Saturday, July 12, 2014


A few weeks ago I was given the opportunity to serve as a docent at the Laurent House, a serene and gracefulFrank Lloyd Wright-designed home in Rockford, Illinois.

I’m writing today for two reasons: 1) to help spread the word that a very nice FLW building is now a museum and open for tours after sixty years as a private residence, and 2) to encourage anyone who gets an opportunity to be a docent to take that opportunity. You’ll be glad you did.

A little about the Laurents and their house:

  • The Laurents were married in 1941. Mr. Laurent served in WWII, and later had a spinal cord tumor that left him a paraplegic in 1946. Mr. Laurent was frustrated by the barriers (stairways, narrow doorways, etc) in conventional buildings which prevented him from being independent. Mrs Laurent saw an article in House Beautiful Magazine about Wright’s Pope house in Virginia, and thought that Wright’s open plan style would suit the needs of her wheelchair-bound husband. They approached Wright in 1948, and asked him to design a house for a wheelchair bound person. The Laurents lIved in, and raised two children, in this house from 1952 to 2012.  They were very aware of the importance of this house as a work of art, took good care of it, and wanted it preserved.

  • The House is about 2600 square feet on a single level,  and sits on a beautiful 1.3 acre wooded lot. It’s one of Wright’s Usonian houses with lots of built-in furniture to reduce the clutter of daily life. The house has an open plan and many features to accommodate the wheelchair-bound Mr. Laurent. The original two-bedroom one-bathroom house was completed in 1952. An additional bedroom, bathroom, and dining room, also designed by Wright and his staff, were completed by about 1960. Everything is custom in this house. It’s totally unlike conventional houses of the period. Furnishings are the Laurent’s furnishings, mostly designed by Wright.

Want to learn more about the Laurent House?  Interested in traveling to Rockford to see it?  Go to  Here’s a screen shot of the Laurent House website.

Sunday, February 23, 2014


A colleague this week related a conversation he’d had with a client about how hard it is sometimes for architects and engineers to communicate with non-design professionals.

He took out a piece of paper and proceeded to draw a doodle of random lines.  The result had no words, and was not a graphic representation of anything recognizable. It was just a doodle.

“This is how we (i.e. many lay people) see architectural and engineering drawings”  the client had told him.  In other words, many people simply do not understand the drawings we so carefully craft. They don’t understand the graphics. They don’t understand the contractual implications, either.

Something similar is going on with construction specifications.

Good, experienced, contractors and their estimators know how to read, understand, and put a price tag on, specifications. They know where we say the  things that matter to them  in the process of bidding on and building a project.

They get the lingo of architecture and construction.

They know, for example that although aluminum storefront extrusions are hollow and that aluminum is a metal, aluminum storefronts are NOT hollow metal.

They know that although cold formed metal framing may be used structurally in a building, and that it is steel, it is NOT structural steel.

But non-design professionals have a much harder time understanding construction drawings and specifications.  When you add in a few delightful english language oddities like dual meanings for certain words (water table can refer to level of water in the ground or to a decorative stone band in a wall; elevation can refer to a straight-on view of a building or a height above a datum), it’s no wonder that some folks think we might as well be talking to them in Aramaic or Klingon.

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, as Yul Brynner’s character said in The King and I.

Our profession is hardly unique of course. Legal and medical professionals have this problem, too.

The cure:  I wish I knew.  The only thing I can think of  to spend more time explaining the purpose and effect of drawings and specs to clients.

Sunday, December 8, 2013


Civil engineers and landscape designers, at least here in northern Illinois, rarely use MasterFormat Divisions 31 - Earthwork, 32 - Exterior Improvements, and 33 - Utilties for their specifications for the site/civil portions of building projects.  

Instead they usually write specifications as notes on their drawings using an almost pure form of reference standard specifying.   They refer to item descriptions in the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) Standard Specifications for Road and Bridge Construction.  They specify their work on building projects the way they do it for prime site/civil projects, minus of course the unit-price style bidding.    

         which way?  Image by TACLUDA

They only resort to MasterFormat specs when it’s required by clients, and even then they often strip out AASHTO and ASTM standards for products and processes from master specs, and insert references to the IDOT Standard Specifications.

