Great specifications set clear expectations

July 1, 2003
Carefully crafting your specification provides the baseline—design as well as logistical and administrative issues—from which both you and the building owner will benefit.

Whether you are responsible for a project's design, administration, estimate, or construction, specifications play a significant role. Frequently, a specification is seen as synonymous with "the design." While it is true that a specification covers design requirements, an effective specification describes much more than how many cables will be installed or whether the cables will be Category 5e or Category 6. It should also include logistical and administrative guidelines.

A specification provides a clear expectation of what work is required. It's a tool to manage problems and conflicts, and to eliminate or minimize change orders. A clear specification protects both you and the building owner because the scope of work is clearly stated, the conditions that will prevail during construction are established, and expectations have their basis in the specification itself.

With a clearly stated design and an understanding of the environment, your risk associated with a nebulous specification is reduced, resulting in a fair price for the proposed work. Furthermore, a specification gives you sufficient information to complete the project efficiently.

Anatomy of a specification

A specification consists of three parts—the design, logistical issues, and administrative issues.

The design portion should list the materials to be installed or provided, and the performance parameters that must be met. In a cabling infrastructure project, for example, details should include the type of cabling components with the manufacturer's part numbers, termination hardware, equipment racks, network cabinets, cable management and cable routing material—right down to the type of labels that are to be used.

In addition to the materials that are to be used, performance parameters should be specific and measurable, such as cable channels meeting certain standards, optical-fiber links meeting a specific decibel (dB) loss, or making sure a ground point doesn't exceed a specific level of ohms. A thorough specification lets the estimating team more accurately determine the quantity of material, and the amount of labor that will be required to complete the job.

Project drawings should be included to augment the written specifications, because the written word may not clearly convey everything that needs to be said. I have reviewed drawings that are works of art, and I have reviewed simple, single-line drawings of the work required. When all is said and done, however, drawings that convey basic information clearly and concisely, providing adequate direction for you to accurately bid and build-out the work, are best. (When original project drawings are reproduced, beautiful colors can be reduced to many blue lines, while highly detailed lines often turn into a mass of too-wide fuzzy lines.) Sufficient information should be included in the written specification and project drawings so that all parties can assess material quantities and cost, as well as the installation labor.

A clear specification provides more than just a description of the material to be used and the performance parameters. Logistical and administrative parameters surrounding a project are equally important yet are commonly omitted or ignored.

Logistical parameters are conditions that may need to be faced during the construction or installation phase. Examples are environmental concerns, such as having to work around asbestos or in a cleanroom environment, parking for contractor vehicles, access to loading docks, on-site materials storage, workplace security, site access hours, and access hours for service elevators.

This list is not all-inclusive, and differs with each project. Addressing logical parameters in the specifications, typically in a general terms and conditions section, establishes expectations-and the work is bid and scheduled with these conditions in mind. This leaves less room for misunderstanding, frustration, slipping schedules, and for change order requests.

Administrative parameters set the expectations for all parties, and address such issues as how requests for information (RFI) and change orders are to be processed, how field directives will be handled (time and material, fixed fee, straight time, overtime, or double-time), and who is authorized to represent the owner's interest during construction. Administrative parameters also define critical dates, such as starting and completion, project duration, working hours, and working days (taking into account the corporate work calendar). These parameters also specify expected deliverables and when they're due, such as test results and as-built drawings.

Project coordination and management meetings also need to be included in your administrative parameters. For example, if weekly project coordination meetings will be required, specifying their number and duration will negate the need to negotiate a change order or to reset expectations. Again, establishing expectations is the key to being able to smoothly manage a project.

You may wonder if all this detail is necessary. The answer is a qualified "yes"... or, no. If you are certain that your project will end up as the system that you envision, without any problems, hitches, questions, or cost over-runs, then you probably don't need a specification. The reality is, however, all projects encounter everything from a few bumps in the road to outright disaster.

So far, we've discussed material, logistic, and administrative requirements. Now, let's take a look at what makes up a good specification. The following lists are not intended to be all-encompassing, but rather provide a feel for the issues that need to be addressed in each section.

Project design

  • Technical design: Specific type of cable, modular jacks, color and type of faceplate, etc.
  • Installation practices: Maintain bend radii, install cable supports at 60-inch intervals, terminate to 568A pin-out specifications, label faceplates.
  • Performance requirements for the installed system: Maximum dB loss on a fiber, meeting the established performance benchmarks for Category 6 cable or maximum ohms on a ground connection.
  • Project drawings: Floor plans, telecom room layouts, wall and rack elevations, riser diagrams, and labeling schemes.

