Teaching Young Professionals About Specifications

David Stutzman visited Chicago last week to stop in and talk to some of his current clients as well as to try to grow Conspectus's business into new firms, and I was fortunate enough to accompany him on some of those meetings.  When you work as a remote or out-of-town consultant, it's not often that an opportunity arises to associate faces with names or voices, and so we were grateful for the opportunity to speak to a number of firms in and around Chicago.

Most of those meetings were with firms' principals or technical directors; these are the people you'd expect to want to talk with specifications consultants, and who a consultant would want to talk to about upcoming work and the performance of previously-completed projects.  At one of the firm meetings, however, something very surprising and encouraging happened.

Stantec has been a long-time Conspectus client. Conspectus has worked with them on more than 60 projects over nearly 20 years, and we currently have several of their projects 'on the boards.'  Stantec's project manager for one of these projects agreed to meet with us briefly during our Chicago tour.  We were waiting for her to arrive in our meeting when a group of younger professionals, most of them in their first 5 years out of architectural or interior design school, joined us in the conference room and sat around the table.  This was obviously not the meeting we expected.

Given the collection of people in the room, we had a far different conversation than we anticipated.  Instead of talking about completed or upcoming work, we provided a big-picture view of the value proposition of specifiers.  The group discussed the purpose of specifications as a whole. We described the Conspectus view of how a specifier can assist architects in fulfilling their duty to their clients by providing opportunities for reducing risk.  We discussed some of Conspectus's own processes, including how we track issues and questions in the specifications.  Finally, we described what we see as the benefit of receiving a dispassionate outsider's view of the quality of the documents as a quality-improvement tool.  Most of the young professionals became thoroughly engaged in the conversation, asking intelligent questions, including about how we coordinate requirements and about document ownership.

All these young professionals were encouraged to step away from their computers and attend a meeting with specifiers, with the promise that they would learn something about the importance of specifications.  It's not unusual for a firm to encourage its staff to seek out continuing technical education, but it is quite extraordinary that the firm places learning about specifications on the same plane with product rep lunch and learns (or even higher, because our meeting was mid-afternoon and no food was involved).

Architects are taught precious little about specifications when they are students. Architectural schools focus almost exclusively on design and graphic skills.  In coursework beyond design, they cover structural systems, materials and methods of construction, and mechanical and electrical systems, but not specifications. The fact that specifications make up half of the contract documents is hardly mentioned.  It took laudable curiosity for these young architects to be interested in learning about specs.  It took laudable foresight for Stantec to encourage them to meet us.

This meeting was so surprising, but equally encouraging.  Given specifications' critical importance in reducing firms' clients' risk, learning about them ought to be an everyday thing at every firm.

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