, and in 1963, the MasterFormat type data format then evolved into MasterFormat as we know it today, the standard for organizing specifications and other written information known pretty much as the Dewey Decimal System for building construction. It’s used throughout the construction industry to format specifications.
It is now 50 divisions. Each division is divided into a number of sections, for instance Division 9 is finishes, and one part of that is a 09 3000 which is tiling, or 09 9000 which covers painting. Having covered that, we’re going to discuss four types of documents.
There are four types of documents that are produced, and there is some confusion. Sometimes this terminology is used interchangeably. We’re talking about design guidelines, design standards, guide specifications, and project specification. So we’ll start with design guidelines.
Design guidelines are generally offered by an owner or facility manager for a particular project or a particular campus. They’re usually used in the pre-design, schematic design, and design development phases of the project before we get to construction documents. And the information is generally not complete. The focus is on specific information of particular importance to the owner or facility manager. It’s intended to help the designers understand how to implement a design without restricting creativity and design.
So it may address things like hardness of concrete, strength of steel, sound attenuation between adjacent areas, brightness at desktops and so on.
Generally, these requirements come from various sources, especially if there are multiple users in a campus or a facility, and generally come from previous experience. What worked on the last project, and perhaps what did not.
It’s intended to improve the design and usability of the end product, the facility. It can be provided in narrative tables or other formats. It may or may not be accompanied by drawings. It’s a living document, and may be revised at any time. The information in design guidelines may or may not include Code Compliance information, but any information in design guidelines does not override codes and regulations. Our next set of documents is the design standards.
The design standards are specific specifications of materials, specific measurements, processes, performance of products, and even characteristics of services rendered, such as delegated design. They may be established by an individual manufacturer, a building product manufacturer. They may be provided by trade associations such as BIA, the Brick Institute of America, or AWI, the Association of Woodwork, and any international or national standards organization.
They talk particularly about the opportunity to address characteristics that help the owner and facility manager as well as the design professional to realize operational and manufacturing economies. Generally, design standards allow interchangeability of products as opposed to focusing on a single project that may not be economically feasible for a project, or it may specify a specific project that the owner facility manager prefers for their projects. It promotes uniformity of definition of product characteristics. The next terminology that we will deal with is guide specification.
So we have gone from guidelines to standards to specifications. Guide specifications are generally in a standardized format. They may be in Uniformat, arranged by assemblies, or they may be in a very technical format such as MasterFormat, that gets more specific for products, material systems, and assemblies.
The authors for guide specifications can be owners — owners may have their own in-house specification writers or have contracted out to have master specifications written. AE firms may write their own master specifications because of the project types they use. Building product manufacturers may provide very product-specific specifications sections. And there may be commercial master specification systems available, such as the highly collaborative and very functional BSD SpecLink.
Owner master specifications will focus on products preferred, perhaps for safety requirements and helps to ensure consistency of products, especially for maintenance and the ongoing life cycle of the project. A BPM may provide specifications in order to control projects and to coordinate the products installation and performance. Going beyond guide specifications, we have project specifications.
Project specifications are precise statements describing characteristics of particular items: products, material, and system, in a standardized format that then complement the graphic representations on the drawing. So project specifications and project drawings are complementary. Drawings indicate location and quantity, and specifications focus on quality of materials and workmanship.
These project specifications then become construction and then contract documents. The technical specifications are included in a project manual, which often is referred to as a spec book. They’re produced by the design professional and consultant.
Their standard organization and formatting, of which we spoke, the numbering system — the 50 division MasterFormat, the section format, which is organized in three parts: general, products, and execution. And a page format, which is an outline format that makes it very readable and easy for the parties, especially contractors and subcontractors, to find the information they need in order to proceed in construction of the facility.
The project specifications as well as the drawings must comply with codes and regulations. We have talked before that the guide specifications, guidelines, and design standards may reference codes, but they cannot supersede them. The AE is then responsible for vetting information for the code compliance.
