Sunday, September 30, 2012

Revenge of the Specifiers

(*not a real specifier)

Here it is, the evening of the last day of #SPECtember(1) , and I’ve only just completed this blog post devoted to the importance of construction specifications. I also missed CONSTRUCT, held earlier this month in Phoenix, AZ where thousands dedicated to the improvement of construction communications gathered to share and learn from one another. I’m disappointed I didn’t attend CONSTRUCT and meet members of the online community the Construction Specifications Institute has so vigorously nurtured. I do have next year’s edition of CONSTRUCT in Nashville to look forward to. 

There is no doubting the importance of proper documentation and communication of construction information in the successful realization of building projects. This has always been true but the formation of the Construction Specifications Institute in 1948 spurred the promulgation of consistent standards and formats for written specifications. Since then, the appearance of these standards and their widespread acceptance has been essential to the continued growth of the construction industry and has brought a semblance of order to projects of ever-increasing complexity. 

Despite the widely acknowledged value of construction specifications, there are some who still fail to understand their importance as essential components within an entire suite of construction documents. Worse yet, there is a worrisome minority of architects who dismiss specifications as the unnecessary busywork of a wonkish class of hopelessly unhip nerds who lacked the social skills and talent to become “A-list” architects. 

A case in point is a sardonic blog post by the uber-cool and popular team at BUILD LLC deriding specifications writers: 

. . . [specifications don’t] matter because nobody reads them; the architects on a project don’t read them, the general contractor doesn’t read them, we’re not even convinced that the spec writers read them. For anyone who claims they read them, we’d assert that type of reading is actually called “skimming”, and that they’re “skimming” only bits anyway. . . 

. . . It’s never been determined whether spec writers were born dull and subsequently write superbly boring specs, or if years of writing specs makes them dull. It’s a chicken and egg conundrum that modern science simply hasn’t taken on yet. In our experience, spec writers are not only fun-suckers, but they also spend a great deal of their day being grumpy. We know this from our time working at a large corporate firm, whose name shall remain… well NBBJ. The spec writers were always holed away in the basement, probably because nobody wanted them pooping all over their great story about what they did last weekend. The only reason for a young optimistic architect to venture down to the basement and visit the spec writers was self-flagellation. So there they were, in the basement writing specs all day. No daylight and no office talk around the water cooler –probably because they knew they’d just poop all over each other’s stories. But we digress, where were we? Ah yes, specs are boring and nobody reads them.” 

Let me acknowledge that I am a fan of BUILD LLC’s superb design work and enjoy reading their blog. That being said, their mocking of specification writers certainly raised my hackles, no matter how tongue-in-cheek its intent may have been. I responded by commenting directly upon BUILD’s post: 

“The quality and in turn the usefulness of specifications, like any other aspect of a design project, is largely dependent upon the skill and aptitude of the person writing them. Think of specifications as you would computer software: garbage in, garbage out. 

Just as you would dedicate time and care to an elegant detail, you would be well-served to craft elegantly written specifications. By that I mean specs that are up-to-date, free of conflicts, economical of means, thoroughly coordinated, and elegantly concise. 

It’s all a matter of perspective: Embrace the zen of specifications. 

The standardization of written construction documents by the Construction Specifications Institute and other industry organizations has vastly improved how data in specifications form is organized and universally understood. “Skimming” is fine if it allows you to quickly find crucial information in the right place, where you expect to find it. 

In my experience, contractors do read specifications. The owner’s representatives and project managers I work with read them. My firm takes pride in producing well-coordinated, well-written project manuals. 

Fun-suckers? You sound like “mean girls” who find pleasure in making fun of those they deem to be members of lesser high school castes. C’mon, you’re better than that . . . 

Randy Nishimura, AIA, CCS (Certified Construction Specifier)”  

I admit that my defensiveness stemmed in part from an entrenched resentment I have for people who think they’re better than others . . . but let’s not go there (and perhaps I should see a therapist). Instead, let’s focus on the underlying fallacy that nobody reads specifications. 

What I didn't point out in my retort is that architecture and construction are increasingly dependent upon the effective conveyance of design intent. Good specifications are worth their weight in gold. Our world is only becoming more complex and litigious, not less, and achieving a desired end is commensurately more difficult. The bottom line is that written specifications are crucial to the creation of clear, concise, complete, and correct construction documents. It is neither possible nor necessarily a good idea to cram everything required to adequately describe a  complex project onto drawings alone. Even with the advent of Building Information Modeling, I cannot imagine written specifications ever disappearing completely. If anything, ever more sophisticated BIM technologies will further validate the importance of written specifications as a vital component of each project’s database. 

Specifiers themselves are well-positioned to become gatekeepers for the digital information that everyone—architects, engineers, contractors, and facility managers—will rely upon during design, construction, and beyond. These “knowledge managers” will help realize the full potential of BIM and perhaps tilt the project-control pendulum back toward architects, who have abdicated so much in recent decades to others more willing to assume the mantle of master builder. 

Should this scenario play itself out, experienced specifications writers would again be regarded among the most valued and senior members of architectural practices. Rather than fated for obsolescence as some in the industry are predicting, specification writing and construction information management may be the sector best poised for significant growth within the architectural profession. Specifiers are and will continue to be the indispensible managers of a project’s DNA—the information essential to its successful realization. 

I predict more and more of those up-and-coming in the architectural profession will recognize that a career dedicated to the management of a project’s knowledge base can be both intellectually and professionally rewarding, not to mention lucrative. Specifying would be cool because with knowledge comes power. 

Imagine that prospect: Specification writers occupying the hub of power and influence. No longer would specifiers be regarded merely as nerdy specialists. Specifications geek would be chic. Membership in the Construction Specifications Institute would be de rigueur for everyone whose work revolves around construction information. 

Such is the future I foresee for construction specifiers. I’m ahead of the curve because I already understand the importance of knowledge management. I may be out of my element making self-serious small talk about faddish neo-modernism at cocktail parties (earnestly staged for Dwell magazine) but I do know my way around a Project Manual. Specifications matter; soon enough even those who now fail to understand this will come around and realize how much excellent specification writing contributes to the most successful design projects.   

(1) The Construction Specifications Institute declared September “Spectember.”(Hashtag: #SPECtember) The point was to remind the industry of the value of good specifications through members’ blog posts and communications through CSI’s various social media channels.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

September AIA-SWO Monthly Chapter Meeting Recap

The Colleague’s Choice Awards have been an adjunct to the People’s Choice program for several years now; however, for 2012, AIA-Southwestern Oregon changed things up a bit. Rather than showcase the People’s Choice winners(1) as has been the tradition, the September chapter meeting featured presentations by the architects responsible for the three projects receiving the most Colleague’s Choice votes. 

The primary beneficiaries of the focus of upon the Colleague’s Choice Award winners were those of us who attended the chapter meeting. We learned about the process, inspiration, and challenges confronted by the design teams. We discussed Architecture with a capital “A,” in that unique language architects are trained to master. It’s too seldom that we get such an opportunity to truly gather as colleagues and be rewarded by insights into our peers’ best work. 

Here are this year's AIA-SWO Colleague's Choice Award winners:

Pacific NW Publishing - 2fORM Architecture (photo by Richard Shugar, AIA, LEED-AP)

2fORM Architecture - Pacific NW Publishing
Turning a downtown eyesore into a modern and distinctive building, 2fORM stripped the two-story, 18,000 s.f. building down to its structure. The renovation added new M/E/P systems, creatively addressed the functional needs, and added a needed dose of color and creative vitality to an important downtown site. 

LCC Building 10 Adaptive Reuse - Rowell Brokaw Architects (photo by Eleni Tsivitzi)

Rowell Brokaw Architects with Opsis Architecture - LCC Building 10 Adaptive Reuse
This remodeling of the former 28,000 s.f. hangar for the Aviation program creates a new home for the Lane Community College Art School and RTEC (Regional Technical Education Consortium, which provides career/technical courses no longer available at high schools). 

The tight budget required limited, but strategic design decisions. Elements such as the steel stairs, railings, and ramps supply the finer-grained, human-scaled detail to the renovation. The character is explicitly industrial and in a few places expresses a whimsy and toughness found in the best buildings devoted to teaching visual arts and creative technology programs. 

PIVOT Architecture Offices (photo by Jeff Amram Photography)

PIVOT ArchitecturePIVOT Architecture Offices
PIVOT’s generative parti for its sparkling new office space was the contrast between the Broadway Commerce Center’s old shell and a sculptural new insertion at the core of the 8,500 s.f. plan. The design’s signature stroke is a core element housing enclosed meeting rooms, copy rooms, and the office’s entry lobby. PIVOT employed CNC milling to emboss a greatly enlarged and rasterized image of a 1982 pen and ink hand sketch by Eric Gunderson onto the core area’s cladding. 

The three winners shared several traits in common.(2) Most notably, all are adaptive reuses of tired, older buildings that had outlasted their original programs and yet had many years of useful life remaining in them. There is a direct correlation between reuse of existing buildings and a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, degradation of the natural environment, and overuse of precious natural resources. In this regard, these three projects are truly sustainable. 

Each of the winning projects also honored the essence of the original architecture. These were buildings that clearly possessed architectural virtues worthy of preservation and extension in the service of the new designs. 

PIVOT principal Toby Barwood, AIA stated how difficult it is to make something look simple and conversely how easy it is to make a design unnecessarily complicated. The genius of the three Colleague’s Choice Award winners is that they appear so effortless in execution. We all know the truth is that it takes consummate skill to pull off this winning effect. It’s clear to me that our chapter can boast design talent on par with the best found anywhere in the country. 

Congratulations to Rowell Brokaw Architects, PIVOT Architecture, and 2fORM Architecture. I look forward to the continued raising of the bar, with the expectation being no less than all of us striving to push the envelope by producing our best work with each successive project. 

(1) The chapter announced the winners of the People’s Choice Awards at the September 7 City Club of Eugene meeting.
(2) The Colleague’s Choice Awards committee did not identify first, second, or third place awards. All three projects receive equivalent recognition and are only distinguished from the other entrants by having received more of their colleagues’ votes.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Titan Court

Titan Court - September 18, 2012 (my photo)

Titan Court, the student housing component of the new Lane Community College Downtown Campus project, officially opened to much fanfare this past Tuesday. Hundreds attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony, enjoyed refreshments, and toured the facility.

As chronicled on this blog, I’ve been a member of the large project team responsible for the design and construction of the college’s new downtown campus. So it was particularly satisfying to arrive at opening day, a true milestone, one which may be remembered years from now as a tipping point toward the resurgence of downtown Eugene.

For those who are not close to the project, it’s difficult to appreciate how much vision, tireless effort, good fortune, and planning were necessary for its realization. It was a mere 17 months ago that the site upon which Titan Court now stands was an eyesore, one of the forsaken “pits” that blemished the downtown core. Kudos to Lane Community College for its commitment to and substantial investment in our urban center. The vibrancy that the residents of Titan Court will bring to the neighborhood is certain to pay dividends in the future by attracting additional investment and energy to the heart of the city.

Lane Community College president Mary Spilde addresses the audience at the Titan Court grand opening ceremony (my photo)

While my firm, Robertson/Sherwood/Architects, serves as Architect-of-Record and handles the bulk of construction administration duties, much of the design credit for Titan Court goes to our collaborators, Pyatok Architects and the SRG Partnership. We’re very thankful we’ve enjoyed such an outstanding association with these talented firms.

Thanks too to Lease Crutcher Lewis LLC, the project’s construction manager/general contractor, and to Gerding Edlen, the project manager. Everyone involved with the project—design team, builders, project managers, and client—truly worked together to produce Titan Court.

Of course, we’ve only completed half of the Downtown Campus; the Academic Building remains under construction. Its grand opening is scheduled for early January, and everyone is looking forward to similar success and celebration at that time. Ultimately, the project will be a LEED-certified (Gold for Titan Court, Platinum for the Academic Building) showcase for Lane Community College, a paragon of sustainability and urbanism. I’ll continue to blog on the project’s progress, so stay tuned.

Kitchen of a 4-bedroom unit (photo by David Loveall Photography)

Here’s an excerpt from the college’s news release on the occasion of Titan Court’s grand opening:   

. . . The opening marks years of careful planning, effective partnerships and the support of both the business community and the citizens of Lane County as a whole.

“This is an exciting milestone in the Downtown Campus project,” said Lane President Mary Spilde. “This will bring new residents to downtown. This supports our mission of student success and contributes to the success of downtown, our business community, and the entire college community.”

“It has truly been thrilling to watch Titan Court go up and we couldn’t be more excited about our new neighbors,” said Eugene Public Library Services Director Connie Bennett.

Titan Court ushers in a new chapter for Lane’s growth and development as well as a significant impact on business and commerce. According to Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce President Dave Hauser, these new residents could represent an annual economic impact of nearly $1 million.

"The investment in the LCC Downtown Campus along with the influx of new residents of Titan Court will add to the critical mass needed to make our downtown successful,” said Hauser.

Many see the impact Titan Court residents will have as extending beyond new business to actually being a part of an overall effort to reclaim downtown from disuse, disinvestment and disinterest and transform it into the vibrant heart of the Eugene community.

“I think it’s great to have these new faces downtown and am very optimistic about what this means for business and for our community,” said Tom Kamis, owner of The Davis Restaurant & Bar. “We are even keeping them in mind when we set our new menu prices.” 

