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.

3 thoughts on “Challenges Faced by Specification Consultants

  1. Consulting does have a different mind set, because it allows you to advocate for certain systems, but ultimately whether you are in-house or consulting, your job is to protect your architect clients from claims. You may not have seen this in a firm, but when you’re a “captured” spec writer, the only real difference is that you don’t have to market as much to get clients, and maintaining those client relationships takes somewhat less effort than when you are a free-lance consultant.
    I did find that as a consultant, sometimes I could have more influence on the client to advocate for my client (the architect’s) best interest. It can be easier to promote a better waterproofing system to the Owner because you appear to be an independent consultant. And there were times I could take on touchier issues with an Owner and somewhat shield my client (the architect) from having to engage in that conversation.

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  2. A couple of comments to your post – I would like you to update this post after you have been in the independent consultant shoes, at 6 months, 1 year, and at least 18 months after you have a better understanding and have completed the change of mindset required to become an out-house specifier over an in-house specifier. After watching and being instrumental in the process, I understand that some of the biggest obstacles are understanding that we are one step removed, that we don’t get to interact with the Owner, we don’t get access to budget numbers, we are always working from an out-dated set of drawings, and we don’t have the luxury of getting sucked deep into the research rabbit hole. We have to allow and trust the architectural clients to do their job in the same fashion that they trust us to do ours. And although we get to influence the decision making process, the final decision is still the clients. When we totally and completely disagree with their decision, we document our objections and try really hard not to say I told you so when it fails.

    All of that being said, it is true that we will specify more conservatively, especially at the DD phase when all of the initial pricing occurs. I tell all of my clients this when our relationship starts. If the drawings indicate a single ply roof, then I will chose a PVC roof over a TPO roof and let the pricing exercise work it out. I also tell my clients that I will focus on better quality products for the exteriors of the buildings because we all know that the root of the majority of the lawsuits start from problems with the exteriors. If the budget no longer supports the cost of a PVC, then we revise the spec accordingly. If we have a project that is known to have a 10 year lifespan, then we will start with TPO. We all know that it is much easier to take money out of a project than to try and put it back into the project.

    Many times I go to the reps and push them for general numbers. Is product A more expensive than product B, and if so, by what percentage? The one I remember the most is for paint systems – anodized over 2-coat Kynar over 2-coat mica over 3-coat metallic. I wanted to know about how much of an up-charge my clients face if I suggested a 2 -coat mica over the anodized. The performance of the mica is better and the warranty is longer. But I did not want to make a suggestion without knowing the up-charge. It took a lot of pushing on the reps because they did not know. But, I finally got my answer. When I make that suggestion, I tell my client up front what the charge will be so they can notify the Owner, allowing everyone to be better informed along the way, before the pricing comes in. Sometimes, right at the point of suggestion, I am told that the budget won’t support it. That is fine, but I needed to let the Architect make that decision.

    As for interactions with the Owner – Because we are the Architect’s consultant, we do not interact with other members of the team without being specifically invited to do so. We are responsible to the entity that signs the contract. Any of our contracts that are AIA based specifically instruct us that all communication is run through the Architect.

    Welcome to the challenges of independent specifying. I look forward to your future articles on the topic and watching the conversion process.

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