Project specifications are revised by very formal contractually-driven processes, both in pricing, bidding, and procurement, as well as during the construction phase. Again, specifications and drawings are complementary and also can tie into keynotes on the drawing, as well as to BIM systems that are very useful, not just for construction of the project, but also for the life cycle of the finished project and its continuing maintenance and management. So I think Laura will be addressing the functions of these documents.
Laura: Thank you, Janet. Kind of amazing to think that there’s been over 70 years of evolution of how we design and document for construction. Starting off, I might be aging myself, but we started off with blueprints, then we moved onto AutoCAD, Revit, now the conversation’s centered around BIM. We’ve gone everything from working at a desk, to a desktop, to the internet, and now the cloud.
We’ve gone from design guidelines and standards and specifications and project specifications of evolving along with it. We’ve gone from paper binders to Word files to now shared drives, everything is moving to the future in some capacity.
So what’s the future and what’s the future for BIM in facilities? And how do we collaborate to reduce the errors and minimize the risk?
Kind of wanted to move forward here just a little bit and understand that the function of these documents is really more about the owner providing their design intent and then the design professionals are there to design to that owner’s intent, where the contractors are supposed to build to that intent. And however well we collaborate and work together through those processes is how we’ll end up getting to a project with little contention and as much collaboration and few change orders and cost overruns as possible.
Let’s take a look at how things have been done currently. So when we look at the project life cycle and we look at all the different vertical places in which we have processes developed, there’s all kinds of technology that have hit the market that wasn’t around 70 years ago when we first started all of this.
As somebody who worked at RSMeans, we have our data in most of these places, most of these tools, and here at BSD and SpecLink, we’re not trying to change what you use for project management or anything like that. But we did notice is that there was a lack of consistency in the data transfer from project specifications, design guidelines and also guide specifications from start to finish. And that people were using different tools, and that there was really a need for a holistic solution that works for all.
And the one thing that became very apparent is that there isn’t anything available that has specification content that is consistent that can actually work with all of these and plug-and-play in a database. Everything is still being done to some degree in some version of Word. They might have macros on them, but it’s still not in a database format to where it can sync together with the actual design documents as well.
So that was one of the things we looked at here and have been working on for the last three years. We’re going to talk about that, about how you can get your design standards, guidelines, and guide specifications into a database format. It will be the wave of the future where you can minimize how much effort gets done at the end and make more teams efficient and more collaborative.
Typical Owner Situation
So let me talk about the typical situation. I’ve talked to hundreds, if not thousands of owners over the last 20-30 years, and the process at the beginning seems to be fairly consistent. And we have a design standards team. There’s usually a team of one or two people that are kind of managing, the keeper of the keys, if you will, of what the owners design standards and guidelines are. Some will have guide specifications, some will not. I would argue that if you’re taking any public funds you should probably have guide specifications, but that’s for me.
The team then has to collect all that information and try to maintain it and keep it up to date. Most of the time I see it, it’s usually done in Word documents and shared files, and it’s very unwieldy and hard to keep up with. Often they’ll partner with outside firms.
Then what happens is once they have a project that starts, they’ll have a project manager CM who now goes and asks for a collection of, they call it “checking out” the spec sections that they think they’re going to need for their project. And then they start sharing them on their workstations and also shared files with their partners to be able to work with. And then everybody starts unlocking them, and then starts going back to look through them. The versioning can be inconsistent.
But there’s at least at a minimum four checkpoints where these project managers have to go and take the documents that have been edited, and then take them back to their standards committee and say okay, are we in compliance with the standards? And this process goes back and forth and back and forth, and it’s rife with error and then it’s very hard to get a hold and get your arms around.
How Much Does the Project Cost?
So what I did, coming from RSMeans, I have to look at return on investment and have to see how much is this actually costing. So let me go ahead and toggle back down here for just a quick second and I’ll show you the calculator, we’ll walk through this. I get asked this question all the time about whether or not, how much is the software and we’re not talking about the software today, but I just want you to see how much this process can actually cost every firm whether you’re the owner or whether you’re the architect.
