(*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.