A Traditional but Not-So-Smooth Path Into Specifications

Last week, my colleague Marlon Hollis wrote eloquently about his meandering path from military aviation and law school into construction specifying, and the benefits of bringing a fresh perspective to the work. My own path to specifying might seem more typical in that I am an architect and practiced architecture in firms for almost fifteen years before becoming a full-time specifier and then spent another eight or so years as an in-house specifier before becoming a spec consultant. It seems worthwhile to expand a little on my particular experience along that 'typical' path.

I may be typical that architects-turned-specifiers don’t exactly feel at home in the profession; I certainly didn't. For one thing, I never felt I had a talent for capital-D design or much skill creating graphics. I did have a hobbyist's talent for (black & white 35mm) photography, and at the time I was applying to architectural graduate school I spotted an advertisement offering a significant scholarship to attend the graduate program in photography at the Illinois Institute of Technology. It was 1992 and digital photography was just emerging in the industry, so there was an opportunity to be in that field at its beginning. I applied for admission and for the scholarship (I was also applying to their architectural graduate program). I was admitted to both the architecture and photography programs, but was not offered the photography scholarship. Had I been, I might never have returned to practice architecture in any form. That was my first attempt to leave the profession.

I returned to architecture school at Miami University and managed to fill a portfolio with my almost-capital-D student design work and looking back at it, I'm not completely embarrassed by it. I successfully parlayed that education and portfolio into an entry-level architecture job with a small firm in the Chicago suburbs, where I began really learning the profession. However, insofar as architects think of themselves as designers and consider their work output to be design, I didn't feel at first that the profession was the right fit.

What I didn't consciously realize throughout my education and early professional life, was that my real skill and interest lie in problem solving. That's why my second attempt to leave the architectural profession in early 2001 was to join an IT consulting firm, one that focused its expertise on assisting design firms with CAD and BIM integration, construction project website development as well as more everyday networking, software and hardware support. That experiment in taking an alternative career path was short-lived but provided marketable skills. When I returned to working for an architectural firm I also administered their computer systems.

It turns out that architecture is all about problem solving, and for me, the grittier the problems, the more I liked them. A few of my favorite projects were ones that required remodeling old buildings with insufficient as-built documentation. I worked on projects replacing elevators in a historic brew house at Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis, Missouri, another fitting 100,000 square feet of offices into an art deco building in Skokie, Illinois, and another one a major interior and exterior renovation of a 1920s synagogue in Glencoe, Illinois. Those are the types of projects where you don't know what you're getting into until you're actually under construction, and once the problems arise you need to come up to solutions quickly.

The experience gained working on those difficult projects, where the answers to problems were almost always technical and not part of the forward-facing design, was critical in developing the knowledge I bring to specifying. Marlon is correct that gaining the ability to write specifications through access to the knowledge shared by others and other resources is one way to become a specifier. But there may not be a substitute to the experience of having your design intent crash against an inconvenient reality, then collaborating with contractors and tradesmen to devise a solution that still meets the Owner's needs.

There are multiple possible paths to specifying, and a few prerequisite attributes, like an attention to detail, deep curiosity and desire to learn, the ability to update one's beliefs as information changes. Most of all, specifiers need the ability and desire to solve problems.

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