The pull between generalization and specialization can be tough for intern architects finding a career path, but for those who really want to focus on the details, the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) has long been the go-to group. The half-century-old organization developed the once-familiar 16-division MasterFormat categories, which it expanded to 50 groups in 2004. But CSI’s revenue has been flat for several years now, its 15,000-strong membership is reportedly in decline, and anecdotal evidence indicates that many firms have been slow to convert to the 50-division standard. Has spec writing lost its place as a useful niche in the profession?

Experience Counts

Caesar Vitale has been a licensed architect for almost 30 years and a spec writer for the past 15. He serves in that position in RTKL’s Chicago office, and his years of experience in a city known for its attention to architectural detail give him a singular perspective on the state of spec writing. Vitale is the only individual across RTKL’s 10 offices whose time is devoted solely to specifications. “I’m a dinosaur,” he says.

Los Angeles–based Andrew Wilson is more bullish. “I love being a specifier,” he says. The 1994 Ball State grad worked for 10 different L.A. firms before opening his own spec-writing outfit, AWC West, in 2005. Technology is trending towards more in-house specifiers, says Wilson—but the mere existence of his firm demonstrates his belief in the viability of these specialized services. Wilson works from home and supplements his knowledge with that of an advisory board to claim 175 years of experience. “I’m disappointed with [CSI’s] pessimism,” he says. “They contemplate that specifiers won’t be needed, or will be needed less.”

Rob Dean is president of Building Systems Design (BSD), maker of the SpecLink software for specification writing. His outlook on the CSI is downright optimistic. Calling executive director Walt Marlowe “forward-thinking,” Dean says the organization’s current leadership recognizes the CSI could become irrelevant, but it’s capable of righting the ship. “We’re becoming more focused on knowledge management rather than mere spec writing,” Marlowe says. Dean argues the group needs a name change, to the Construction Standards Institute, because that’s already what it does to some extent.

While specifications involve large quantities of information, it is experience with materials and construction that makes the best spec writers integral parts of a team. Most larger offices still have a skeleton crew of these specialists, but even at these firms, project managers write the specs from time to time. RTKL’s Vitale doesn’t dismiss the practice, but he warns of the perils that come at a time when many managers are younger and less experienced than just a decade ago.

AWC West’s Wilson points out that specifiers accumulate experience much more quickly than the average project architect. “I can write between 10 and 20 project manuals a year, but an architect will do only one project a year,” he says. This rapid pace provides Wilson with an understanding of trends many peers won’t notice for years.

Tools of the Trade

Not surprisingly, the biggest changes Vitale has seen involve the computer, whether the issue is design (CAD programs, especially BIM) or data (the Internet). Google, not the catalogs in RTKL’s library, is Vitale’s more likely tool for research. But the information he utilizes today is just a form of word processing. “BIM can link the information in the drawings with a massive database,” he says, and though RTKL uses Revit for most projects, the firm is still waiting for the specification functionality that BIM promises. Vitale sees BIM as a potential timesaver but says no program will replace the experience a good spec writer can provide.

Wilson doesn’t discount BIM, but says the technology is too undeveloped: “We’re probably at version 1.0. We need to be at 3.0.” The current “obsession” with BIM is symptomatic of larger issues within the profession, he adds. “Architects are looking for a magic bullet. Not everything has a technological solution, and collaboration is one [such thing].”

BSD’s Dean says interoperability—the ability for architects, engineers, contractors, etc., to use the same digital information about a building project—is the essential feature needed to make BIM work as promised. This is something a Construction Standards Institute could help establish, but it’s also the selling point of a suite of tools BSD expects to release later this year. BIM’s potential is great, but the fact is that architects often use such programs for graphical purposes only. Dean mentions one designer who put an acoustic ceiling tile on a wall in order to capture a particular pattern. In BIM, though, that pattern is more than just a pattern, and somebody has to be on the lookout for such errors.

Wilson knows from his jobsite experience that teamwork is messy, so he’s finding better ways to work, because “there’s too much investment in Revit and not enough in collaboration tools.” He uses social media to reach his team, his clients, and anybody else who’s interested. He’s regularly on Twitter and Facebook; lists his most-visited sites at StumbleUpon; and uses the “Collection” feature on Designer Pages to inform clients and potential clients of his preferred products.

It is impossible to say where specs will be in 10 years, but it’s clear that although the field is changing rapidly, real-world experience remains essential to defining the material qualities necessary for turning designs into well-built structures. Tools change and trade groups evolve, but spec writers’ knowledge and their connection to the larger team shouldn’t be discounted so quickly.