Why is this?  Why has CSI’s MasterFormat not been adopted by many site/civil designers?
  • One reason is that many site/civil and landscape consultants work on both prime site/civil projects and the site/civil portions of building projects, and they’re thus much more familiar with the IDOT frame of reference.
  • Ditto for site contractors.
  • Another reason is that the IDOT specs are geared to the soil conditions and available products in Illinois.
  • Specifying by reference to IDOT is actually a pretty good system, yielding clear and concise specifications and it doesn’t require the site/civil designer to have to read end edit anything besides their standard drawing notes.
  • There’s also tradition, always a powerful factor.

What does it mean for construction document consistency and quality?
  • Specifiers must:
    • Resist the project team’s temptation to regard site/civil construction docs as a standalone package. Site/civil is an integral part of most of our construction document packages even though, at my firm, it’s always done by outside consultants.
    • Read site/civil drawing notes and help the project team to resolve gaps and overlaps between site/civil specs and architectural/structural specs.
  • How can a specifier link to this type of site/civil spec in a Project Manual?  In the Project Manual Table of Contents, I usually include a note “See Civil Drawings” under Divisions 31, 32, and 33.

Orphans:  Whether for contractual reasons, or just because they don’t feel confident venturing beyond their traditional turf, site/civil designers often balk at getting involved with some of the following topics.  So as the generalist spec writer, I get to write specs for things like:
  • Ornamental fences and gates,
  • Monument signs,
  • Patio decks, especially anything with special concrete finish or unit pavers,
  • Wood framed decks and railings.
  • Soil compaction under the building as opposed to that of the remainder of the project site.
  • Security fences and gates, turnstiles, prefabricated canopies.
  • Exterior site components of access control and video surveillance systems.

I don’t see this situation changing any time soon.

What’s your experience with site/civil specs?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Why You Should Read "The Hidden White House"

I spent my leisure hours last weekend reading Robert Klara’s new book “The Hidden White House - Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America’s Most Famous Residence”.

I highly recommend this book.  Most people in architecture, engineering and construction will find it a fascinating story.  Robert Klara paints a vivid picture of Harry Truman, mid-twentieth-century politics, and the grand but dilapidated old White House.  

The White House suffered from poor construction, including sinking foundations under its interior walls, hasty and poorly documented repairs over the years, utility installations that seriously compromised important structural members, and inadequate maintenance.

By the time Harry Truman and his family moved into the mansion after Franklin Roosevelt’s death in 1945, the place was a barely habitable wreck and growing more unsafe by the day. By 1948, the building was deteriorating at such an alarming rate that the Trumans had to move across the street to Blair House.

The public sees the outer walls of the original late eighteenth-century building and has the impression that the old building  was “restored” from 1948 to 1952.  Not so.  From the book jacket: “America’s most famous historic home was basically demolished, giving birth to today’s White House.”  And only a fraction of the old building’s interior fittings eventually made it into the rebuilt White House.

Lessons we should learn from this story?  Build well in the first place.  Document what you build and how you modify it so future generations know what they’re dealing with.  And finally, take good care of buildings.  


Monday, November 25, 2013

Spec Writing Isn't Just a Living. It's Entertainment.

Spec writing isn't just a living. It's entertainment. For me, at least.

I’m sure there are other roles in the AEC industry that provide professional fulfillment, satisfaction and entertainment. Structural engineers, for example, may get to design unusual, one-of-a-kind structures or modifications to existing buildings, and the satisfaction of having designed an ingenious, structurally efficient, solution. HVAC engineers, especially with today’s emphasis on energy efficiency, are in a unique position to have a positive impact on the future by reforming the way we use energy in buildings.  Ditto plumbing engineers and the use of scarce water resources.  And electrical engineers and their potential influence on better and more efficient lighting.  And technology designers with smart systems for buildings. Etc., etc.

Back to spec writing. I think I’m very lucky to be a spec writer at this point in AEC history. Not only do I get to work on projects both large and small, easy and tricky, fast-paced and slow-paced, I get to do this at a time when the very form of contract documents is about to experience profound change. A change from paper-based documents you can hold in your hands, to electronic file-based documents stored in the cloud and accessible to a wide-ranging team of project designers, builders, and the ownership team. And as a spec writer, I get to help build the bridge from the old way of doing things to the new way.

Our local Northern Illinois Public Radio station, WNIJ - DeKalb Rockford, has as its motto “Where you learn something new every day”.