So we have some quick calculations here. You can look at what’s the average number of people that you have on your team, full-time employees. I actually put it in small numbers because we may be facing a downturn. So I want to make it realistic. How many average number of projects do you do in a year? And what’s the average number of spec reviews per project? So we know we had at least four checkpoints at the 30, 60, 90 and 100% marks. And we also had the average number of hours per person per section. And then the average number of specification sections reviewed per project. We can anywhere in this place reduce this number or make it bigger.
So I can tell you I’ve worked with a number of owners that are working with projects where they might have two or three hundred very large projects. So it doesn’t take very long before you can start to see numbers blow up that will actually add up at the end. What I tell owners when I’m talking to them is there’s one of two things happening: either somebody in the owners organization is working in collaboration in a very manual process to review and make sure that the standards are compliant, and you’re going through your design review meetings, and then that’s adding time and cost to a project. Or the second scenario is they’re not.
And one of those two things is a problem because it will end up being change orders that cost money at the end because the owner has to fix it, or it’s going to end up costing more time because everybody is spending time in design review meetings making certain that the products that were supposed to be installed are the ones that the owners wanted or at least that everything is a match. We can make that available, that calculator, if anybody wants to see it after this is over, we can distribute it.
Current Bad Practices Observed
So let’s go into the current bad practices that I’ve seen out in the field with my team. I can’t tell you how alarming it is to me to find out how many owners are still using 16 divisions. This was MasterFormat 95, and as Janet mentioned earlier, there were a number of reasons that they opened this up a lot of it being new technology. So it does not adequately provide enough sections to add project specifications for the project. It’s adding time for the design professionals to have to convert it. The design professionals have to convert and coordinate it, this adds time and cost too, as long as contractors have to do it as well.
And the divisions expanded to create the room for more products. I wanted to ask Janet and her experience: what was it specifically? Because we talked about this earlier when we were putting this together, especially with school boards that are still working in 16 divisions. And the number of new technologies, and how smart classrooms are getting, and labs are getting, how important is it for owners to now start to get themselves on the 48 divisions, or 50, I’m sorry.
Janet: Yes, it’s very, very important. And sometimes we don’t think that schools are necessarily very complex, but with the advent of technology, athletic fields, secondary use of the facilities, and so on, the facilities become very, very specialized. The 16 divisions just really did not allow for the technology and the communication requirements that we have today. Where we used to use white boards in hospitals and clinics, now we’re using very advanced monitors to communicate between patients and staff in school.
It is important that the staff, the students — especially with our somewhat dangerous society — be able to communicate between classrooms and the main offices. Not the paper and pencil or sending a student down the hall. Also, there’s a lot of time and cost, where the 16 divisions really did not cover a lot of this technology and specific requirements.
In fact, I was just talking about that today with someone, it’s very expensive to try to create a lot of sections to cover the specific scope of work, minor scope of work, and it’s really detrimental to communication. Things are being lumped together that should not be lumped together. It becomes confusing on the project site as well as for pricing for construction.
Laura: Thank you. We also found that there was a significant number of owners that simply provide Division 00 & 01 without any guide specifications or any more narrative. So when the owners actually own all these sections, they simply don’t provide any early input on and it has cascading consequences to part one and part three of the technical specs for the design firms.
So it does not provoke very efficient or effective coordination for the downstream of the documents either, and it also adds a lot of time and cost to the projects as well. When Janet and I were talking about putting this together, I knew what Division 00 and Division 01 documents were, I didn’t understand necessarily know they had a cascading effect because I’m not spec writer, but I do know about cost of what happens when people have to add to the time. So I asked her to explain it to me and I loved her explanation and Janet, would you mind reiterating that conversation that we had about how it has a cascading effect in part 1 and 3 of the technical specs?
Janet: Yes, indeed. Division 00 is procurement and bidding documents. So those are generally documents that are provided to the contractor or CM in order to price the project. The Division 01, which is general requirements, supplements the general conditions of the contract, whether that be a standardized contract by AIA or HACDC, or whether the owner has standardized contracts. Division 01 then takes the references from that and expands upon that for this particular project, such as submittal requirements, request for substitution, administration of the contract, closeout requirements, for the entire project.
