The Future of Specifications

by Sheldon Wolfe, RA, CSI, CCS, CCCA

Once simply a time-intensive and barely adequate means of telling a contractor what to do, construction documents will have real and continuing value to the owner as they begin to address the owner's needs



The future of specifications - and construction documents in general - is of obvious interest to specifiers, but it will also affect everyone in construction. Any change in the way specifications are produced will impact the entire construction industry. The role of the specifier has changed little in the past fifty years; many changes are related more to process than results:

  • Many specifiers used to begin their careers as clerks. Specifiers today often have professional education.

  • Specifiers used to write their own specifications. Today we have several commercially produced master guide specification libraries.

  • Fifty years ago there was no common standard for specifications sequence, content, or format. Today we have standards promulgated by CSI.

  • Production tools evolved from typewriters to mainframe computers to personal computers.

  • Editing evolved from redlining to word-processing, to question-and-answer systems.

Some things have not changed.

  • There are relatively few dedicated specifiers. Engineers write their own specifications.
  • It is difficult for a single person to completely understand all aspects of construction documents.
  • Specifiers are sometimes seen as a necessary evil rather than an integral part of quality assurance and document production.
  • Appearance takes precedence over performance. Project managers often do not understand products or the consequences of their decisions about contract documents.
  • The relationship between specifier and supplier is essential; neither party can be abused.

forecast: unsettling and stormy, followed by improved conditions

Construction documents may soon change significantly. CAD vendors have long promised that specifications, material quantities, and other information will be produced directly from drawing files. Recent changes in technology may make good on the promise.

The importance of construction documents will increase as they address the needs of the owner. Once simply a time-intensive and barely adequate means of telling a contractor what to do, construction documents will have real and continuing value to the owner.

Think of construction information not as a set of paper documents, but as an electronic construct that contains the accumulated knowledge of the owner, design professional, contractor, and suppliers. It will be the "single document" that we now only pretend to believe in.

Something akin to Internet browsers will use the construct to produce documents, tables, graphs, or details of any part of a facility as required. When the project is complete, the owner will incorporate the information into a master file for operation and maintenance. And when the next project comes along, the design professional will get information that truly reflects existing conditions.

This presents an opportunity for someone to integrate all of the information, and to make it easily usable by contractor and owner. If some profit-making company - Microsoft, for example - creates an electronic system that addresses all of these issues, it will quickly become the industry standard, sold directly to owners, who will require design professionals to use it.

Specifiers can anticipate these changes, or they can ignore them - and be displaced. Similarly, CSI can anticipate the coming changes and maintain its position as the organization that sets the standards for construction information, or it can ignore them - and be displaced.

Work on the Overall Construction Classification System (OCCS) and changes to MasterFormat are steps in the right direction. Those members who interfere with those efforts in a narrow-minded attempt to maintain the status quo do all of us a disservice; they might just as well argue for restoring the dominance of Tyrannosaurus Rex.

2001 Sheldon Wolfe, RA, CSI, CCS, CCCA, 
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