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Specifying Mediocrity? Without a Technical Foundation, Design is on Shaky Ground

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 30, 2011

By Walter Scarborough


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The architectural profession has settled for specification mediocrity. Allow me to explain.

My thesis is this: if the architectural profession treated the creative design process in the same way as specifications are treated, the built environment would be ugly, ugly, ugly. The profession would never abuse the creative design process in the same way they do specifications. 

Specifications are supposed to be complementary to the drawings.

They ought to be the necessary technical information supporting the design intent expressed as a graphic representation of the project in the drawings.

They ought to include information that is important to the administration of the construction contract, as well as a variety of other things such as submittal requirements, performance provisions and quality requirements.

They ought to be of the same importance as the creative design process.

They ought to…

OK, you catch my drift.

Unfortunately, the reality of specifications is nowhere near what it should be. The architectural profession has collectively decided specifications are not important and will only be provided because “something” is expected to be delivered.

Specifications have been abandoned by the profession. Many architects treat specifications flippantly and will only produce them as if an afterthought. Subcontractors and product suppliers believe well-written specifications are crucial to their financial success and essential because they directly influence the bid that is rendered for particular aspects of the work and the quality of the work to be constructed. Nevertheless, specifications are not given the same significance and level of necessity by the architectural profession. 

Many firms are not hesitant to have an IT person or “BIM expert” on staff, yet at the same time they do not believe a specifier would be an asset to their work.

Think about it: an investment will be made to keep the computers running, but an investment will not be made to produce the specifications for the designs and drawings that are produced on those computers. Some firms will employ experienced specifiers on staff, but other firms will assign the responsibility for producing specifications to those individuals the leadership does not know what else to do with. Specifications occupy the lowest-value position in far too many firms.

But does the building function?

Many architects will study a design detail at great length, but will give very little time to properly specifying the products that comprise the detail being studied. The profession routinely invests time and human resources in developing the aesthetics of a project, but will ignore the technical competency necessary to get the design built. It’s more about the design than it is about delivering a properly functioning building.

Rightfully so, architects will scrutinize and seek counsel before signing a contract, but will compromise on the quality of one of the two construction documents they are obligated by that contract to deliver. Most talented and experienced specifiers will make every effort to tailor the specifications to the aesthetic design and drawings, but far too many architects are satisfied as long as something is cobbled together that can be called the specifications. 

If you don’t believe this indictment, seek out the opinions and beliefs of product suppliers, the majority of whom will support the claims made in this blog space and will tell you that a lot of bad specifications are out there.

Specifications are yet another aspect of architecture that the architectural profession has neglected, the implications of which are that the constructors and product suppliers just work around them by “finishing” the documents—a position in which they do not like to be. Many product suppliers are frustrated that they are asked to bid incomplete or poorly produced documents.

At the same time, the quality of drawings has declined over the last several decades, but that will be the subject of a future discussion.

Far too many architects entirely miss the point of specifications. The point is more than just the construction of the building, it’s about the following.

• The design intent and drawings are complemented with technical and administrative information.

• Procedures are established for the project delivery process.

• The roles and responsibilities are established for the administration of the contract.

• The quality of products and execution is established.

• Competition is facilitated so that the owner’s money is spent efficiently.

A risky paradigm shift

While many will disagree with these assertions, it is this commentator’s opinion that the architectural profession is in the midst of a paradigm shift toward irrelevance that has been taking place for at least a decade. Weak construction documents, the proliferation of consultants that are replacing the services of architects, the expanding role of the contractor, declining technical competency, and a profession that is focused elsewhere are converging to a point in which the architectural profession may not recover.

If the current direction continues, in a decade or so the architectural profession will be only be a small part of a bigger process that is directed, managed and administered by others, many of whom do not understand how to build buildings. The profession is moving in the direction of generalizing itself right out of existence.

When and how did it happen that specifications were determined to be unimportant and that very little effort would be put forth to produce the best possible construction documents? The architectural profession should regain a position of technical competency and ought to begin by giving specifiers and specifications the attention an owner and the construction process deserves.

About the blogger

Walter R. Scarborough, CSI, SCIP, AIA, is a contributing editor of Durability + Design, and is a registered architect and specifier with more than 30 years of technical experience with many building types. He was director of specifications for 10 of his 22 years with one of the largest architecture firms in the world.

Scarborough is revision author for CSI Project Delivery Practice Guide; co-author of the college textbook Building Construction, Principles, Materials and Systems; has written articles for periodicals; has taught college courses; has given presentations at local, state, regional, and national conferences; is active in the Construction Specifications Institute at national and chapter levels; is a past president of the Dallas CSI chapter; is a member of the Institute Education Committee; has CDT, CCS, and CCCA certifications from CSI; received CSI’s J. Norman Hunter Memorial Award in 2008; and is an ARCOM MasterSpec Architectural Review Committee member.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER

Walter Scarborough

OK, so I'm not really in the Corner Office, per se. But with more than 30 years in the architecture profession and as someone who's made the technical side of architecture (specifications and construction administration) his lifelong mission and passion, I submit that I have at least earned the right to occasionally play the part of curmudgeon and pontificate about the architectural profession. In any case, the editors of Durability + Design have deigned to provide this platform, although they're not admitting responsibility or liability for the content herein.