As I mentioned in the section format, there are three parts. The first part is called general, and that expands upon and defines particular requirements that have been addressed in Division 01, but talks about very specific requirements for the products, material, systems, and assemblies that are in that particular section, such as what are the particular submittals for wall panels?
What are the warranties that are required for flooring? And so on.
So if the part one general in the technical section conflicts with the requirements in Division 01 general requirements, then you have confusion, change orders, and perhaps the owner or facility manager is not getting the compliance with the intent for the facility that they wanted.
Does that cover what you want?
Laura: Thank you. It did. Thank you. I have to admit there’s many times where I’m in meetings with owners and I hear input from facilities all the time that is either not represented or is communicated but not represented in their documents. So I appreciate you sharing that because it made sense after many meetings I’ve been in.
And so that get’s us to the next one, about the significant number of owners that are providing only narratives, but not any guide specifications. And I would say that’s where the facilities partner input is not very well represented and could be represented much better through guide specifications, and it does become very problematic with the life cycle. And even in some cases, I was just recently out at a public school system, where there was a vendor who came in and tried to offload some chemical products. And I didn’t think anything of it when he told me what the substitution was, but I didn’t realize what the impact was just on something as simple as like a Clorox bleach.
In a school environment, they have to be very sensitive to what they can use and what kids might be allergic to, so they vet those products very carefully, and so not having guide specifications, not that Clorox bleach would be in a guide spec. There was another one about rollers and overhead doors, but nevertheless it has a big impact on what they can do when they’re maintaining those facilities and they’re important.
Janet: It doesn’t have to be an exhaustive guideline. Sometimes entities think that these have to be absolutely exhaustive, but they don’t. But they do need to address specific requirements that perhaps have legal ramifications for the owner or the users of the facility.
Laura: Absolutely. The last thing thing that we’ve seen is more like what we call a path to procurement, where it’s just some cut sheets that are put inside of the guidelines and guide specs, which is not really a place where they belong at that point. And sometimes we see them with distributors names on them, and that’s certainly not ideal. You’d want to get directly to the manufacturer. It’s not really set up to be for construction documents for a design team to be able to use and translate into project specifications.
Let’s move on to the current challenges that we have in the marketplace right now, current situation aside. There’s a real shortage of spec writers and consultants in spec writing. It’s very difficult to find and really sadly, we have a lack of young people entering the industry and lack of trades. Working with some of the owners I’ve been working with over the last few years, I’ve found that they’re trying to train young people and they’re just not interested in sitting there trying to manually update a bunch of word documents. So we put them on our system and they’re happy to take it over, and we even invented it with a joystick mode.
And we have increased pressure right now, where people who didn’t typically write specs or enforce standards are now having to do that. We’re having project managers who are actually now having to be put into that role because we don’t have enough people to manage it. And then we also have that the owners can’t afford to increase time and cost on projects, and without including facilities, all we’re doing is now increasing the budgets of facilities and operating expenses, which I can tell you working at RSMeans, that’s not an option.
Then we also have the manual QA/QC with Word documents, and then you know, having them across a lot of shared drives makes it very hard to keep up with. So let’s talk about a little bit of the importance of these documents, and I came up with this chocolate cake analogy as I was trying to understand the importance of all these documents and how things happen.
So let’s start with a simple analogy about chocolate cake. So let’s start with pretending that the owner is a building or a project, and that building or project is now a chocolate cake with lava in the middle. Project is typically started when they hire a firm, an outside firm. The owner will state what they want, and they’ll say “Mr. or Mrs. Architect, we want to have chocolate cake with lava in the middle.
The architect on the project now starts to design to that owner’s intent, to provide visual and written instructions for what that owner wants. Right now those two sources of truth are typically done in Revit with a model and also with some project specifications. Now the GC has been given these instructions, they’ve been given the model or they’ve been given some sort of drawings to work from. And hopefully we get to the end where we have a general contractor who has produced the owner’s vision of a chocolate cake with lava in the middle.
Now what happens if we don’t have it exactly that way? What happens if we have an owner that says they envisioned a dark chocolate cake with lava in the middle, but gluten-free, but didn’t actually spell that out?
