Specifications for architects and designers are a necessary part of life.

Without them there is great risk of creating avoidable and exacerbating inevitable on-site problems.

Traditional specifications have often been a pain to produce, however a recent emergence of a user-friendly traditionally produced specification master proves this does not need to be so.  The preconception though is that traditional specs are difficult to edit.  This, together with the advent of BIM, has left the door open for the use of automatic specifications (auto-specs).

Auto-specs sound great; do your BIM model linked to the auto-spec program and out pops your spec.  Computerized technology exists to make our lives easier as it should.  Regardless, like most things in life, there comes a point where the pushing the advantages too far may backfire.

Also, technology, amazing as it is, is sometimes unnecessary; for example, NASA took years and millions of dollars to develop a ink pen for space flight but the Russians took a pencil.  And before the advent of CAD use, design practitioners designed and documented amazing buildings, equal in complexity to today’s buildings, using only the brain, eyes and hands.

Thankfully, computer aided design and drafting is here to stay.  It eliminates the drudgery and slow pace of manual architecture.  But at what point do we rein-in computerization before we lose full control and produce unsatisfactory outcomes?  Do auto-specs mark that point of pull back?

The advantage of using auto-specs is obvious; it’s fast and easy.  But like most things, we need to examine advantages and disadvantages.  We can do this by simultaneously examining the advantages of using a user-friendly, traditional specification, because a sort of direct inverse correlation exists.

A user-friendly traditional full-version master specification means the master is concise, easy to edit (no adding-to, delete only content), and is written in plain English.  There are 3 full-version master specifications available on the market; ArchiAssist, Natspec and Specpack.  At least one of these is the user-friendly type.

Then, it is best if the Master has a control hard-copy that we can check against so we know we have the full master and we didn’t lose some detail somehow.  This control copy also presents to us in our hands what the content of the master specification is.  An auto-spec can’t do this as it is all unseen cloud data.

Then, as we edit the master specification, it reveals to us all the little things we didn’t think about or had forgotten for our project.  This micro-materials audit is a primary function of using a hard-copy master specification.

The best and surest way to edit a traditional master specification is to mark up amendments in red pen on a print-out of the master.  A good master will mainly involve just deleting content because it should contain only common universal construction detail, all that stuff that happens daily on building sites across Australia, the stuff we don’t want to think twice about and don’t want to edit because it is standard on-site protocol.  Then we put all project specific detail on the drawings and schedules where it is easy for the designer to document and the builder to find.

When we have edited the master specification, we print it out and proofread it against the marked-up print-out.  With an auto-spec, we simply receive the completed version and we might glance through it if we trust it has done the job properly.  This trust based approach is never going to be as thorough as the audit process of hard-copy editing which forces us to consider all the content.

Accepting what gets printed out with an auto-spec is like accepting the computer do our construction drawings for us after we feed it basic design plans.  This likely will never happen so why should we accept something similar with auto-specs?

Another consideration is; how easy it is to amend the auto-spec if we want to change something.  And because no full read-through edit was done, noticing something that needs amending by having a quick look through is going to be very much more random compared to the traditional process.

Finally, do auto-specs content contain specific manufacturer detail.  If so, this is a problem for several reasons.  Firstly, the detail needs to be up to date, then there is the problem of consistency if you have manufacturer detail for one or only several items and not for every other product in the project.  When this content presentation inconsistency exists, readers will wonder why it is done for one or several products and not the others and maybe a different level of care is the interpretation.

Regards this specific manufacturer detail, all that needs to be specified is that any proprietary products documented are to be built to the manufacturer’s written advice (obtained by the builder) and this advice is to be kept on-site.

So, we can see it is more than press the button and life transforms.  Computers make our lives so much easier and better but should not replace critical decision making and common sense.  It pays to think things through and not just accept face value.