Are specifiers an endangered species?

by Sheldon Wolfe, RA, FCSI, CCS, CCCA, CSC

For many years, there have been debates about the future of construction specifiers. Where will we find new specifiers? Are they all dying off? Is the profession no longer needed? While I believe there is reason for concern, I don't think much has changed.

Several years ago, Bob Johnson conducted an informal survey on, asking members to answer these questions:
• What is your current age?
• Did you receive education beyond high school?
• What was your major?
• At what age did you first prepare some significant specifications?
• Did you have a mentor in specifications?
• How was the mentor related to you (office, CSI chapter, etc.)?
• At what age did you first take a formal education seminar or course in specifications?
• Who provided the education?
• At what age did you achieve CCS (will be later for many because of when the program started)?
• At what age did you first become a full-time specifier?

After sixty-nine responses, Bob made his final report, indicating the average age, with the range in parentheses:
• Current age: 55 (32 to 73)
• Higher education: Architecture
• Age when first prepared specs: 32 (17 to 51)
• Have a mentor: 72 percent; in same office
• Age at first formal education: 41 (20 to 56)
• Education provider: CSI
• Age at CCS: 45 (27 to 57)
• Age as full-time specifier: 46 (20 to 60)

Bob opined that 'lack of young specifiers in today's world is not a new story and that most people do not become specifiers until they have been around the "professional block" a few times and discovered where their talents lie and what part of the profession they are most interested in.'

I wish the survey had included at least one more question: What is the size of your firm? The lack of engineers is not surprising, but it would be interesting to know how they would respond to the same questions.

According to the 2012 AIA Survey Report on Firm Characteristics, about 25 percent of firms are sole practitioners, and more than 60 percent have fewer than five employees, while only 1.4 percent of offices had 100 or more employees. My observation is that firms don't have dedicated specifiers unless they have about 40 or more employees. AIA reports 6 percent of firms have 20-49 employees. If we assume that half that group has 40 employees, only 6 percent of firms have specifiers.

As noted, if you ask specifiers, many will say they are a dying breed, but they've been saying that for some time. Given the small number of firms that use specifiers, that may appear to be the case, but there simply aren't very many specifiers, and never have been, so it's hard to say if their numbers are decreasing.

This group has always had more gray hair than average, for a couple of reasons: No one went to architecture school with the intent of becoming a specifier, and people typically don't become specifiers until they've had at least a few years' experience.

The move to information modeling may impact specifiers, but it will be primarily in how they do their work. Before the advent of word processing software, it was not uncommon for specifiers also to be typists, though many relied on redlining, with an administrative person doing the typing. As word processing became more common, specifiers did more of their own typing, until it became the norm, and all specifiers were more or less required to become more or less proficient at word processing. An unfortunate result of this is that many architects today see specifiers as little more than glorified typists, and their real value - research, knowledge of materials, understanding of constructability, and coordination of drawings and specifications - is overlooked.

Must specifiers change with the times? Of course, as much as any other profession. And, just like any other profession, there are specifiers who are content to do things the way they have done them for years, even if that no longer makes sense. The recent move toward building modeling may well have an effect on specifiers; as grunt work of the job fades away, they will be able to spend more time doing the important part of their work. Specifiers recently have been talking about changing the name of the profession to something like information manager, partly, I believe, to dissociate themselves from the common perception of what specifiers do.

The growth of specifying software, such as SpecLink, may also have an effect. Much as CAD was seen, 30 years ago, as a program that would reduce the need for architects by simplifying drafting and eliminating the need to be able to think in three dimensions, many architects expect specifying software to simplify specifying, perhaps to the point that specifiers no longer will be needed.

As BIM and specifying software develop, and we leave behind our paper-centric view of construction documents as drawings and specifications, more than the job of the specifier will change; the format of specifications and the way they're used also will change. As the software becomes more intelligent, it is almost certain that we will need fewer architects and specifiers to do the same amount of work. But as long as schools fail to teach the very things that led states to require architects to be licensed, large projects will require specifiers, regardless of what they're called.

Specifiers may be evolving, but they're not going away.

© 2015, Sheldon Wolfe, RA, FCSI, CCS, CCCA, CSC
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