Making the Most of your Construction Specification Documentation – an Interview with Brian Murphy

Well written specification documents are a very important tool in the sales and marketing of construction products. Developing standard specification clauses provides a means of saving the specifier time, enabling easy inclusion and ensuring that a construction product is correctly described as the manufacturer’s original intention.

With thought, specification documents can also be written to minimise the opportunity for specifications to be value engineered out of the project by the quantity surveyor or substituted by the contractor’s buying department.

Reviewing each architect’s project or practice specification document allows you to become the trusted advisor and custodian to the specification. Tidying up old clauses, updating old information and ensuring key clauses are retained or reinstated.

We asked Brian Murphy for his thoughts on how best to approach your review. A technician and architect by training, Brian started writing specifications for Competitive Advantage in 2016 and joined the team in 2017.


Q: What is the best approach to take when reviewing construction specification documentation?

A: If you are used to writing marketing, promotional or technical literature the terminology you use for contract specification could be wrong.

“Marketing can be described as optimistic prose, whilst specifications as staccato facts and figures.”

Brochures are often promotional (e.g. might use ‘could’), technical literature is often guidance (e.g. uses ‘should’) whilst specifications need to be instructional for contracts (e.g. might use ‘shall’). Specification clauses often need rewriting to change guidance into instructions. Specifications can also be described as poetic in their clarity, precision and brevity; okay I admit perhaps only between specification writers!”

Having an independent review of the specification may highlight where the specification terminology can be improved and any ambiguity tightened up. Seeking out all relevant but missing information and searching for inconsistencies is essential. Highlighting them and seeking the manufacturer’s guidance on the correct answer is next. The aim must be to have the correct information included in the specification.


Q: Are there any quick steps that can be taken to improve construction specification documents?

A: Starting sentences with ‘The contractor shall’ is more often than not redundant, because the whole specification is aimed at the contractor or sub-contractor. Its removal and starting the following text with a capital letter is a really simple change that usually works, but care needs to be taken to ensure the remaining sentence is complete.

Truthfully though a lot of time needs spending to seek out ambiguity, with careful consideration on rewording sentences to amend them; strip out the woolliness and turn prose into staccato to be more precise.

A typical specification document should contain:

o  Manufacturer with all contact details

o  Access to supplier network, if not direct

o  Product Name and model numbers

o  Materials, ingredients, recycled % or composites, grades/alloys

o  Finish, Colour, Colour reference system (RAL BS), gloss level

o  Surface textures, direction, natural variation limits,

o  Products, accessories and system assemblies/build-ups

o  Sizes, weights, density, other distinguishing properties

o  Technical Performance (ISO, CEN, BS, BSI Kitemark, BBA, ETA, etc)

o  Environmental and/or Health Performance

o  Test evidence, Certificates, Accreditations, Labels

o  Workmanship, Sequence, Tolerances

o  Guarantee, scope, limits, years, provisos.

A good specification gives a clear indication of the levels of quality expected – quality of materials, workmanship and any relevant standards to be met. A specification really is the only way to properly capture this information. So there is not shortcut.


Q: What errors should be avoided when creating construction specification documents?

A: Including ‘to manufacturers requirements and recommendations’ is not helpful, when the installation starts going wrong, the literature is rarely available to-hand on site, better to have it in the specification

I would also recommend the removal of “greenwash”, today there is even guidance from ISO 14021 on how to avoid it in manufacturer’s claims. Determine what can legitimately be claimed based on robust data and importantly ensure carbon reduction data finds its way into the specification.


Q: How best can the construction manufacturer ensure they include the correct information in specification documents?

A: If you have gone to the expense of obtaining a British Board of Agrément Certificate then that time, effort and expense must not be lost. The Certificate includes critical installation requirements that need to be in the contract specification, to ensure a competent installation and provide the specifier with the assurance of BBA compliance to maintain their Professional Indemnity Insurance intact.

BBA, ETA and other Certificates provide the fact and values to populate the specification and helps to avoid ‘many’, ‘very’ and other imprecise and unenforceable words.


Q: What other aspects should not be overlooked when reviewing construction product specification?

A: Your construction product specification will rarely be standalone. More often it will be merged into a project specification by the project specification writer; so its language ideally is consistent with the library of specification templates that theirs’ was developed from. So your specification documents need to be: complete, concise, correct, clear; present tense, imperative mood, gender-free, terse, lack of woolliness, logical, best-practice approach. Care must also be taken to avoid contradiction with the Preliminaries templates so that neither document undermines each other.

Ideally when reviewing your specification documentation you should view all of your information surrounding the specification. This is important as sometimes it highlights a need to review and correct them all, for consistency.


Further information:

Brian, as our expert specification writer collates relevant information from your construction product literature, test certificates, accreditations, guarantees and installation requirements. Converting this data and advice into requirements and instructions for a comprehensive, robust, well written specification.

Construction Product Specification Writing


Further reading: