What does the future specifier role look like?

It’s been some time since I have done a blog post, with a growing family, adding a puppy, taking on a larger role at work, and oh yes, COVID. I have been thinking and processing for months now this question, “What does the future specifier role look like?”. So let’s dive right into this, 10 years into the future from today, this is what I think the future specifier role will look like.

The future specifier is still a person. It won’t be a computer or an application. Technology is progressing very fast, especially in this industry, but there will still be a need for a person to take on the role of a specifier. Someone will still have to put together the Project Manual, conduct the research, process brackets and red lines, and control the information coming in related to specs. I do think technology will make all of that much easier. Hopefully, specification writing software companies can incorporate AI to help control information and help make informed decisions, or simply, provide the evidence to make decisions that can be backed up data. Data will be a huge part of a Specifier’s role. I have written about this before in a past blog post, but to be able to track specified product usage, time spent editing specs, installation history and so on will be a part of the role. Having someone that can control this information and interpret the data will be key.

Some in the industry have moved towards this type of role, redefining the specifier as an information manager. To me, this makes sense for all the reasons I mentioned above. Just think for those Specifiers out there, how many times do you get information to revise a spec, but realize it just doesn’t change that one spec, it has a ripple effect to a bunch of others as well. The future specifier will need to be able to manage this information flow and think in terms of assemblies and how one decision can have a major impact on specifications. Take for example a revision from a traditional 3-coat plaster assembly with gyp sheathing, fluid applied WRB and steel studs to an exterior insulation finish system (EIFS) … that changes things quite a bit doesn’t it. Deletions and additions of new specifications, potential modifications of others. To a specified, this would take a good amount of time to process and complete. Hence the term, information manager.

We can’t discuss information management without discussing CSI MasterFormat. This organization format made sense when it was created decades ago. It made sense to separate based everything back in 1963 … 50 years later, I argue it doesn’t. Yes, it neatly organizes information to be found by the contractors, but does it make sense to specify the components of an interior gypsum board wall in at minimum 4 sections, not including wall finishes? We have the stud spec, joint sealants, gyp board and insulation. With the addition of paint and additional finishes, that one interior wall could be close to 10 specs. It is time to start thinking in terms of assemblies. This young generation does not. They don’t think that plaster is part of an exterior wall assembly and one small change on a detail can effect several specs, not just one. So, I think specifications should be written in an assembly type format, and no not Uniformat. An assembly specification that includes all Part 1 information, Part 2 components, and Part 3 installation requirements for the ASSEMBLY. This will help control the flow of information, make documents a bit more coordinated, and make the process much more efficient. Let’s be honest, it doesn’t make sense and it’s not efficient to go from spec to spec to make small revisions to one assembly. With that…

Most Specifier’s in ten years will not be Architects. They might have gone to Architecture school, but to be a great specifier, the way specifications are written, creation of firm masters, and the availability of digital information, you do not need to be an Architect with a complete understanding of it all. What you will need is competency and the willingness to ask questions and conduct research. Competency is huge because we must know something about everything, and if we don’t, we need to be able to find the information on it. No more are the product binders or Sweets Catalogs, all information is digital. We must be able to know how to access it and navigate it, taking a subjective approach to our findings. Specifiers and Architects are not scientists, so to understand all of the ASTMs and other testing standards, we must be able to at a minimum navigate through it and know where to find the information we need. Which leads me into a something different…

Relationship Building. Because Specifiers can’t know everything about everything and in ten years with advances in products and introductions of new products, Specifiers and really the industry, need to build relationships with product representatives. They are the experts on their products inside and out. They are able to provide the best solution for our questions. Previously, I don’t think this was a requirement for Specifiers, but it will need to be. Relationships are key, building trust is key, and with that, products can be specified correctly. A person who can control information, manage data and interpret data to work through a specification, and build relationships with outside reps will be a force in the industry.

Lastly, the specifier in 10 years will need to be a proactive team member within their own firm. Unfortunately, specifications have turned into an afterthought and are not actively taught to younger generations. The specifier will need to teach and spread the knowledge they have to other members on the team. I think of all the times I have heard “spec writers are the people in the basement or the corner or the lone person out” and know this can’t be the case in 10 years. The personality of a Specifiers will need to change. They will need to be proactive, upfront, and honest with their teams. Taking on a mentor role, which many already do, will be huge in continuing the role of a Specifiers in the future.