SEE ALL CONTENT FROM THIS CONTRIUBTOR

   

Tagged categories: Architects; Architecture; Hall Building Information Group; Specification writing; Walter Scarborough

Comment from Robert Wagner, (10/3/2011, 10:39 AM)

Mr. Scarborough accurately describes what I have been seeing from the contractor side. I would like to add that even small improvements by architects in the coordination between drawings and specification, for example, would contribute significantly to constructibility, cost efficencies and owner value.


Comment from John Williams, (10/3/2011, 1:12 PM)

Unfortunately, Walter is correct in many of his comments. The issue runs very deep in many firms - even those which have committed to quality specifications. The commitment has to be firmwide and embraced by every Project Architect and Project Manager. Relegating specifications to the end of the project with extremely limited budgets is a recipe for disaster - or at least for a large number of RFI's through the constuction phase. Specifiers have to be more active in promoting themselves and the technical excellence that they can bring to the project. We are all in this together. And, we all need to promote the position of specifier to younger architects who would perhaps perfer something other than design as a career path.


Comment from Liz O'Sullivan, (10/5/2011, 3:12 PM)

Walter Scarborough's blog hits the nail on the head regarding the declining relevance of architecture as a profession. And this situation is NOT okay. Architects need to be the people practicing architecture. But in order to continue doing that competently and effectively, architects need to be focusing more on technical building knowledge. I agree that architects as a profession are losing ground in the area of technical competency. Sometimes, it seems as if architects are trying to make up for that by relying on construction managers to fill in the technical gaps, but we’re the ones who are better suited to be doing that. We need to do our own technical research, first, and then, WE need to be the ones seeking out the advice of product reps and subcontractors. We shouldn't hand that job over to a general contractor. Construction management delivery cannot be a replacement for lack of technical competency on the part of the architect. (We still have the professional liability for the technical aspects of those designs. If you don’t believe me, just ask the lawyers.) I fear irrelevance - not for myself - for the profession of architecture in general. I think that the AIA is barking up the wrong tree – emphasizing things like IPD and focusing on the designs of star designers instead of promoting the importance of technical competence for architects, and the importance of licensure for architects. Walter Scarborough's blog post focuses on specs, but I see lots of drawings that are inadequate technically, too. Codes are mysterious to many architects – some don’t seem to realize that it’s their job to interpret the codes and turn them into designs, instead of putting notations on drawings that say things like “insulation thickness as required by applicable codes.” I would like to increase awareness of the importance of technical building knowledge for architects. If anyone has any tips for how to reach the people who need to hear it, let me know! I'm pretty sure I'm preaching to the choir, right here.


Comment from Robert Johnson, (10/7/2011, 12:35 PM)

Most of the people in an architect’s office are involved in construction drawings and contract administration. Most of them have never received any education about the “whys” or principles of what they are doing. Most of them are very appreciative of such an education if it is made available to them – almost everyone wants to know the principles of what they are doing. In my experience, the secret to success to the “technical” or “specification” role is being known as a good team player. One needs to be making good positive contributions to the team effort while appreciating the roles of other players. Going off to your cubicle and doing your job in isolation while gripping about how you are unappreciated is not going to cut it. The more people who see the positive contributions a technical person can make that help accomplish the goals of the project and keep them out of trouble as the project is constructed, the more they will want and appreciate such contributions on future projects. They need to experience what the team player contributions of a technical person can do for the success of their projects. Such a person will become one of the sought after people in the firm. I guess what I am saying is that you change perceptions and practices by education and demonstration. It doesn’t happen overnight and it is an on-going process as new people continually come into the profession without any education or experience in the preparation of construction documents and administration of construction.


Comment from Matt Short, (10/24/2011, 8:13 AM)

As a consulting engineer with the same passion of providing a specification service that influences the industry in a qualitative way, I can appreciate Mr. Johnson's comment about demonstrating a better way and being very public about it. The consulting engineering community is not so different from its architectural clients with respect to specification writing. In fact, one might even say they follow the lead - sometimes reluctantly, as with Revit - of the architect. I might also add that master specifications, a powerfully efficient technical tool, in the wrong hands, becomes a watered down document hardly worth the paper it is printed on. I wonder what the top level at CSI has to say about this blog...my knee jerk reaction is that they would be quick to embrace counteracting the trends that Walter describes and shoring up the conventional design methods. However, if Walter's impending paradigm shift is correct they may simply be awaiting their new client base.