Project logistics

  • Schedule: Language that defines start date, project duration and/or completion date.
  • Facility access: Normal hours of access to facilities. Procedures for after-hour access, access to loading docks and freight elevators, access (or lack thereof) to owner-provided parking.
  • Environmental issues: Work in areas containing asbestos or in cleanrooms.

Project administration

  • Change order process: Direction on how change orders will be handled, sample forms.
  • RFI process: Direction on how problems and questions are to be handled. Specify the response times of RFIs-in other words, when answers to RFIs are due.
  • Field directives: Direction on responding to field directives, define who has the authority and how costs will be handled (T&M or fixed fee, straight time, overtime, double-time), sample forms.
  • Insurance, payment terms, performance bonds, and compliance with regulations: Since these issues can represent a cost to the contractor, they should be included in the specification.

Be consistent

Just as project design, logistical, and administrative issues need to be addressed to provide a complete specification, consistency and clarity in the terms you use are important for setting expectations. A good specification will use terms consistently, not only within the written specification but also between the specification and the project drawings. Several examples include:

Should and may—These terms imply that the action is not mandatory. Use "will" whenever possible.

By others— Define "others" since it can refer to other contractors, vendors, or the owner.

Provide—Differentiate from "furnish." For example, you may define "provide" to include the procurement, installation, termination, labeling, and testing. This differs from "furnish."

Furnish—Differentiate from "provide." Typically, furnish refers to providing materials only, such as in "furnish 100 patch cables." This would be understood to mean providing a box of patch cables for the owner's use.

Coordinate—With whom?

Outlet—Jack? Modular connector? Faceplate? Define it, be specific, and be consistent.

Accuracy is in the details

Special attention to the following issues will result in a cleaner, more accurate specification:

  • Quantities—Decide when the owner will take responsibility for establishing quantities as opposed to you having to determine quantities. For example, the owner may want to establish a specific number of network cabinets or relay racks to support equipment that is not in your scope of work. At times, the owner may find it advantageous to require you to determine the quantities of connectors, outlets, patch panels, etc., based on project drawings.
  • Labeling—Specify how you want the labeling to look. Specify that machine labeling is required and that a particular font and font size will be used. Provide an example of the labeling, if possible (project drawings should include this information).
  • Be consistent—If a specification uses different terminology to refer to the same item, there is room for misunderstanding—leading to confusion, project delays, and change orders.
  • State things once—State work that is .part of the scope once and in a logical order. Redundancy results in a specification that can be difficult to understand and to edit since all occurrences of the directive must be changed.
  • Deliverables—These frequently include test results, as-builts, and product submittals. The timing of delivbles is critical to the implementation and timely cutover to a new system. Product submittals provide a record of what has been installed. Specifications need to be clear on how and when product submittals are required for approval and comments. Specify all dates. Test results and as-builts are frequently delivered at or even after owner occupancy. Yet, these documents are used for cable (CMS) and in generating work orders to ensure telephones, handsets, and computers get to the correct destinations.
  • Omnibus statements—A specification should not rely on omnibus statements, such as "the contractor is to familiarize himself with the project site and take steps to meet all conceivable contingencies..." Omnibus statements are ambiguous at best and difficult to enforce.
  • Specifying dates and hours—Use "calendar days" rather than "days" or "work days." Provide specific working hours rather than "normal working hours" since these may not be the same for all people. State your corporate work calendar, identifying holidays, working days, and working hours.
  • Dates—Specify when something has to be furnished or provided.
  • Security of material—Identify who has responsibility for securing the items (furnished material, installed material, tools, etc.). For example, 100 patch cords are "furnished" to the owner. When is the material to be delivered? Who has the responsibility to safeguard the material?
  • Active versus passive statements—Write a specification using an active rather than passive voice. Note the difference between the statements: "Six patch panels will be provided" and "Provide six patch panels." The second sentence is direct. The passive sentence (the first example) begs the question of who will provide the patch panels—the contractor or the owner?
  • Non-essential information—Limit the information in the specification to the project at hand. For example, don't insert details about fiber cabling if the project does not include fiber.

You get what you spec

Setting expectations is critical in all projects. The old adage of "you get what you spec, not what you expect" is still true. A clear specification provides the design, logistical, and administrative information that impact the project schedule and cost.

Following these guidelines will result in projects that are more easily controlled, have fewer cost overruns, and will be consistently completed on time and on budget.

David Madsen, RCDD, Madsen & Associates (Pleasant Hill, CA), has been writing project specifications for the past 12 years.

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