The role of specifier will look different in 10 years, probably 5, and technology will be by far the biggest impact to the role. I am excited for what the future brings and hopefully this post gets gears turning because the industry needs to find a solution to the decreasing specifier and understanding of specs. I am always available for discussions on this topic or other industry related topics, so please feel free to reach out!

Answers Matter. Questions Matter More.

Tonight, my wife and I were sitting in our daughter’s room practicing ‘tummy time’ and rolling over. Which she has nailed and now prefers to just roll over all the time! At one point, my wife said, “You are my title chicken nugget.” I then spun off of that and ask, “Are you a spicy nugget? Are you baked or fried? Are you breaded or not breaded? If breaded, is it Penko?” I then had to stop myself because I could have gone on and on. At the moment, I came to a realization that I’m asking those questions because I am specifier, and it’s my job to ask questions. This thought led me to another series of questions:

“In the Architecture Industry, are we asking questions? If so, are we asking the right questions? Are we showing/teaching the younger generations the value of asking questions?”

Questions are important in this industry, sometimes even more important than the answers. However, with smaller project budgets and quicker turn arounds, is it just easier to give the answer, than to sit down and explain the answer? Yes, it is. It’s tough to point fingers at that because we are under such burdening constraints, but I think it’s part of the reason why construction documents are not as good, or complete, as they once were.

There are numerous times within the week, where I get emails for a specification section. Those emails go a little something like this:

“Can I get a specification section for stucco?”

Or

“Can I get a specification section for ceramic tile?”

How many of you see issues with that? Those questions solve about 1% of my questions. Which in reality, the only question it CAN solve, is, “What do you want?”. My responses back are usually question filled, for instance with tile:

“Where is the tile? Full mortar bed or thin set? If full mortar, cleavage membrane? Grout type? If in a wet location, waterproofing membrane needed?”

On and on I can go, as many of you can as well.

The way my firm’s master specifications are built, that gets me a pretty good start if I get answers back for that tile request. I also don’t worry about product selection as our standards are good, so the team gets what they get, unless they tell me otherwise.

I hardly get specification requests which thoroughly explain what is needed. I’m just happy if I get 50% of what I need, or they send me a product data sheet with selections. Most of the time I don’t even get answers to my questions, so I ask for the detail and figure it out in my own. Which takes quite a bit of time, especially if the detail is not telling the correct story.

Questions are everything in the industry. There are times, for example, I’ll reach out to a Senior Architect in our office with a quick question. That quick question turns into an how long conversation with each of us discussing and asking questions about the original question. Sometimes at the end, we don’t have an exact answer, but have a better overall picture. My discussions with this person are great, and the projects are better for it, the master specifications are better for it as well. Not only are questions asked, but the right questions are asked.

The other day, I was in a meeting with our President of Standards and a young Designer who was helping us out. The President of Standards and I were discussing some details at the time, and we had mentioned how great it was for this young Designer to be in this meeting, and how much she will learn from helping us out. This person then chimed in and said she was googling items she didn’t understand or know about to gain knowledge of them. At some points, she even asked some questions. The President of Standards and I both agreed how awesome that was and we kept bringing this person up and what they were doing in future meetings. At one point, even recommending her for additional standards work. We couldn’t give her enough praise because she was taking the initiative by asking questions.

Asking questions isn’t an art, it can be done very easily. It just takes the right mentality. A mentality, that, unfortunately not everyone has. It starts with training and supervisors taking the time to sit down and teach their employees. Sometimes I get emails from production level staff in regards to a submittal. Most times it’s something they don’t understand and want clarification. One, this is great because they are asking the questions, but two, where is the supervisor? The supervisor, I believe, should be mentoring, sitting down with the employee going over the submittal together. I can’t imagine some of products that get approved if the supervisor doesn’t review the submittal with them. It also teaches the young employee very little. There is no positive growth by letting them sink or swim on their own all the time.

Becoming a licensed Architect takes a long time, and it’s built upon learning and asking questions. It’s in the nature of profession, but we have deviated from it. Blame it on the Licensing requirements, the project constraints, the generational gap, etc. It is a multi-level problem, that I hope gets turned around.

Do questions show weakness? In my mind, no. Asking questions shows the ability to learn and the acceptance that you don’t know everything. I believe that somewhere along the line, and this is true for everyone in every job, admitting you don’t know something is taken as a fault, and can potentially cost your job. That mentality should be changed to one of acceptance and where asking questions is okay. We don’t know everything, and we shouldn’t expect others to know everything. What we should expect are the questions.

