Home Features TECHNICAL: Tips for writing a specification

At some time or other, we’ve all done it: either scanned the spec and made an assumption, in the case of responding to a tender, or been tempted to cut and paste, when writing the spec. Both actions carry huge risks that anyone in contracting would rather avoid. FIS technical manager Joe Cilia looks at what these risks are and where to look out for them.

I read recently that “specifications are crucial, as they represent what the client is buying”, which is true, but I think they also contain their expectations, even though the client may not be clear about what these expectations are. So, it’s always worth looking beyond the spec for clues.

For example, if the sales brochure for the new flats say “high-end and luxurious”, yet the spec refers to a standard that might be more suitable to the inside of a service riser, or worse, and you quote for a level 1 finish (from BS EN 13914-2), then you might just be storing up a big problem when it comes to snagging the job.

Remember that some finishes are just not right for the job, and plastering carries the heaviest expectation of them all. If you see “tape and fill”, but know that a crown of up to 3mm just won’t do, then it’s worth pointing it out, asking the question and providing an extra over cost for a skim coat so the client can make an informed choice. It will save time and money in the long term.

The key points to look out for when responding to an invitation to tender are performance, interface and workmanship.

Performance is what the product you’re installing is expected to do. In the case of a wall, it might need to hold back fire, sound or even the weight of people who might fall on it. Don’t scrimp here; you will be asked to provide evidence that your proposal meets the standards asked for. This evidence can only come from the manufacturer who has had the product tested independently.

Don’t – under any circumstances – mix and match products, unless you know they have been tested as a  system. Lives can really depend on this.

Interface. The spec should clearly describe what happens where elements of the building touch. For example, where a ceiling and a wall meet, or a slab and the head of the partition need to accommodate a live-load deflection, there should be a clear description for what’s required.

And finally workmanship, which can sometimes become separated from the performance element, will often refer to British Standards that are crucial to how the finished work will be judged and snagged.

FIS recently published a Fact File about writing a smart specification (right). Although aimed at  architects, the same points apply if you have design responsibility.

If you are writing a specification you should consider the project and avoid the default position of using the last successful iteration of a spec. Although this can save time, other elements that could be considered leading to an alternative and perhaps more successful conclusion could  be missed.

When I talk to specifiers, the two key questions are often about what it will look like and what it will cost. Yet, while you can specify the cheapest and best looking product, it may not perform, be available or meet the environmental  requirements of the client.

This is why FIS produced the Fact File ‘11 key points for writing a smart specification’. The guide brings home the message that there is a whole resource available from manufacturers who employ technical support staff whose job is to ask those questions and interpret the requirements. These resources are available to design and build contractors, too.  Manufacturers would rather be involved in helping to set a  specification than trying to unpick one where it may have gone wrong.

The digitisation of the sector will certainly change the way that  information is exchanged at all stages of a project, no more so than where BIM is being used. At the early stages, information will be asked for and provided using predefined levels of detail (LOD), concerned with what it looks like, and levels of information (LOI), concerned with what it does. This information will be available from the manufacturers in Product Data Templates (PDTs), which use a  common language and terms defined by the sector.

As technology changes the way we do business, it is being designed to ensure that information – data – is not lost as each stage of the project moves from, say, design to construct or construct to operation, but continues to grow. This change should, and could, help us to  understand ‘what the client is  buying’, but the key thing at all  stages is to ask, ask and ask again, just to be sure that you know too.


Find out more:

Joe Cilia



FIS Fact File: 11 key points for  writing a smart specification

  1. Talk to the manufacturer
  2. Performance is king (fire, sound, etc.)
  3. Consider the interface with other elements
  4. Understand the use – for now and the future
  5. Understand the budget
  6. Understand the programme and site conditions
  7. Understand the vision and client aspiration
  8. Ensure the performance and workmanship requirements and standards are clearly included
  9. Understand the implications of maintenance
  10. Understand the environmental implications

11: Don’t be afraid to specify something new


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