Specifying: Art or craft?

David J. Wyatt, CDT
Occasionally, I hear or read of the “art of specifying.” When the term is used without irony, it is a well-intentioned effort to call attention to an important part of construction documentation. What does it really mean, though?

The April 2005 issue of RCI’s Interface magazine included the article, “The Art of Detailing and Specifying” by Karl A. Schaack RRC, PE. The piece focused on the importance of accurate detailing and specifying for achieving good work results. However, apart from the title, the term ‘art’ is not used to advance the reader’s notion of what that word implies.

A web search for “the art of specifying” can produce dozens of similar results under various product categories. In few cases does art embellish the author’s point in a substantive way. It is used, as in Schaack’s article, as an honorific term—a fairly common journalistic practice that alerts a reader something worthwhile is dead ahead.

In the war against cliché, it is important to consider whether specification writing is essentially an art, or if it is something else. (As critic Martin Amis wrote, “all writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen, but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.”) While there are examples of architecture belonging to the realm of art, the term applied to specifying does not nearly describe its purpose or its effect.

Art with a capital A is a product of emotional intelligence. Imagination, spontaneity, unusual circumstance, and unique ability must converge at just the right moment for the artistic endeavor to be successful. Art is so subjective and unpredictable, the notion of ‘creative process’ is practically an oxymoron.

In 1956, Morris Weitz wrote his famous essay, “The Role of Theory in Aesthetics,” arguing “The very expansive, adventurous character of art, its ever-present changes and novel creations, makes it logically impossible to ensure any set of defining properties.” For this very reason, each work of art is a one-off arrangement. Despite its enriching effect, it cannot be counted on.

On the other hand, craft—the fruit of planning and process—is perhaps a more accurate descriptor for specifying than art. It delivers predictable results to satisfy particular practical needs. Craft also accounts for the possibility of perfecting something.

Craft depends on refining a process for progressive efficiency; it is that journey toward perfection existing in our minds, but forever beyond reach. The work we did last year would seem unattainable a decade ago because as we hone a craft with the intent to perfect it, we also change our notion of what perfection is. The bar moves as we move.

The artisan is one who practices a craft, evaluating and refining his or her work process each time it is repeated. Thus, even as perfection is not achieved, the results of craftsmanship are measurable, whereas those of art are not. Further, craft intentionally results in something useful, whereas art is not always so. (The ‘usefulness’ of art is not an artist’s primary objective. Or, as Oscar Wilde put it in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, “All art is quite useless.”)

For the results of a craft to be successful, or at least satisfactory, it is executed according to a plan—a process practiced and repeated to achieve the best results. Works of art, on the other hand, draw on inspiration rather than planning or formulae.

The artist makes no pretentions toward achieving perfection in his or her work; it does not impede the artistic endeavor. In fact, imperfection is paradoxically one of art’s essential qualities. The artisan, on the other hand, thinks differently.

To one possessing the artisan’s mindset, the statement, “There is no perfect set of documents,” sounds like a lack of commitment. The specifier-as-artisan would rather suggest there has been no perfect set of documents… yet. The possibility of perfection being close-at-hand never dies in the artisan’s mind.

Over the last 70 years, CSI has provided specifiers, by way of its various committees, with standards and processes for doing work in the manner of a true craft. The Manual of Practice has evolved into the Practice Guides; MasterFormat, SectionFormat, and PageFormat have evolved as well. The certification programs ensure perpetuation of professional standards, while keeping constant its basic principles, such as the 4 Cs (i.e. clear, concise, correct, and complete).

Having laid all this out, the door to art should not be closed. During a project’s incipient stages, the specifier often must interpret the expectations and desires held by owners and architects, and convert them into practical concepts the team can carry forward into design development. Doing this successfully and consistently arises not from the formulae or processes mentioned previously, but an uncommon ability to winnow clarity from vagueness.

At some point, the specifier has to document those concepts so project stakeholders can exercise their contractual rights and fulfill their responsibilities without a lot of problems. At the heart of this is the ability to know exactly what to write and when to stop writing.

These last two talents or abilities certainly aid the craft, but they come from a source apart from the standard process. As well, they do not always surface when we need them or in the right measure. However, when they do, we can appreciate attributes of both art and craft that make the difference between a project we consider ‘successful’ and one that merely suffices.

David J. Wyatt, CDT, is the specifications writer for TC Architects (Akron, Ohio), where he is responsible for product research, technical specifications, bidding documents, preparation of project manuals, construction contracts, construction bulletins, shop drawing review, and contract close-out for all project. With the late Hans Meier, Wyatt co-authored Construction Specifications: Principles and Applications. He can be reached at dwyatt@tcarchitects.com.

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