So let’s get back to asking the questions and maybe, just maybe, some of our construction documents will be better for it.

Or Equal… Or are they?

Do you ever feel your hands are tied with accepting substitution requests because of the phrase the “or equal”? Just because a product is tested to the same performance standards and acceptance criteria, doesn’t necessarily make it an equal does it? Or how about manufacturer’s that manipulate their testing data and claim their product performs the same or better as the specified product, but we know it doesn’t, what do we do then? These days, simply saying “no” on a substitution request doesn’t cut. The Contractors and manufacturers want an explanation. Even if you give them one, they will likely send you letter after letter claiming they should be accepted. So….

Are two products really ever equal? Let me ask you this, is an In-N-Out Burger equal to a Five Guys Burger? They are both burgers, have buns, lettuce, ect. If they were tested to performance standards such as cook time, weight, calorie count, etc., I bet they would turn out to be “equals” in the eyes of some people. Because would you reject a minute less cook time if the burger comes out just as good if not better? I bet some of your brains are turning right now. How can an In-N-Out burger be equal to a Five Guys Burger? Exactly my point. They are both considered burgers, but one is thinner, one is grilled vs. charred, one has a secret sauce, and the list goes on. So then, when we say “or equal” in the specs, what does that really mean.

Let’s back up a minute, what does equal mean? I define equal as something having the same certain value as something else, X=1, 2+2=4, 300 psi = 300 psi, 12 inches = 1 foot. I think you get my point. So…

Example 1: Take rubber flooring products for example and we specify only one characteristic and nothing else, a minimum 300 psi static load limit. During the bidding phase, we get a substituted product that has a static load limit of 450 psi. The project Specification requires a minimum 300 psi because all the flooring products we specify and know are great products are at least 300 psi. We want to deny the substitution because we know it’s a crappy product, but we can’t because it exceeds the minimum psi we specified. We ultimately have to accept it based off the criteria in the specification.

Where am I going with this, well here I go.

Those two flooring products are “equivalent”, not “equal”. Equivalent to me means something that is comparable, not necessarily equal, to one another. This orange is equivalent to this orange, Kobe is equivalent to MJ (although some might disagree on that one), or Nike is equivalent to Under Armor.

The flooring products in the example above are all equivalent. Are both acceptable, well that depends on the project requirements and Architect’s interpretation. What if both flooring products meet the same testing standards, but differ in one place, say static load limit by 50 psi. Are those flooring products equal? No, they are equivalent. If you know the substituted product will perform just as well, that 50 psi difference won’t matter to you. If that flooring product is crap and you say that 50 psi is the difference maker and deny, chances are you will get letter after letter, email after email, giving you reasons to accept. Plus the Contractor says it will save the Owner a bunch money and the Owner agrees, but you know as the Architect and past experience, the product is crap. Let’s face it, sometimes the Architect’s opinion doesn’t matter and the only other reason Owners come to the Architect besides design is because they have to for that stamp. The industry favors the Contractor and their opinion, not the Architect.

When you look at flooring products, most test to all the same ASTMs and yet you can argue that each one is proprietary and truly not an “equal”. We all have those products that we know, even though they test to the same values as the Basis-of-Design, are just cheaper products. We eliminate those cheaper products from the specifications and attempt to deny the substitution requests when they come in. Yet it’s extremely difficult because they test and “perform” to the same standards. But in reality are just a cheaper product.

Example 2: I had a substitution request come in the other day on elevators. The substituted company submitted a side by side comparison and all the correct documents. However, I know this elevator was a “cheaper” product, but because it met all the specification requirements, I couldn’t recommend to deny. I had to consider the product an “equal” based on the requirements of the spec. The Owner is now getting a known cheaper product.

Example 3: I also had a substitution request on a shelving product. Again, I knew the substituted product met the spec from the submitted documents. The only difference was that the specification called for the manufacturer to have an ISO certified QA process, where the substituted product was a in-house process. The ISO qualification was clearly something specific to the manufacturer listed that probably shouldn’t be listed in the master, and my response back to the PM was “how picky do you want to be?” Could we deny, yes, but the substitution request contained information for the internal QA process that I deemed “equivalent” to the ISO process… So are we looking for equals or equivalents? If it was equivalent, I could deny because I deemed the product to be cheaper.

