Discussing the changing role of the specifier with Keith Robinson: CSI Member Spotlight

April 6, 2018

Specifier Keith Robinson has been a member of CSI since 2005.
Photo courtesy CSI Academy

CSI[2] Member Spotlights are about supporting a robust community where construction professionals get together to trade insights for amazing results. Today’s Spotlight is on Keith Robinson, a senior associate with Canadian architectural firm DIALOG[3].

Born in Edmonton, Alberta, Robinson has been a member of CSI since 2005. He is also a technical liaison with Construction Specifications Canada[4] (CSC) and has participated in a number of SectionFormat/PageFormat discussions—one of the many documents where CSI and CSC share development. At DIALOG, Robinson works in research and development (R&D) and specifications, providing technical input for building envelopes and systems.

How has CSI impacted you, both personally and professionally?

Initially I joined CSI to get a different point-of-view on contracts and contract administration. The legal aspects between Canada and the United States vary—typically with issues being identified and resolved sooner in the United States. Being on the leading edge of developing trends allowed our firm’s specifications to adapt using predictive outcomes for issues we were starting to encounter.

Later in my membership, I found that the Seattle Share Group I participated in was open to questions and sharing opportunities to solve common specification issues. I also saw opportunity to contribute at a national level and volunteered for a number of initiatives including in the development of OmniClass and MasterFormat.

What was your first industry job?

My first job was as a junior drafting technologist; however, as my handwriting skills were poor, one of the senior partners at the company thought I could do less damage editing specifications. This is ironic, as my technical abilities are still used to help others with their “drawing” detailing.

That architect became a very good friend and mentor. He encouraged me to take courses in construction law and architectural practice and his guidance allowed me to grow in my career to the position I now occupy: a senior associate in one of the largest private architectural/engineering professional practices in Canada.

How would you describe your profession?

In a word, challenging. Being a specifier defines what I do, but not what I am. My educational background is in industrial design and architectural technology. Many people see specifiers and their written works as a complete mystery. Specifications are perceived as disconnected from the more visual aspects of project documents and, thus, less deserving of the attention when compared to drawings. That is, of course, until something goes wrong, at which point the specification is seen as a lifeline.

“Specifiers are in a position of trust and have the ability to influence outcomes and create positive experiences.”

My background allows specifications to be modified to interpret design language and connect more effectively to the graphical documentation. I understand design and how to interpret this type of language in a way that is, for the most part, able to be more effectively communicated to the constructor. Those who do not know me might classify me by standard perceptions of specification writing: dull, boring, and unimaginative; however, the people I work with realize specifiers with a design background are valued team members and appreciate the knowledge “people like us” bring to designs.

Why does your profession matter to you?

I see specifiers as educators. Once they have described a difficult design element, completed some component of research, or overcome a challenging contract administration event, they are presented with opportunities to share these experiences.

Specifiers capture the historical knowledge of architectural/engineering firms. They are in a position of trust and have the ability to influence outcomes and create positive experiences.

There is also the danger of inattention. If an element of design is missed in the assembly of the project manual, this oversight can result in ‘unfortunate’ delivery of a key building component on-site. This is a reminder of the great responsibility placed on the specification and is the reason why so many specifiers ensure the benefits of the role they play in a professional practice is known to their employer.

What is your favorite aspect of working with others in this field?

I really enjoy sharing. I love working with others, whether it is as a part of a mixed-discipline group, looking for project solutions, or simply sitting in a bar, comparing stories and approaches to writing. My colleagues and I are part of great, supportive community. The people I circulate with are willing to give and receive ideas freely.

What opportunities does CSI have to grow?

CSI has been in a state of existential reflection for many years now. The economic downturn in 2008 hurt those working in specifications particularly hard. As specifiers are non-design team members, we were often the first employees dropped from payroll. At this time, the importance of the specification was put to the side as traditional roles between designer and documents necessitated a sense of preservation of self.

We lost a lot of valued members during that time and continue to struggle to regain those bygone associates. If value is not seen in the specification, by extension, value in the specifier is gone.

This all sounds a bit post-apocalyptic; however, the way I see it, there is opportunity in understanding the changed dynamic. In many ways, a process similar to “truth and reconciliation” can work to revive the perceived value of the specifier and the documents they prepare for a project. Practitioners and design professionals are being challenged by builders about the quality of the documents we all produce.

“With its multi-disciplinary membership opportunities, CSI can help identify and overcome communication failures in the industry.”

