CREATING VALUE. REDUCING RISK.
WHERE DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION MEET.

A Twitter discussion broke out recently after Paul Gerber posted this tweet in response to AIA tweeting a November, 2016 article by Ariana Zilliacus on ArchDaily entitled, “21 Careers You Can Pursue With a Degree in Architecture.”

The point of Paul’s tweet, given that he had tagged ten specifiers, was that of the 21 careers listed by Ariana in her piece, specifier was not among of them.  A few questions grew out of that discussion.  First, the group was asking: why was specifying ignored — isn’t it a necessary career related to the practice of architecture?  Then the discussion moved to: how valuable is an architecture degree to the practice of specifications writing?  Finally, an obvious follow-up, big-picture question that we asked: what are you actually qualified to do with an architecture degree, anyway?

Trying to answer these questions in a meaningful way is difficult enough, following everyone’s input in a disjointed Twitter thread is nearly impossible.  The first response – taking Ariana to task – was pointless.  She hasn’t actually worked as an architect; she wrote the piece while still a student and acknowledged it was intended to be click-bait.  We therefore can’t be aggrieved that she didn’t include specifying because specifications are not taught in architecture school.  That’s bad, but not her fault.

Additionally, it takes meaningful time spent around the architecture profession before you see people moving from architecture into a variety of other careers that were also not included in the article’s list.  Many occupations are related to architecture, like real estate developers, program managers, construction managers, estimators, product reps, construction attorneys, and building scientists.  Architects have also left the profession to go further afield, becoming IT consultants, chefs, software developers, and toy-car makers, among many other things.

The more important questions, it seems, are these other ones the twitter discussion brought up.

Do you need an architecture degree to be a specifier?

Clearly, having experience working as an architect is beneficial in the practice of writing specifications.  To the extent that having an architecture degree provides an entrée into the architectural profession, the degree itself is helpful for becoming a specifier.  Architects gain significant knowledge relevant to specifications as they come up through the architecture ranks. Newly-minted architectural grads spend years drawing details and then correcting them when shown their errors, and that exercise is a great learning experience.  Through increasing complexity of professional practice, from drawing details to reviewing submittals to visiting construction sites, they slowly gain understanding of construction and the materials and systems that go into buildings.  At some point in their career, most architects-turned-specifiers have moved away from design and project management toward the more technical side of the profession, reviewing documents for quality and providing advice on detailing.  From there it’s a short step to writing specifications.

Experience working as an architect is helpful, but by no means necessary.  There are numerous specifiers with no architectural experience, some of whom have not even worked in a related industry before coming into specifying.  They face a learning curve in understanding the profession as well as building the mental encyclopedia of knowledge of codes, standards and material criteria, but they also may not have to unlearn as many misconceptions.

This is a much bigger topic; a future post will be needed to discuss in more detail the various experience paths that lead to specifying as a career.

What are you actually qualified to do with an architecture degree, anyway?

Sheldon Wolfe tweeted the most pithy response to this question: “Barista, cashier, theater usher, greeter, call center agent.”

Architecture-degree holders fresh out of school frequently find that the work they’re doing at their first architecture job has very little resemblance to what they did to earn their degrees.  The work shown in samples of ‘the best portfolios‘ clearly exhibits that students are not taught realistic design constraints, how to deal with clients and consultants, and precious little about real-life detailing, materials and construction.  Along with the basics of structures, building systems, and materials, Architecture schools do teach creative problem solving, and the situation is not as dire as Sheldon’s tweet would suggest. The question remains: are they actually teaching new architects enough more than how to tell a story using graphics?

Architectural firms, perhaps out of inertia, continue to hire architecture school graduates and then spend years teaching them to be architects, without demanding schools do more of the legwork.  To be initially valuable to the industry, students should come out of school with useful knowledge about construction drawing, specifications, and the business of owner-architect-contractor relationships.  It’s little wonder that the graduates that are hired first are the ones that spent their summers interning with firms; they already have a head start on knowing what a firm needs from its staff.

Conclusion

People who write specifications for a living, whether or not they come from an architecture background, perform a critically important service to the construction industry, and it’s challenging, interesting, enjoyable work. Perhaps the next click-bait article the AIA tweets should be ’16 Top Reasons to Become a Specifier.”