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Computers are wonderful things that help us greatly with our work, as those of us who worked in the pre-computer age are keenly aware.

Computers eliminate so much of the mundane mind-numbing work that was a necessary part of practice.

Computers now not only eliminate the time-consuming drudgery of hand-drawing and typing with a typewriter, but also are taking the manual effort out of micro-design such as detailed planning, services coordination and more, as we see with BIM. Of course, the development of computers in the workplace will never stop, but how far do we let them replace human input?

This is very difficult to answer but the question needs to be considered. Commercial competition forces workplace computerization development, but if by some magic all the computers in the world were to vanish, we still could build wonderful, modern and complex buildings and systems just as we always have done. In this fanciful (and scary) scenario, the only thing that we would have to re-introduce is the endless manual effort.

So is an ideal modern workplace one where there is a healthy balance of manual or human effort and decision making, combined with computers doing the time-consuming and monotonous duties, or do we want to just read the newspaper and press the start button to have the computer do it all for us?

We need to think about to what extent we want to computerize our workplace. To help us with this, let’s consider the issue as it applies to only one small aspect of the workplace: project specifications.

At present, computer generated specifications are not too common but they have developed to a basic level. To look at the ramifications of computer generated specifications, let’s first look at how specifications may be best produced efficiently using current common practice.

The best way to produce a good project specification is to create it from a quality master specification. On the market now for architects, there are generally three masters available: ArchiAssist, Natspec and Specpack. Alternatively, architects may have their own master that they developed over time. Different opinions prevail about what a good master is, but many practitioners would generally agree that it needs to have all or most of the following seven criteria:

  1. Easy to set up (for instance, copy and paste the master which is a single Microsoft Word document to the job file ready to start editing)
  2. Concise (no one likes a huge spec)
  3. Easy to edit by containing only universal good quality construction detail so what is not required is deleted and what remains is the spec (project specific items are drawn or scheduled separately)
  4. Easy to read (plain English) and easy to navigate
  5. User-friendly, taking no longer than a day to produce a full-version specification for any project
  6. The master has been proofread by the master spec provider, and the document is delivered to users with a signed PDF version so everyone knows exactly what is supposed to be in the master
  7. Provides an accurate form of audit which helps provide a cross-check that all is documented to facilitate a smooth construction process for the tendered price.

Let’s pretend now that we have a computerized specification system which is capable of doing specifications automatically while we daydream. We will compare this process against the just mentioned seven criteria for good specifications.

  1. Easy to set-up: Yes, just press the button
  2. Concise: For your first spec, you don’t know unless you see an official sample of a completed spec (of a hypothetical project) delivered by the master spec provider
  3. Easy to edit by containing only universal good quality detail so what is not required is deleted and what remains is the spec: Again you don’t know until you see an official sample and see the signed master PDF version (by the master spec provider)
  4. Easy to read and easy to navigate: Again, you don’t know until you see an official sample and see the signed master PDF version (by the master spec provider) – if not, you have to commit to the specification, praying and hoping it is good
  5. User-friendly, taking no longer than a day to produce a full-version specification for any project: Yes, just press the button – but are you going to take the time and effort to visually check it and make sure it is all there (as you do with all our other documents) against the signed master PDF version, unless you trust the computer to produce on its own what is arguably the most important document in our documentation package,
  6. The master has been proofread by the master spec provider, and the document is delivered to users with a signed PDF version so everyone knows exactly what is supposed to be in the master: You should know this before you commit to the system
  7. Provides an accurate form of audit which helps provide a cross-check that all is documented to facilitate a smooth construction process: No, you just pressed the button, even if you attempt to check things, the audit has been thrown out the door – you need to completely trust the master spec provider.

Converting to a computerized automated specification system is a big move, one that BIM proponents and providers push you hard to do. However, the audit and checking process necessary for good documentation is lost with such a system.

There is at least one manual master specification system on the market that meets the seven criteria given, so is it worth the risk of not being able to audit and check (as we do always with our other documents) the most important document of all, the specification?

 
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