Saying a product is cheaper is not necessarily quantifiable when it meets all the specified criteria.

Personally, I would love to get rid of the phrase “or equal” and revise it to “or equivalent as determined by the Architect”, which in reality means “Whatever is acceptable to the Architect is final”. Determining an equivalent product is really up the Architect and in some cases the Owner. Not the contractor and certainly not manufacturers.

Example 5: Rubber flooring again (because it’s easy to explain, and I promise I am not picking on you). The commercial rubber flooring we specify are tested to the same standards, yet some degrade faster in hospital settings due to foot traffic, cleaning chemicals, hand sanitizers, etc. So how are they all equal? They aren’t. But we list them as equals and we treat them as equals. If we specified products we know don’t degrade due to hand sanitizer, yet we get a substitution request for a product we know degraded quickly when exposed to hand sanitizer, how can we deny it if it meets the specification. If we put our reasons about the affect hand sanitizer has on the flooring, we most certainly would get letters from the manufacturer saying their product is not effected if maintained properly or some other “excuse”. However, we all know that proper maintenance doesn’t always happen.

Let’s get rid of “or equal” and replace it with “or equivalent as determined by the Architect” because nothing is truly equal to something else outside of the mathematics realm. Just because some product had the same value as another, doesn’t mean they are equal, so let’s stop treating them that way. All products are proprietary anyways. They all have patents on something in their product that make it unique and perform a slightly different way. So why do we consider them equals? If we understand that things are equivalent, then we, as the Architect, should be able to simply reject a substitution by simply saying “Even though product meets performance standards, product does not meet Architect’s interpretation of quality”. Done. No bid protests, no complaining by the Contractor or manufacturer. End of story.

It’s up to the Architect to determine quality, not such performance standards. Those performance standards serve as a guideline to help, but ultimately, it should be based on the Architect’s interpretation of what is acceptable. Long story short, Architects shouldn’t be responsible for accepting substitution requests of products that meet specified performance standards, yet have never heard of the company or product or are known to be cheaper. We shouldn’t have to look for one tiny data point that is different to reject. Architects shouldn’t be spending more than 30 minutes on a substitution request if everything asked for is given. Anything longer means trouble.

Last Example: What if a company sold a product that they claimed performed a certain way and knowingly lied about its performance because they manipulated the tests? Then were sued and had to pay a huge sum to fix the problems. Then say, they developed another product that met the same end goal as the previous product. You know their past so do my want to place in your master and don’t want to even begin specifying, but then get a substitution request for that new product. Everything checks out and it meets the specified criteria. How do you reject it? You simply can’t deny based off of company history or that they are not a good company. And if you do find one small difference you know it’s gonna be a fight because the manufacturer will send letter after letter claiming that small difference doesn’t make a difference and to accept their product! Now what…

That’s why I am arguing for the decision to be based off the Architect’s interpretation of what is equivalent and not rely on “or equal”, as “equivalent” gives the Architect more room to accept and deny product substitutions.

For those manufacturer reps, doesn’t this ring a bell? How many times do you get bid out because a known lesser product wins the bid. Although it meets the criteria specified, you know it’s a much cheaper product and won’t last or perform the way your product will. Understanding that products are equivalent, gives the Architect more power in determining acceptable products, and I firmly believe we get rid of “or equal” and replace with “or equivalent as determined by the Architect” in the public bid world. It will finally give power back to the Architect and limit bid protests for erroneous reasons.

No two products are ever equal. They are equivalent, but in reality, it is whatever, or should be, whatever is acceptable to the Architect.

It’s important to note that Division 00 or 01 should define what “or equal” is. My firm essentially defines it as meaning equivalent as acceptable by the Architect. But I think this adds confusion as now equal has two different meaning. Just because it is defined somewhere doesn’t necessarily mean that it will hold up in court. It can be argued that “or equal” is universally understood as 2+2=4, which would then make that written definition of meaning equivalent wrong. What I am trying to say is that the Architect shouldn’t have to give a reason why they denied a substitution request. Simply check deny and end of story. I think revising “or equal” to “or equivalent as determined by Architect” would do the trick.

