The focus of this blog is construction-related topics. The purpose is discussion, so please feel free to comment! See Specific thoughts for thoughts from the daily life of a specifier.

13 April 2015

Are specifiers an endangered species?

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 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, some specifiers also were 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 now are more or less required to be 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 the 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.


  1. Excellent article Sheldon. As with most things I read from you, you have hit the nail right on the head. My perception is that BIM will help list the products available for an application, but it will still be specifiers who decide what is best for that application, at the beginning of the Project, so that modeling can be done with the selected manufacturers product models (or a generic model) and then BIM will write the spec from that, and the specifier will review that written spec, and make minor edits. I don't think we'll be endangered, at least not in the near future, until ways to compare products and select them becomes MUCH easier for the Architect. And even then, they may still let it up to us. We are a dying breed, yes, but I don't see extinction on the horizon anytime soon. Of course I am over 55 and have been writing specs for 15 years, so I'd like to hear from those Architects who are currently using BIM, and having it write their initial specs, see what they have to say about the current process.

  2. Thanks for the comment, David, and for the kind words!

    It certainly is possible that BIM can make not only specifying, but use of specifications, easier. For that to happen the information must be controlled and the format must be consistent. That suggests that the person entering the information must understand what it means and how it will be used. It can't be created or edited by someone just out of school, or by a CAD jockey. I don't think we're dying so much as evolving.

    In a sense, the construction industry is at the same point it was fifty years ago. There was little consistency in the way information was created, stored, or used, until CSI produced the Manual of Practice and the Formats documents. The difference is that while we were concerned with putting stuff on paper back then, today the problem is finding the best way to handle information digitally. To do that requires a paradigm shift; instead of trying to force the information to look like it's on paper, we need to find the best way to enter, view, and use the information in the model. Should specifications continue to look like they were generated on a Smith-Corona? Shouldn't we have an interface that allows users to look at the information they want, in the format best suited to that information?

    I also would like to know what is going on in firms that use BIM. Who is creating the objects? Who is editing the properties? How is that information being used - or is it?

  3. Specifiers have a terrible image, even among architects who we are constantly saving from foolishness. Do I hear canes tapping in agreement?

    I think we should focus on 2 points in your article: 1) Few people go to school planning to be specifiers. 2) Few people choose the specs specialty until they’ve tasted the bitter realities of the architectural profession.

    I ask: Why do many CSI chapters offer scholarships? How many winners go on to become specifiers? Other than some minimal PR and self-back-pats, do these scholarships offer any benefits to our specialty?

    I maintain that, rather than scholarships, we offer grants for research to young professionals. This can be done as an annual competition, or an ongoing process of submission, evaluation, award, and publishing. Research scholarships will focus on one of our more important activities, will target those most likely to consider specs work, and by taking the focus off construction documents, will improve our image among architects, who we are constantly saving from foolishness [as we all heartily agree and discuss whenever we gather in person or chat rooms].

    What happened to the approving canes?

    1. I also have questioned the value of scholarships. If they are open to anyone, the odds are that the recipients will not work in construction, and will not become CSI members. Awarding scholarships then becomes a feel-good act that will be help the student but do little for our organization or our industry, and almost certainly will not go to a future specifier.

      Another problem with scholarships is that they often are given to college students, thereby excluding those who go to vo-tech schools and trade apprenticeship programs, two groups of people who are much more likely to work in construction.

      One of the most popular competitions has been "canstruction." I'm sure everyone has a great time, but it seems building something with construction materials would be more apt, and more beneficial to the participants. It also might be more interesting to convention attendees, and more likely to draw them to witness the competition.

      All awards should require something in return from the recipients. It might be a written report, or it might be a presentation at a meeting of the sponsoring chapter, but those who contribute to the award must be acknowledged in some tangible way.

      Thanks for your comments, Tony! I like your suggestion; you should submit it to the awards committees. I don't think it should replace other efforts to help students and young professionals, but it would be an interesting addition.