View of interior courtyard. Titan Court is to the left; the Academic wing is to the right (photo credit: Cory Timmons)

Vacancies remain at Titan Court. If you're a student interested in a unique downtown housing opportunity, you owe it to yourself to check out Titan Court. Eligible tenants are LCC, University of Oregon, and Northwest Christian University students. Prices are $620 per person for four-bedroom units, and $875 for studio apartments. The apartments are fully furnished, with utilities covered, cable television, Internet access, and there is an on-site laundry, community room, and shared lounges. Apply at

Friday, September 14, 2012

Stellar Apartments

Stellar Apartments (rendering courtesy of Bergsund DeLaney Architecture & Planning)

The Eugene branch of the Cascadia Green Building Council(1) invites everyone to a presentation on Thursday, September 20 about the innovative Stellar Apartments, an affordable housing project designed for St. Vincent de Paul by Bergsund DeLaney Architecture & Planning. Now under construction, the project is comprised of twelve buildings housing a total of 54 apartments. BDA designed one of the buildings to meet Passive House standards, whereas the remaining eleven buildings conform to Earth Advantage requirements. This distinction presents an opportunity to evaluate the environmental and financial tradeoffs of these different approaches. 

The research team of University of Oregon Assistant Professor Erin Moore, Solarc A-E Senior Energy Analyst Peter Reppe, and UO Graduate Research Fellow Brook Waldman performed a life-cycle assessment (LCA) of the project to evaluate whether the environmental impacts from the added insulation and materials required for Passive House are outweighed by the long-term operational energy efficiency and climate benefits.(2)  Along with Nora Cronin of St. Vincent de Paul, Sara Bergsund of BDA, and Win Swofford of the Ecobuilding Collaborative of Oregon, they will provide an overview of the project, discuss the key results from the LCA, and the lessons they’ve learned so far. 

What:  Cascadia Green Building Council presentation

When:   Noon-1:00 PM – Thursday, September 20th, 2012 

Where:   Tykeson Room, Eugene Public Library, 100 W. 10th Ave., Eugene OR
                        Please walk, bike, carpool or take a bus. 

Cost:    Free 

RSVP:  Space is limited! Phone: (541) 682-5541 or email

(1) The Eugene Branch of Cascadia generates momentum towards a sustainable built environment by facilitating education and connections. The organization hosts monthly lunchtime presentations, tours, and quarterly evening events on the latest green building topics.

(2) Funding for the study came from University of Oregon School of Architecture & Allied Arts, the UO Green Product Design Network, the City of Eugene Green Building Services, and the Eugene Water & Electric Board.


Sunday, September 9, 2012

Doubling Down on Trickle Up

“Good design trickles up,” proclaimed architect/landscape architect/UO emeritus faculty member Jerry Diethelm as first questioner during the City Club of Eugene’s September 7 meeting highlighting the winners of the 2012 AIA-Southwestern Oregon People’s & Mayor’s Choice Awards. “How do we double down on trickle up?” 

The timely allusion to Bill Clinton’s 2012 DNC speech aside, Jerry’s question elicited insightful responses from the distinguished panelists assembled to consider how well-designed built environments improve our lives. Michael Fifield, Robin Hostick, and Kaarin Knudsen praised the People’s Choice Awards program for bringing the best work produced by AIA-SWO firms(1) to the public for its consideration. The display at the Eugene Celebration engages visitors, develops their design vocabulary, and showcases design excellence. It’s apparent many of the annual street party celebrants relished the opportunity to vote for their favorite projects as over 800 submitted ballots. 

AIA-SWO and Architects Building Community definitely consider the People’s Choice Awards to be an excellent means to educate the public about architecture and urban design. It’s always a challenge for government, academia, or the design professions to impose “top-down” standards for design excellence. It’s much better for the future of our communities if all citizens develop an understanding of, recognize, and support good design (and the effort and investment necessary to realize it). Empowering non-designers with the skills to evaluate and make choices is a “trickle up” strategy. 

This year’s People’s Choice program drew 33 entrants across seven categories. The 2012 winners are as follows: 

Nir Pearlson Architect, Inc.The Hummingbird 

The Hummingbird - Nir Pearlson Architect, Inc.

Robertson/Sherwood/Architects pcBarnhart Dining Center Renovation
Barnhart Dining Center Renovation - Robertson/Sherwood/Architects pc (photo by Jamie Forsythe) 

Stangeland & Associates, Inc. - The Finishing Touch 

The Finishing Touch  - Stangeland & Associates, Inc.

