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What challenges are facing architects today when it comes to product specification? And what can manufacturers do to help? Building Design spoke to over 300 architects to find out, including Paul Owen from BDP

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Paul Owen, technical delivery lead at BDP

In two decades at BDP, Paul Owen has worked across three core sectors – education, higher education and healthcare. Last year he took on the role of technical delivery lead, driving a more co-ordinated approach to specification and technical issues across BDP.

What are the issues currently impacting on specification and how are these changing?

With fire, issues have come to a head. We’re hoping that over the next 18 months to two years, with the drive through legislation, product information will be harmonised so you can compare like for like.

There are certain products where we ask for actual fire tests so that we can review – we typically try to avoid evaluation assessments. The issue we’ve found is working out the level of compatibility. There are systems out there where not everything is tested but it states a fire performance.

Zero carbon and wider sustainability targets will be the next area where we’ll be needing robust and easily comparable data.

How are you responding to these specification challenges?

The reforms coming related to competence give us a clear timeline to review training needs and set a clear plan for CPD and other training. The challenge with specification is getting people up the learning curve, so that they understand products and also why individual clauses are there.

Where do you turn for information on product specification issues? 

NBS Chorus and NBS Source are a good first location. We do CPD through certain suppliers – obviously they get a degree of exposure from that. We look to advisory bodies, for example, when considering cross-laminated timber, we talk to TRADA, and draw on organisations where BDP is a member, like the Centre for Window and Cladding Technology and the Association for Specialist Fire Protection.

“With fire, issues have come to a head. We’re hoping that over the next 18 months to two years, with the drive through legislation, product information will be harmonised so you can compare like for like.”

How confident are you in these sources of information?

We’re confident, given caveats. We make it clear internally that there’s a need to get primary information and that certificates of performance aren’t always enough. It is a matter of ensuring people understand where the risk is.

Through the years of design and build (D&B) we’ve had to make sure that when someone proposes an equivalent product, there is a rigorous process for selection in the first instance and then a similar process to ensure it is an acceptable equivalent.

Over the next 18 months I think there will have to be a discussion about the level of detail that’s required and the monitoring of manufacturers’ information within specifications as we take on different responsibilities stated within the Building Safety Bill.

What are the issues or topics where specification knowledge is lacking?

While we understand how NBS Chorus works, I’m not sure all the supply chain has the same understanding, and this may either lead to a misunderstanding or additional costs being included against perceived risk.

Performance-based specifications are often preferred but the time needed for a supplier to consider all the documents and make a proper tender submission isn’t always considered. That’s why some two-stage tender processes can work better.

Another grey area has been around information or design provided prior to tender. Our preference is that early-stage design service should be undertaken, paid for and warranted to make the status of this information clear.

What do you think would help improve knowledge on challenging specification issues - and how could manufacturers help? 

Sharing of test information would help the more challenging issues. Around fire, a lot of information is available through testing – but they are project-specific tests owned by clients, contractors and test houses that are not freely available.