Pen Review – Shaw Grass / Shaw Sports Turf

Rating

Look of Pen

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Feel of Pen / How does it fit in your hand

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Quantity of Ink Cartridge

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Writing

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Overall

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Pros:

The Shaw Grass pen is solid freebie pen. It feels great in the hand when writing. It has a solid cushion, so as to not bruise the fingers or knuckles. The clip is not a cheap clip that will break and will clip onto just about anything. The push function works smoothly and does not recoil. Comes in multiple colors

Cons:

The pen does not glide smoothly, you have to “work” for the pen to write. If not pressed firm, the pen will not discharge enough ink to write. When writing on a smooth, glossy surface, sometimes the pen will stop discharging ink, so then you have to find a pad of paper and scribble for the pen to continue discharging the ink. The ink cartridge is not large, rather skinny, so it will not last long.

I Don’t Have Enough Time

My biggest pet peeve, actually I have a few, but one that always gets me going is hearing, “I don’t have enough time.” This sentence to me is like nails on a chalkboard. I cringe every time I hear it. This phrase is nonsense and I’ll tell you why. When I first started as a spec coordinator, I’ll be honest, I used this phrase quite often, not just at work, but at home as well. As I continued working and learning, I realized how ridiculous this phrase is. I completely cut it out of vocabulary at work and at home. Let me say, it has made a difference. I no longer look at my tasks in a general sense. I break them down by how long each task takes and go from there. Yes, we all wish for more hours in a day, but that doesn’t excuse poor time management skills or being over worked. Projects suffer, teams suffer, and individuals suffer, mentally and physically.

When I hear this phrase now, it is almost always in regard to specs and if the team has reviewed them. The conversation usually goes like this:

Me: You have a submittal next week, did you get a chance to review the project manual?

Project Team Member: No, sorry, I haven’t. I don’t have the time and been too busy with other items.

Me: Okay, but they will need to be reviewed.

Project Team Member: Yes, I will go ahead and review those this weekend or next week.

Me: (thinking in my head) That only gives me like a day to turn the markups AROUND!!

Those markups never come, most of the time.

This is in regards to specs, 50% of the Contract Documents!! How is it that people/teams do not have enough time to review the specs to ensure for a well coordinated project manual? Drawings are not everything. Specs are the first thing lawyers look at. They are exact and almost always have one interpretation.

Side track…

I have come to the conclusion that there are two reasons for this phrase:

1. The person is being overworked and needs help.

2. The person has poor time management.

I usually give people the credit, and think they are overworked and trying the best the can. If it happens over and over, then I start to think they can’t manage their time properly. So, for those that have trouble with this, here are some tips:

1. Write out a daily or weekly agenda in terms of priorities, i.e., due dates.

2. Figure out how long it takes to do your most common tasks and improve those times.

3. Focus on the complicated tasks first, those usually take the most time.

4. Take breaks to refresh the mind

Using these simple tips will certainly help you. It might not solve the full picture, but it’s steps in the right direction. I was trained to look for inefficiencies in production and management. I constantly do that. It is one way I improve myself. If I feel like hours are running short, I look back on what I could have done faster, better, and more accurate. I recently heard a podcast where the speaker was talking about wasted time on a job site and boiled it down to walking. He realized if you are walking, you are not “working”, you are not making money. One day, if unions ever allowed, everyone will wear ankle bracelets like Amazon to track movement. The same could be said for those who sit at a desk, like me, but instead of tracking movement, it would track mouse movement and keyboard strokes. Productivity is everything, and it comes down to how well a person manages their time.

Back to specs…

Specs are so important. In my mind, and I tell everyone this, “It’s not your job to worry about specs, you still have to think about them, but it’s my job to worry about them.” I try to make their lives better. Making specification writers more integrated with project teams is something I am striving for. Not to just help me, but to also help everyone else. So that these people can say to me one day, “Yes, I did look at and review the specs.”

I don’t know when specs became so, I hate to say it, but pushed aside or neglected. I know this is not a local topic, but a topic many larger firms have. I think, partly it boils down to education and what people know or don’t know about specs (future post). If everyone had more knowledge and understood fully the ramifications of not having a coordinated project manual, I wouldn’t be typing this post…

I am hearing this phrase less at my firm. The specs… well… It is getting better! Change takes time as I am learning, and so will getting everyone to stop using this phrase. If I can accomplish one goal this year, it would be to help those that feel they don’t have enough time to teach them time management or help them in tasks so they are not overworked or feel so overworked.

We are all on the same team, working towards the same goal.