Dustrud Architecture pc - The Pearl

The Pearl - Dustrud Architecture pc (photo by Peter Dustrud) 

Rowell Brokaw Architects with Opsis ArchitectureLCC Building 10 Adaptive Reuse
LCC Building 10 Adaptive Reuse - Rowell Brokaw Architects (photo by Eleni Tsivitzi) 

Nir Pearlson Architect, Inc. - River Road Mini-Home 

River Road Mini-Home - Nir Pearlson Architect, Inc. (photo by Mike Dean) 

Rowell Brokaw Architects - First on Broadway 

First On Broadway - Rowell Brokaw Architects

For the third year in a row, Eugene mayor Kitty Piercy presented her “Mayor’s Choice” awards. An enthusiastic public advocate for design excellence, sustainability, and smart growth, Kitty is a great friend of the local design community. The mayor made three selections: 

2fORM Architecture - Pacific NW Publishing

Pacific NW Publishing - 2fORM Architecture (photo by Richard Shugar, AIA, LEED-AP) 

Nir Pearlson Architect, Inc. - The Hummingbird 

The Hummingbird - Nir Pearslon Architect, Inc.

PIVOT Architecture - Willakenzie Crossing

Willakenzie Crossing - PIVOT Architecture (photo by Jeff Amram) 

Despite the occasion to recognize the PCA and MCA winners, much of the panel discussion focused on the importance of the entirety of the built environment at the scale of the city rather than upon the merits of individual projects. As Michael Fifield questioned, “how do we weave the fabric that ties everything together?” He, Robin, and Kaarin identified their favorite cities and why they chose them. Notably, they observed that the features distinguishing their favorites occur at different scales and densities, suggesting that factors other than density (and the coming together of people it engenders) are also in play. Some cities are fortunate by circumstance of their natural setting and history; others are great because of deliberate intent. Ultimately, buildings are part of the fabric that makes great places, not apart from it. 

So, what’s the takeaway from the awards presentations and the City Club panel discussion? I’d say it’s simply that local architects, landscape architects, and urban designers are doing just a bit more, year by year, to raise the public’s awareness about design excellence. Perhaps the City Club of Eugene will make a panel discussion like the one at this past Friday’s meeting a fixture on its annual calendar. If we’re smart about it, we can make everyone care about architecture in our communities. We can nurture a grassroots level of expectation for good design. We can double down on trickle up and all win. 

(1) As well as work produced by members of the Willamette Valley Section of the American Institute of Landscape Architects Oregon Chapter.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Building Community Vision

If your calendar is open at lunch this coming Friday, September 7, plan on attending the inaugural City Club of Eugene meeting for 2012-13. The meeting will feature a presentation of the winners of the 24th annual AIA-Southwestern Oregon People's Choice Awards, as well as attempt to answer the question why good design should matter to our community. Voting for the People's Choice Awards took place during last month's Eugene Celebration.

For those unfamiliar with City Club, its mission is to “build community vision through open inquiry.” The Club explores a wide range of significant local, state, and national issues and helps to formulate new approaches and solutions to problems. Club members have a direct influence on public policy by discussing issues of concern with elected officials and other policy makers. Membership is open to all.

Given City Club’s mission, its regular Friday forums are a natural fit for the promotion of design excellence. Accordingly, AIA-SWO and Architects Building Community (ABC) recognize the value of forging a cooperative and lasting relationship with City Club. 

In addition to the announcement of the People’s Choice Award winners, Mayor Kitty Piercy will announce her three favorite projects of the past year, winners of the Mayor’s Choice Award.  

Rounding out the program will be a panel discussion about how well-designed buildings improve the lives of everyone. The scheduled panelists are: Michael Fifield, FAIA, interim head of the UO’s Department of Architecture; Robin Hostick, urban planner for the City of Eugene; and Kaarin Knudsen, Associate AIA from Rowell Brokaw Architects. Following the panel's discussion will be City Club's famously robust Q & A period. 

City Club meets at noon for lunch on the top floor of the Eugene Hilton. City Club is offering AIA members the same rate that its own members enjoy: $14 for lunch or beverage and dessert for $5. Guest/Gallery admission is $5 (free for City Club members). 

If you can't make the meeting, listen to it on KLCC (89.7 FM) next Monday evening at 6:30 PM.

What: City Club of Eugene meeting: 24th ANNUAL PEOPLE’S CHOICE AWARDS…And Why it Matters to People Like You

When: Friday, September 7, 2012  11:50 am to 1:30 pm

Where: Eugene Hilton, 12th Floor Vistas Ballroom, 66 East 6th Avenue in downtown Eugene