So what we have right now is we have no design guidelines or standards. They’re not updated. We certainly don’t have any guide specifications. Now the architect is free to interpret that however they wish because they haven’t been given clear enough instructions or updated instructions.
So now they can start looking at building out a dark chocolate cake, they can do a vanilla or they can do a red velvet. Their sources of truth are still going to be the same, they’re going to work from a Revit model and they will produce some project specifications. And since we didn’t get anything that told us, that was updated that said that there was a gluten allergy, we are now working with enriched flour.
So now we get the contractor building exactly what they were given, and they’ve got a vanilla cake with vanilla lava in the middle, and that is not exactly what the owner envisioned. Now I realize that in this analogy, this is a little bit of an exaggeration, but it’s also intended to be simplified and exaggerated so that you know somewhere in here there was a process for change orders and there was a lot of back and forth to make that vanilla cake not necessarily happen.
So, let’s see if we could have eliminated that all together by working differently. We have an owner that now has oh, I forgot one last thing. We also forgot that we had some facilities input and that was the fact that we were allergic to nuts. So we can’t have almond flour.
So in our analogy we’re now going to start to see, how does it work when we have an owner who has design guidelines? Those guidelines tell us that the owner is envisioning dark chocolate cake with dark chocolate lava, but guide standards tell us it has to be gluten-free and there’s an almond allergy.
So now we can take that one step further because we now have facilities input. We can say we have Division 02 for instance, and I know all of you on the phone who might be design professionals are probably laughing and that’s okay. We have dark chocolate, we have a place for lava dark chocolate, and then we also have a place in our guide specifications for no almond flour.
So now what do we get with the design professionals? Okay. So now we know where we can start off with. Let’s go ahead and take this one step further.
We can now translate and take those guide specifications as the sources of truth where we can now say, okay, if we’re doing performance requirements, we now have the option to say we have rice flour, we have gluten flour, or coconut flour.
And we can take it another step further, and say if we have actually brand-specific, and maybe we’re a private owner, we can say what brands do we particularly like. And when all of these things come together, the guide specifications as mentioned earlier can be intended to be strictly followed word for word or in this example, gluten free and nut free flour, no deviations. Or they can be performance requirements as long as the design professional specifies a product that performs to the standard that the owner provided. Then there shouldn’t be an issue.
The guide specification for gluten-free is a performance requirement and the design professional is free to select any number of products that fit that performance standard in this example.
In this example though, the design guidelines are descriptive and describe the owner’s intent, and they want dark chocolate cake with dark chocolate lava in the middle, gluten-free, with note of a nut allergy.
So in this case, we get to the point where the contractor has now built our project, and we ended up with the right cake, with all the right instructions that have translated from the very beginning with design guidelines, through to the standards, guide specifications translated over into either performance or brand-specific project specifications.
The Future of Design Standards and Master Guide Specifications
So let’s talk about the future of design standards and guide specifications. What we did with SpecLink was put all of this in a database.
So now it’s in a place where you can easily search and find a format to where it’s standardized from design guidelines all the way through to the standards through to the guide specifications to now sharing it to a point where you can now work together with your design professionals in a collaborative cloud environment where everybody is editing from the same location.
The owner typically has their own place within the cloud where they have their design standards. They invite a design firm in to be able to update their standards. That’s a very common practice right now and we’ll be talking about that in our next webinar with Perkins and Will, and then you also have the opportunity to share.
Once you have your guide standards and your guide specifications set up you now share that project with another outside firm and they now have editing rights to now be able to work within one instance, and everybody is working from the same place. And no more sharing on shared drives and trying to now get to a place where we can be more efficient and streamlined.
And with that, I’ll see, Janet did I miss anything? Or is there something more we can cover?
Janet: No, I think it’s been very thorough. This also contributes to seamless communication, not just between the owner, facility manager, and the design professional but this also goes to particular consultants that may be contracted either by the owner, facility manager, or by the design professional. It contributes to standardized format, so it’s easy to find information. It’s also easy to update design standards and slide those into master guide specifications. It’s all about communication and clarity.