Should ‘Spec’ Be A Four Letter Word?

The good, the bad and the ugly aspects of them.

Should ‘Spec’ Be A Four Letter Word?

In the AV industry, the term “spec” is one of those loosely used terms that frequently is misunderstood. Spec is the common short name for “specifications.” For anyone involved in the formal construction industry, having an accurate understanding and appreciation for specs is a must for avoiding costly and legal consequences, both during and after construction.  Should ‘Spec’ be a four letter word?

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Specifications are the written instructions that accompany the drawings on construction projects. On typical projects, they make up the bulk of what is regarded as the project manual, and can be several thousand pages. In the United States, these specifications typically are structured using the Construction Specifications Institute’s (CSI) MasterFormat. This numbering scheme divides and organizes specs into divisions and then into sections, using typical demarcation points between types of work. The audiovisual portion makes up a small part of the overall spec, but often may relate to several other sections.

Specifications contain instructions and criteria for the construction process that cannot be conveyed effectively on drawings. This often addresses such things as contractor qualifications; installation standards; and requirements for substitutions, warranties, system performance and client training. Specs provide a mutual agreement between a contractor and owner for what is expected to be delivered on a project. The more specific they are, the better job they do at protecting both entities from misaligned expectations throughout the project.

Unfortunately, the rigid and legal nature of the specifications is viewed often as unnecessarily restrictive by contractors. The AV industry has a problem of being inconsistent in the enforcement of the requirements in specifications. Some consultants place quite rigid, and oftentimes ridiculous, requirements in specs as a power move. Then those requirements may or may not be enforced.

This has created a difficult bidding environment for contractors. Do they bid the project anticipating delivering the systems as specified, at the risk that other bidders will assume a relaxed process where the bid is not enforced? Or do they assume a risk and low bid with the hopes that they won’t be enforced? Because this problem has become all too prevalent, and due to the increased competition with bidding, many contractors have opted to assume the more relaxed route and hope the rigid requirements will not be enforced.

For many contractors, the spec is seen as an evil tool used by consultants to wield power over them when things go south on a project. The reasons behind this type of mindset are understood easily and, unfortunately, are valid. Consultants bear much of the responsibility for this problem and need to be the ones to effect change.

Rigid parameters in themselves are not a bad thing, as long as they actually are relevant to overall system performance. The most commonly abused area is that of system testing. It is highly beneficial to clearly spell out up front which benchmarks will be used to validate the system’s performance in accordance with the original design intent.

However, many times, the requested tests border on absurd, requiring such things as measurements of actual component performance independent of the system or asking for the dampening inside loud speakers to be altered from what the manufacturer designed. When contractors find tests such as these requested, it compromises the credibility they place on the entire spec. Measurable benchmarks should be specified only if they will, indeed, be enforced.

Many contractors involved in design/build work never even issue a true spec, because there is a desire to minimize the requirements placed on them. The spec, however, is an essential component in expressing to the client the full scope of what is to be delivered on their project. It should lay out the quality parameters and requirements for the installation. Without agreeing to measurable criteria upfront, there is no benchmark by which a system’s performance can be judged.

Contractually, specs and drawings carry equal weight and importance as part of a contract. They should complement each other and function as one combined governing set of information. Although some firms simply choose to disregard or place little stock in the spec, it is, nevertheless, an integral part of their contract and should be taken seriously. Specs form the framework for validating the quality of an installation and, thus, should be promoted by consultants and contractors alike.

Written by Tony Warner, President of Phase Shift Consulting
Originally Published in Sound & Communication