Comment from John O'Neil, (11/2/2011, 1:23 PM)

Walter, I agree with your central thesis that the architectural profession (substantial parts of the profession, anyway) has settled for specification mediocrity. Too many architects treat specs as an afterthought. But I see a few things differently than you expressed in your post. “The architectural profession has collectively decided specifications are not important…” Actually, it was ever thus, at least since I got my first architectural job in 1969. It’s not getting any better, but I don’t think it’s getting any worse, either. I see a couple of things at work here: • Numero uno: Most Architects are graphically-talented people, not talented writers. Lots of them are only reluctant readers, and they cringe when asked to write or edit or critique something. They think and write in all caps and abbreviations. They have been so steeped in the idea that their ideas are to be expressed in drawings that they tend to forget about specs. • Numero two-o: The architectural schools probably still don’t spend much time on such mundane topics as contract documents. Even if they did, can you imagine trying to get a nineteen-year-old interested in the four-cs when his instructors and fellow students are Frank Gehry wannabees? The whole culture of architecture schools is steeped in design theory and individualism, rather than in training students to be businesslike team players, which is the mindset needed to produce good CDs. Maybe the Construction Management schools do this better? Maybe the new Integrated School of Building (http://insb.us) being planned now in Chicago will have contract documents as a high priority . “At the same time, the quality of drawings has declined over the last several decades…” Here again, I have to disagree with you. I see a very mixed picture. • Contractors endlessly repeat this criticism. Sometimes they’re right, but remember they have an agenda: Discredit the contract documents so they can justify change orders. And if it makes the architect look bad, that’s just collateral damage. • I certainly see lots of mistakes and inconsistencies in the drawings I review to prepare specs, but that’s why we have the telephone, email, and mark-up software. You have to talk these things through with the architects and engineers. Because of item numero-uno above, I’ve long since given up expecting a thorough critique of in-progress specs by my architect team members. Instead, I start with conversation, and escalate to written questions only if the answers they give me are delayed or confusing. • In many ways the drawings being produced today are better in my opinion that what was the norm in the sixties when I got my first job. Back then, the details were often beautifully poched (sp?), but not terribly useful for bidding and construction. I still remember a young architect at the drawing board next to me that spent several days drawing every granite paver in a fan pattern for a courtyard. He couldn’t be bothered to draw a section showing the setting method, though. In contrast, the architects I’ve worked with in recent years are very receptive to refining their drawings to conform to specs and spec nomenclature. As far as a “…paradigm shift toward irrelevance…”, I just don’t see any benefit in looking at the situation in this way. The business models of the organizations that design and build buildings will certainly evolve. We just have to evolve too. At the risk of sounding like a mercenary, I don’t think it matters much whether the entity I work for is an AE firm or a design-builder. I just want to practice my profession the best I can. If architectural firms can’t stay in business, that’s another example of natural selection, in my opinion. The profession, like the larger society, is subject to constant change.


Comment from Peggy Golden, (2/18/2013, 2:29 PM)

Having grown up in this profession for over 30 years I am appalled with the lack of clarity and coordination of a set of A/E drawings. There appears to be no senior executive to review the drawing sets before they are put out for bid or review. The work does not agree from drawing to drawing, let alone from the engineering to the architectural. We have witnessed the President's office have an alcove for furniture that would not fit as the architect was reluctant to put a hold dimension on the plan. The CYA attitude that if you leave everything to the GC then you have no liability is sad commentary of where this profession is headed. The architects of this generation who never leave a computer have little sense of scale and how things work. There is too much relying on the computer with little to no supervision of completing an accurate reflection of the built environment the architect and owner would like to see completed. The GC is req'd to plan for everything that may or may not be required and provide a coverall cost, and is required to ask many questions that should be stated on the drawings clearly. The outcome is finger pointing in the field when the architect or owner are not happy with the outcome that they did little to control. Additionally the costs associated with unclear specs are huge as the GC must cover the intent that is not spelled out. Everyone pays and the jobs suffer. The architect waits for the shop drawings and then thinks about the outcome, makes changes and adds to the overall cost of projects. The architect is so fearful of litigation that they are relegating their position to others. The belief is that if they name a MFG, Part # and actually create a spec that they will be liable if that product fails. Isn't that one of the reason's to use an architect - that you trust their opinion on quality suppliers and manufacturers. Not in today's litigation society - every thing is CYA. Do not say what, or where, do not give dimensions (this is absurd, you use a +/- to VIF and check what the dimension turns out to be) wait and see what product the GC selects and then critique it, adds cost to the projects all around. We have observed bad design, behavior and specs. LEED professionals removing existing building standard doors as they wanted another more popular wood finish when the existing doors were stunning once refinished. Just because professionals have letters after their name does not qualify them as experienced industry pros. We live in an era where buying letters to follow your name is common - and actual ability and experience are not observant. Initials are very popular - the schools and professional organizations will do anything to get more money and create webinar classes for people to sit and take a questionnaire test at the end and voila you now have professional looking initials after your name – no experience but to someone who does not know it looks professional!


Comment from Jake Jevric, (2/19/2013, 6:02 AM)

Havin watched many new constructions, both housing and condo developments, I have seen this effect in the preliminary stages, as well as the results it porduces in the finished product. In Toronto, we have several developments in our city core that have been very poorly rated, and it seems to stem from the very same issues Walter describes. It's easy to state "buyer beware" but for housing, where issues may surface 10+ years into owenership, this is an unfair expectation of the common consumer.


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