by mdoyle | August 26, 2013 3:28 pm
By Vrej-Armen Artinian, CSC, CSI
It is becoming more and more difficult to find a specifier. Whether freelance or working in-house for a firm, many of the spec writers who are still around are often overloaded, sometimes exhausted, and not getting any younger. Worse, it seems like fewer and fewer emerging professionals are coming over the horizon to eventually take their place. Why is this so, and how did we reach this point?
Decades ago, the spec writer of an office was one of the more senior members of the team—an architect (often a partner) or senior technician with substantial industry experience, ample understanding of the firm’s design philosophy and practice, and vast knowledge of the building materials. He or she could interpret the designers’ intentions, putting pen to paper to express them in a written document, complementing the drawings.
Back in May 2011, at the CSC National Conference in Montréal, I presented a seminar titled, “Vacant Position.” At the time, I said the industry needed people who like bricks and mortar, but also words and commas; we were searching for a person who wanted to build walls with the former and open doors with the latter. We needed someone who felt completely at ease with materials, and wanted to know their secrets. At the same time, this ideal candidate would also be skilled with verbs and adjectives, as to harness them in order to pursue fantastic dreams and concepts.
In the past it was not as difficult to find this kind of person, for whom lines and words were equally easy tools to express an idea. There were architects who wrote beautiful prose, who could explain their design approaches and principles almost to a philosophical level. In fact, architectural reviews were full of excellent articles written by these individuals, not on some very particular technical issues, but on theories and design. Everyone seemed to know how to write in strong prose because this was one of the skills schools encouraged to be developed.
However, writing has now all but disappeared from the school curriculum, or become just another subject, with the emphasis on the mechanics of the language rather than on the spirit of the text. In the Twitter Age, many professionals, in our field or others, dare not write a sentence more than a few words long. It seems unreasonable to expect architects and architectural technicians to be able to write, or to conceive their ideas in words rather than lines. Their abstractions take form in a visual, not verbal, manner.
Of course, there still may be young design professionals coming out of school to embrace specifications, but the numbers are dwindling.
Finding a solution
I believe we should start looking for spec-writing candidates outside our field, attracting those who have studied language and writing. Working out of Montréal, I have teamed with technical translators who reinterpret our firm’s architectural or engineering specs. Despite little to no experience in our field, they know how to use words, compose sentences, and put together texts. I believe we should direct our attention to colleges and universities, enticing young talents who know how to write, who understand how to edit a text, even a technical one.
I realize there will be a period of apprenticeship, of familiarization with the vocabulary, concepts, and traditions of construction, but this should not take too long. The ideal solution would be to have spec-writing courses in those literary faculties, teaching the basics of the task, the use of available tools (e.g. conventional formats, standardized specifications, and manufacturers’ tech sheets), and the proper language and style for specs. The rest should come with experience.
Granted, these spec writers would be doing more editing than writing, knowing where to collect and assemble their information. However, the French term for spec writer is “rédacteur de devis,” which means specifications “editor,” rather than writer (“écrivain”). This is apt—after all, we do 90 per cent or more editing than writing when we prepare the project manuals. This is especially true, if the firm has developed its series of master or typical specifications over time.
This proposition supposes manufacturers provide more and more standardized technical literature, National Master Specification (NMS) or similar tools become more user-friendly, and project managers or designers get more involved to give the proper information to the spec writer and to check what he or she offers. Of course, the industry should also be prepared to remunerate them accordingly. This is especially the case if, as some suggest, the rise of building information modelling (BIM) means the specifier will become the information manager of all technical data on a project, assembling it from various sources (e.g. manufacturers, owners, etc.) and then co-ordinating it through the design and construction teams.
Vrej-Armen Artinian, CSC, CSI, is a graduate of Cairo University (B.Arch, 1964) and McGill University (M.Arch, 1969). He started his career specializing in the design of school buildings, then moved on to industrial buildings, laboratories, and research centres. Artinian has been a specification writer at Montréal-based NFOE et associés architectes since 1992. He is a member of Construction Specifications Canada (CSC), Ordre des architectes du Québec (OAQ), Construction Specifications Institute (CSI), Conseil du bâtiment durable du Canada (CBDCa) Section du Québec, and a Life Member of the Conseil de l’enveloppe du bâtiment du Québec (CEBQ). He can be contacted via e-mail at email@example.com.
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