Spec Matters: A specifier looks back

June 18, 2013

By Vrej-Armen Artinian, CSC, CSI

Specification writing is an enriching experience, and I have been enjoying that experience at one of the major architectural firms in Montréal—NFOE et associés architectes, which celebrated its centennial last year. I have worked there as a specifier for more than 20 years, and am glad I still have the opportunity to contribute to the high quality of work produced by the firm.

The specifications, along with drawings and management skills, are often what differentiates one firm from another. The construction documentation truly reflects a design firm’s professionalism, earning the esteem of clients and builders alike, and resulting in a smooth building process.

Five years ago, in the opening paragraph of my very first article for Construction Canada[1], this author confessed, “I never imagined it was the beginning of such an exciting and enriching journey” when accepting the role of specification writer for NFOE. And now, I do not understand the pity a very good friend of mine—a famous industrial designer—feels for me to have embraced such a “tedious, repetitive” task, as opposed to the supposedly more creative facet of architecture. “Spec writing,” he has said, “is a monk’s scribe work.” Maybe so, but I’m more inclined to disagree.

Whether using words or lines, the process of creation can give satisfaction to the person responsible. Writing a spec section or a short story are not the same thing, admittedly, but composing a sentence, be it literary or technical, demands the same effort from the writer. Authors and specifiers alike must be able to express what they want to say in a clear manner. Frankly, drawing lines on paper (or now on a computer screen) can also be a “tedious, repetitive” job, if one lacks the vision of what is being drawn.

Like many specifiers, I love words. I have been playing with them, using and abusing them, since I was 14 in my ‘other life’ as a writer and a chronicler, and these exercises have been instrumental in my enjoying specifications. Of course, there is more than writing involved in specifying—there is also the need to create and maintain an entire network of relationships throughout your career. This makes the sphere of our shared profession especially interesting and rewarding.

Specifiers are in a privileged position to interact with almost everyone in the design office, from the most senior to most junior members, to gather information and guide them through the maze of old and new products. Specifiers interpret others’ needs and submit work for their scrutiny and acceptance. Almost naturally, the spec writer becomes a mentor, a teacher, and a trainer.

Clients, contractors, and manufacturers’ reps
There is also the opportunity to interact with the client, especially big corporations and government agencies. Specifiers learn diplomacy to convince people to change their mind, accept new realities, and even abandon long-cherished traditions in product selections or contract administration. MasterFormat Divisions 00 and 01 are always a Pandora’s Box and, spec writers can tactfully help clients moderate their strict—and sometimes contradicting—requirements.

This problem also occurs with contractors turned into construction managers for projects with multiple contracts: some create their own very specific ‘General Conditions,’ mixing Divisions 00 and 01. In an ideal world, the specifier will be able to patiently go through them, suggest changes or edit own documents, and avoid contradicting or repeating their clauses.

In the end, both clients and contractors frequently appreciate your involvement and intervention. I personally get a great deal of satisfaction when seeing specifications helping ensure no major surprises occur in project after project, and that no major conflicts happen during or after construction. When contractors tell the architect the specifier has left nothing to chance (even when said a little negatively), the spec writer knows he or she has done the job properly.

The other group of people with whom you cultivate long enduring relationships are the trade reps. These are your resource people, also your most critical readers. And you can benefit from their expertise and obtain their co-operation, so materials are correctly specified, obsolete ones removed from your specs, and new ones added. But you have to be fair, and make sure products of the same quality are listed as acceptable products for the same item. This approach gets a positive reaction from the representatives. As technologies evolve, products improve, new application procedures are adopted, the reps become your permanent assistants for information gathering, especially as fewer and fewer public resources remain to supply that kind of information to the professionals.

Conclusion
As many of our colleagues in the design department toil through their day in front of computers, we spec writers enjoy our position as their link with the outside world. At the same time, the project managers going to the site are also a valuable resource to bring to the specifier’s attention the various incongruities, inaccuracies, omissions, and other defects contained in the documentation. Together, the entire team works to continuously correct and improve the specifications.

In other words, where others see rote ‘scribe work,’ I continually see new projects bringing new experiences, new knowledge, and, frequently, new adventures.

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 Conseil de l’enveloppe du bâtiment du Québec (CEBQ). He can be contacted via e-mail at vrejarmen@hotmail.com[2].

Endnotes:
  1. Construction Canada: http://www.kenilworth.com/publications/cc/de/200803/files/100.html
  2. vrejarmen@hotmail.com: mailto:vrejarmen@hotmail.com

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