Challenges Faced by Specification Consultants

About a month ago I made a career change. I left my job working for a downtown Chicago architectural firm as an in-house specifier and began working for ArchiTech Consulting Inc., a specifications consulting company in the suburbs.  I’m getting used to the environment, small size of the company and the location, which are all big changes for me, but by far the biggest difference is our approach to the work itself.  You might not think that would be the case, seeing as how it’s going from being one type of spec writer to another, but it’s a very different mindset being a consultant.

One of the biggest differences working with other specifiers is the level of expertise, and the respect that expertise has earned us.  ArchiTech has written specifications for thousands of projects for hundreds of different clients, and those specs include hundreds of thousands of spec sections, covering product choices likely in the millions.  That’s a massive amount of institutional memory, experience and knowledge, and between performing computer searches of our archives and probing different specifiers’ memories, I can find answers to almost every eventuality I’ve encountered so far – even a curved, waterjet-cut COR-TEN steel ground sign mounted on architecturally finished cast-in-place concrete.

The depth of the archive, memory and knowledge of the specifiers is our primary strength, along with the ability (which I’m slowly gaining) in efficiently turning out projects on time.   The most common questions around the office are “when was the last time we wrote a spec for [oddball system] and what do we know about it?” and “do you have a technical sales contact from [oddball system manufacturer]?”  There’s almost always a useful answer to either question.  We use that extensive knowledge for the benefit of our clients’ projects, performing technical review while writing specs, coordinating documents and helping the design team avoid pitfalls and mistakes.

Additionally, when we’re called on by product reps, we get higher level technical information, not the basic CEU courses or sales information aimed at architectural or interior designers.

There is a worrying aspect of this role, however. The most obvious difference is that now my clients are (for the most part) architects, where previously I was working for architects’ clients – building owners.  Readers of my earlier post  on Let’s Fix Construction are aware of the weaknesses I pointed out in the architectural profession and how those weaknesses increase building owners’ risks.  I’m now a giant step further removed from the owner – the stakeholder who is impacted to the greatest extent by the decisions I make.  I’m forced to rely on architects to have accurately communicated the criteria by which they made design decisions for their projects, a dicey prospect.  At the same time I’m bound to follow their distinctive (and sometimes capricious) preferences.

I’ve been finding that the specifiers at my new firm, when guidance to the contrary (or any guidance at all for that matter) is lacking, tend to specify systems in such a way as to provide the highest performing facility. While this seems like a prudent approach on its face, the costs of these types of decisions add up, as a result projects may come back costing more than necessary and occasionally need to go through value engineering cost-reduction exercises (though they probably would have needed VE anyway).  When working without sufficient guidance I’d say we manage to write specs that are not wrong. In an ideal situation, we’d certainly prefer to be right. the difference is a much tighter set of deliverable that best meet the owner’s needs and reduces risk.

The ethics of our role sometimes seems muddled. I acknowledge we are working for our clients – architects – and are expected to deliver the product they pay us for, their preferences and peccadillos included.  If we specification consultants believe those peccadillos make for a lesser-performing or more expensive facility, or a more difficult construction process, or create undue risk for the owner, contractor or design professional, what is the best way for us to carry out our work? What is our duty, and to whom?  Is it enough for us to document our opinions without knowing if the architect considered our expertise and passed along our advice to their clients?  Should we be specifying the highest performing products without knowing whether or not the budget can support them?  These are some of the challenging questions consultants face when we work.

I suggest that as we start every project, whether in the role of architect or independent specifier, it should be incumbent upon us to at the very least get an understanding of where the project should fall on the value <———> performance continuum, and make sure the whole team is on the same page. Architects should understand this in any case – what are the project goals and criteria that they are designing toward, and what is the budget?  Spec consultants have the knowledge to specify projects anywhere along the value/performance continuum, and we’re certainly better off if we can do it correctly from the start.   When this information is deeply understood and freely shared, everyone can be on the same page. The spec consultant can be an integral part of the team to make sure the project meets the owner’s criteria, the architect’s and engineering consultants’ designs will better meet their client’s needs, and risk of conflict and loss can be reduced.