Those working in the industry are undergoing a ground-up shift in the way we exchange information and communicate. There has not been as great a potential for change since the modern roles of architect/engineer and contractor were established in the early to mid-1800s. Nearly 200 years since the invention of our profession and we finally have an opportunity to reinvent the perception of specifications and the written content in emerging BIM-oriented project delivery methods.

CSI has a special relationship with its members and the association can bring influence to support growth in these new technologies. CSI is unique in that its membership includes all contributors to the built environment—architects, engineers, constructors, lawyers, owners, and legislators. CSI is not a single-interest association; it represents many facets of our industry. This means the opportunity to initiate growth and understanding of the specification is already there and we just need to act on it.

What is CSI’s biggest challenge?

We need to confront outdated attitudes and approaches to documentation and the perceptions of who we are. Holding to outdated ideals is a challenge. To employ an allegory: dinosaurs had dinosaur brains and we do not see very many dinosaurs these days. No significant change can happen if we, as CSI members, do not adjust the perceptions of how we see ourselves. Our self-awareness reflects the way those outside of our membership perceive what we do.

Maybe that sounds a little pithy, even preachy. It certainly qualifies for inclusion on a bumper sticker along the lines of “be the change you want to be.” Perhaps a more careful interpretation along the lines of Mahatma Gandhi’s remarks needs to be acted upon: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a person changes their own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards them. We need not wait to see what others do.”

Ultimately, the challenge is change. The world is changing and we need to adapt to these changes or specifiers, as a defined element of our profession, will cease to have meaning and we will lose the benefits of the modern architect/engineer and constructor relationship.

What is the construction industry’s biggest challenge?

I would say it is similar to that of CSI, but with a different focus. The biggest challenge facing the construction industry is showing value in the work of all of those who contribute to the built environment.

Unfortunately, we often experience failures in communication between different working roles within the industry. For example, it is very easy for a constructor to impugn the value of the documents they are working from when the basic understanding of the relationship between said document’s drawn components are not evident. That might sound hurtful, but the sooner we accept there is a failure in communication, the sooner this industry challenge can be resolved.

Oftentimes, we are so busy working in our silos or pointing fingers at others in an attempt to offload perceived liabilities and/or cover up gaps in our knowledge, we fail to see how working together in a collaborative environment can create buildings that make us all proud. This is not intended to sound “doom-and-gloom.” There are many examples available in our community that support this ideal and demonstrate positive outcomes that occur when cooperative effort to project deliverables is attained.

With its multi-disciplinary, multi-professional, and multi-vocational membership opportunities, CSI is in a special position to help identify and overcome communication failures in the industry.
Why are specifications important?

Aside from my personal bias, which is that specifications is what I do and keeps me gainfully employed?

Seriously though, when used correctly, specifications communicate design strategies and assign appropriate and well-written direction to the constructor. They have the power to influence good design and contribute to projects that satisfy the performance expectations of the people who hire us; the people and corporations that make the construction industry a vital component of the economic fabric of this country and the world. Meanwhile, poorly written specifications are expected to be “interpreted” by the constructor—as if they could read the designer’s mind.

The power of words is underestimated. This goes back to why I joined CSI; the quantity of work and population size in the United States dictates that, by sheer numbers, the quantity of legal issues will be significant. Progress follows the correction of these arising issues, which means specifications are well-positioned to offset and diminish the incidence of claims against professionals.

“The importance of the specification and integration with the model has grown and is increasingly evolving.”

I have a friend who owns a company that provides alternate dispute resolution. His goal is to provide information to specifiers and reduce his workload; unfortunately, his one admitted failure is that he has been extremely successful in finding faults within specifications—oftentimes the same fault repeated over and over.

If there are people making money from poorly written specifications, think about how important this document is and the ways in which well-written content can reduce the cost of construction and improve the state of the built environment.

How has the process of creating specifications changed in the last five years, and how do you see this process changing within the next five years?

BIM has become a much more influential contributor to specification writing. The company I work for is making the conversion to 100 percent digital documentation and creating connections between the modelled building and the specification.

The importance of the specification and integration with the model has grown and is increasingly evolving. The next five years will present special challenges; by the speed of adoption by constructors, this may necessitate changes very few of us have real knowledge of or experience in.

It is clear that doing things the same way we have always done them is not working. Change is being forced on us and the next five years will see a tremendous growth in adaptive strategies to deal with this new reality.

From your perspective, how has the role of the specifier changed over the last 10 years, and how do you see that role changing during the next five years?

