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.


Specologist said...

You really nailed it, Randy.

I don't know what planet the glib blogger from BUILD LLC is practicing architecture on, but it sure as hell isn't anything like the AE business here on Earth.

The blogger's approach to specifications exhibits a classic text-avoidance syndrome (actually I think it's just laziness and a lack of confidence in one's ability to read and write business documents).

Take a look at the canopy detail the blogger cited as an example of his approach to contract documents. A note refers to roof membrane, but fails to identify type. A note describes flashing by gauge, but fails to identify the metal. If this drawing wasn't accompanied by specifications, the contractor would certainly provide only the cheapest products. Maybe that's the way BUILD LLC and their clients want it to be? If so, they're unlike any client I've ever encountered.

We specifiers spend a lot of time talking to and interacting with our architect and engineer brethren to make sure the specs and the drawings convey the right information to bid and build our projects. We have the patience to deal with detail that most people in the AEC business don't want to be bothered with.

Specifiers WILL be in the catbird seat especially as BIM and spec production, hitherto on separate production tracks, converge whenever the industry is able to make the software truly interoperable.

Randy Nishimura, AIA, CSI said...

Thanks John!

One important point about BUILD LLC that I brought to the attention of Liz O'Sullivan on Twitter is that much of BUILD's work is design/build. They're often their own contractor, or they work with contractors with whom they're very familiar and comfortable. That gives them the luxury of being far less rigorous than would otherwise be advisable when it comes to specifications.

On the other hand, BUILD bashing spec writers and dishing out bad advice to other architects who may be likewise unsophisticated about specifications is dangerous--no other way to put it.


Jphn R. Shuttleworth, RA, CSI said...

Many years ago, as is often the case with young practitioners, the "spec writer" was always the oldest, crustiest, no nonsense guy in the firm who shook the "dreamers" out of their reverie and, along with the Job Captians brought them "down to earth". At Kahn and Jacobs, perhaps the best firm for which I have worked, or been associated with, where I cut my teeth and questioned the value of specifications on the same reasoning as posted above, that crusty Job Captain said: "Because judges can't read drawings; but they can read specs." A blunt and equally spurious rationale justifying the value of specifications. Specifications are not suposed to be captivating "page turners" nor aspire to literature. They set the standards for any project of which they are a part. They provide the other (necessary) half of the Contract Documents without which design "intent" is not conveyed. Pretty drawings (no matter how exact or technically perfect) cannot convey all the information necessary to build a building. All parts of the Project Manual are important (vital)and are legal, binding, documents; without which you WILL NOT get what you want.

Having built for almost 50 years and taught for 18 at both the graduate and undergraduate levels (In every phase of the curriculua, both in architecture and engineering.) there is much wrong with the education of both; but as there is so much to learn it is no wonder the knowledge,and appreciation, of documentation (drawings and specs) Must wait until the individuasl enters practice and the "education" continues. Yes, "dezeeners" get the glory; but they don't get the building built. Since the Zen of specifications was invoked I will conclude with paraphrase of the I Ching: The Active principle initiates things into being; but the Passive brings them to completion. Or, more simply put, the job ain't over 'till the paperwork's done.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Randy for your eloquent defense.

I put in my $.02, but kept my tongue in my cheek.

Just out of curiosity, I clicked the link you provided to "Dwell". Now I know what a singularity composed of pretentiousness, instead of matter, looks like ;-)

rbrtmllr said...

How do you feel about specifications for residential construction?

Randy Nishimura, AIA, CSI said...

@rbrtmllr: I pesonally am not involved with residential construction (our firm mostly does institutional and commercial work) but I suspect there is no reason why the same principles for specifications would not apply to all project types. The key is organization of information and the ease with which it can be retrieved.