Does one need an architectural degree to be a specifier? Elias Saltz, my colleague, argues that though it may be helpful, it is not a necessary requirement. I agree with this assessment. I happen to be one of those specifiers without an architectural degree. The challenges I’ve experienced center around two poles: learning specific specifications writing formats, and bridging the construction industry information deficit. I believe they can be overcome through time and effort.
I come from a varied background, none of which is based in architecture or construction. My work experience is mostly military aviation, having worked in the US Air Force, the NJ Air National Guard and for The Boeing Company’s defense business. I am quite familiar with using USAF technical publications, and that experience allowed me to write the maintenance processes and procedures documents for the Ground Support Equipment activity at the Boeing Company’s former CH-47 Modification Center in Millville NJ. I have a BA in history from Rowan University and a J.D. from Rutgers University Law School. Both degrees are research and writing intensive.
My background has taught me to be flexible in professional writing and research. Air Force tech pubs are organized differently from history research papers and legal memoranda. History research and writing is different from the way it is practiced in law writing. Law writing has specific ways things are researched and specific mandatory formats for writing. History has a less strict format, with allowances for personal expression. This helped prepare me to accept and learn spec writing’s specific way of organizing information. To understand that, just like law, there is an underlying logic to the format.
The biggest part of the learning curve is learning the architectural and construction terms, systems, and practices. This can be overcome given time, and access to a deep reservoir of knowledge from more experienced staff-members. Not to mention, there are many internet-based resources available to further one’s knowledge.
A benefit to being an outsider entering any profession, business, or trade, is not yet having built up layers of presuppositions. Things are new. With fresh eyes, one can wonder why are things done (or thought) in a certain way, instead of falling back on, “this is just how things are done.” I remember a story about George Westinghouse, founder of the Westinghouse Company. He looked from outside at the railroad industry of his day, and wondered why no one did anything about the high death count for railroad brakemen, and the numerous rail accidents due to having to manually set the brake on each car for a train to stop. The railroads and government were not interested in fixing the problem because that was just the way things were done. This led him to develop the first pneumatic braking system, linking all the cars of a train with a unified brake system. This reduced rail accidents, and also removed brake men from trains (costing jobs, but also saving lives). The system’s descendants are still used today.
Having a background in writing and researching, and problem solving, is important when entering specifications. Learning those skills in other fields or educational backgrounds will lower your learning curve to just the terms, systems and practices. In themselves, these are huge areas to grasp and master, but having a prior writing background and other work experience will be a big help.
A Specifications Degree?
What about the Construction Documents Technology (CDT) and the Certified Construction Specifier (CCS) certification programs? I think it can be part of a broader educational program, perhaps combining the CDT and CCS material together along with some practical elements ( i.e. Research papers, writing spec sections, and a senior project to write a complete spec book for a fictional building). My thinking is that an education program may be more helpful than just a DIY test prep and then taking the test. Sometimes DIY test prep can be haphazard (depending on work/life schedules) with no classroom structure to support it.
A varied background can be helpful in learning specifications, provided that person likes to research, read and write. These are, I think, the essential skills needed for specifications, which many non-architectural backgrounds can also provide. Short of the introduction of a specifications specific degree, or some other sort of certification program for specifiers, the cobbled together apprenticeship model may be the way forward for those with non-architectural degrees entering the field.