More and more, the specifier is being used as a project resource. We are experiencing early involvement during conceptual design phases and this involvement is continuing through to schematic and design development. This makes the published document more accurate and reflective of the design intent.

Designers and specifiers experience a similar challenge; there is a disconnect between design and the model, which is often a consequence of different digital tool usage. This differential has noticeably reduced in the last couple of years, diminishing the rework and disconnect that was occurring as a consequence of using different toolsets between the design and production teams.

The next five years will see more collaborative software suites. I hope this leads to a more efficient transfer of design knowledge, resulting in improved communication to the constructor.

What’s the one piece of advice you wish someone had given you?

I was fortunate to have several good mentors and have benefited greatly from their advice over my nearly 40-year career. The one piece of advice they did not give me was about the inevitability of change—and how quickly that change can occur.

The Boy Scout motto “be prepared” springs to mind; the state of readiness in mind, spirit, and body this idiom conveys was missed in my early development and, as a result, I had to learn those lessons the hard way.

One piece of advice for individuals preparing for an upcoming exam?

Use the knowledge you have acquired. Do not memorize the content of your lessons; rather, think of ways to apply those lessons. Knowing how to solve something will be more beneficial to the exam than memorized facts and phrases.
Tell us about your daily routine.

First priority: problem solving. I come into the office in the morning, look at my e-mails, and filter out the messages identifying issues with projects. This is followed by a GOYA maneuver: get off your a– and engage this person in conversation to discuss solutions and overcome roadblocks.

Next, I check my workload schedules. I delegate tasks to others on my team and challenge them with new concepts to develop their skills. Once everyone is engaged, I chip away at the work I need to get done, making sure to make time to address critical concerns through the day.

I communicate with my extended community (CSI and CSC), check-in with the news from various publications and subscriptions, create content for our company’s internal best practices specification blog, and check the pulse of the world through lunch and spare moments of time.

To unwind, I talk to friends, spend time down at the rowing club—even during long, dark Canadian winters— and spend time in nature to offload and destress before heading home and spending time with my wife.

“The world is changing. Specifiers need to adapt to these changes or specifiers or we will cease to have meaning.”

What are you passionate about outside of the industry?

I love rowing. I coach people, participate in racing—I pretty much live and breathe rowing (when I catch my breath). I also help out with corporate rowing challenges to raise money for our local children’s hospital. Our rowing club’s event has raised more than $1.5 million in the last 12 years or so and the popularity of the sport in Edmonton has grown as a consequence.

What’s the coolest project you’ve ever worked on, or are working on now? How might that relate to knowledge you gained via CSI?

By far, the coolest project was a seminary—a place where Catholic priests undergo their formation. It was a very special project. The archbishop made the concept of construction palpable to my ideals of sustainability during our company’s interviews with him regarding the durability of materials and how they influence the performance requirements for specified materials.

The design principal asked, “What is the expected lifespan for this project?”

The archbishop responded, “I’m not sure what you mean by that question. What choices do I have?”

We replied, “Typical expectations for institutional buildings would be a predicted life cycle before major renovations of between 50 and 99 years, and greater than 100 years for permanent- or post-disaster buildings.”

He kind of laughed and stated, with a wink, “I’m not sure you noticed, but the church has been around for quite a while—and we plan on being here for a good while yet.”

This is the first and only project I have worked on that was intentionally constructed with a life cycle of more than 500 years. The materials used were permanent; the chapel was constructed from a single three-day pour of pure white concrete. Detailers were very conscious of accessibility to envelope components that need repair during that extended lifespan.

The specification required close coordination with manufacturers and suppliers and took more than a year to write. The project manual included innovative approaches to design-assist and engagement by the subtrades so that their contributions were recognized and included in a positive way in relation to the design expectations.

The project confirmed for me a collaborative and cooperative work environment can be successful in delivering great project.

What’s the one question you would have liked me to ask you?

“What are your personal plans for the future?”

To find out how you can get involved with CSI and network within the community, visit www.csiresources.org[5].

Keith Robinson can be reached via e-mail at krobinson@dialogdesign.ca[6].

  1. [Image]: https://www.constructionspecifier.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/edit_Keith-Robinson.jpg
  2. CSI: https://www.csiresources.org/home
  3. DIALOG: http://dialogdesign.ca/
  4. Construction Specifications Canada: https://www.csc-dcc.ca/
  5. www.csiresources.org: https://www.csiresources.org/home
  6. krobinson@dialogdesign.ca: mailto:krobinson@dialogdesign.ca

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