That’s what spec writing is for me. Learning something new every day.  Or several somethings.

If you want to be a meaningful part of the AEC business, consider looking for opportunities to get into spec writing, either full time or as an adjunct to another role.  Don’t worry about little things like memorizing those pesky CSI format numbers. Repeated use of the system will sear most of the numbers into your memory anyway.  

To be a spec writer, you do have to be a good, detail-oriented, critical reader, as well as a careful writer, and a ruthless editor.  But fear not.  You’ll find that most CSI members are almost pathologically eager to help and mentor you.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


Every once in a while some clueless social media newbie types a message in all caps. Someone inevitably takes the newbie to task, explaining that in social-media-land, writing in all caps means you're shouting.
Why are we still writing drawing general notes in all capital letters?
Are we shouting the message of the note because we think it's so important?
Or is it just traditional?
Writing in all caps seems archaic to me. It's a practice we can't seem to let go of, like doric columns, or divided-lite windows, or fake plastic shutters flanking windows, or wood grain texture embossed into vinyl siding.  It's a relic of the era when text on drawings was hand or template lettered, and drawings were produced with parallel rules or t-squares, triangles, and lead holders.
When everything is capitalized, nothing is emphasized. Punctuation becomes less prominent, like road signs obscured by overgrown roadside trees. The text is much harder to read. The directions to the contractor blur together and seem to recede in importance, making it easy for the lazy to dismiss the notes as mere “boilerplate”.
When everything is in caps, it's much harder to grasp the very real, and usually very important, directions we're trying to give the contractor in the general notes.
It’s my opinion that drawing general notes, and maybe all drawing notes, should be written in sentence case, i.e upper/lower.
Take a look at this snippet from a recent project's electrical general notes. I don't mean to pick on electrical engineers. All disciplines have the same issue. 

All caps, exacerbated by inadequate line spacing, render this an illegible mess. I think it would be much clearer in sentence case.
Imagine the reaction if we wrote specifications in all upper case text.
What do you think?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


From the archives...
This is from an article I wrote for the Northern Illinois CSI LINK newsletter in 2004.

Let me be the first to admit that the AEC business's finest curmudgeon is Sheldon Wolfe, who writes about architects, the built environment, and CSI, with unusual clarity and vision, and one of whose series of articles is called, I think, "Curmudgeon's Corner". Visit his blogs at and

But before Sheldon defined curmudgeonliness as a brand, yours truly tried to have a little fun with the word.

Every once in a while, NPR's morning show features Sports Illustrated's Frank DeFord as the Sports Curmudgeon, a gravelly voiced, more irascible version of Andy Rooney. The Sports Curmudgeon rants in the third person about things that irritate him in the world of sports. I couldn't resist the temptation to create and assume the persona of the Spec Curmudgeon.

PROJECT MANUAL SIZE: The Spec Curmudgeon is fed up with people in the construction industry who whine that Project Manuals are too big.  Too many pages, they say. Nobody will ever read it all, they say. The bidders will be scared away from the job by the thick spec book. Bids won't be competitive because we're too bureaucratic, we specify too much detail, and we're asking contractors for too many submittals. Smart aleck critics convey their opinions about the usefulness of specifications to the Spec Curmudgeon by trotting out a tenth-generation photocopy of that time-worn cartoon showing a construction site outhouse with the words "Damn, we're out of specs" in a speech balloon over the outhouse.

To this, the Spec Curmudgeon respectfully says: HORSEFEATHERS! When, during construction of a project, the drawings are found to be hopelessly inconsistent and don't agree with the spec, the Spec Curmudgeon is asked: "Hey, where did you spec that provision about the greatest quantity or highest quality of products in the event of a contradiction in the construction documents?" When jobsite workmanship is questionable, the Spec Curmudgeon is asked to comb the Project Manual and dredge
up relevant industry standards to which the contractor may be held. To paraphrase the late Senator Everett Dirksen's remark about budgets: "A word here, a provision there, and pretty soon you're talking a pretty big book." The Spec Curmudgeon thinks that a construction project is a crapshoot and you never know when you're going to need a particular combination of words. The Spec Curmudgeon says: "Better safe than sorry when editing the Project Manual."

THE LACK OF A CONSISTENT FORMAT FOR CONSTRUCTION DRAWINGS: It's hard to get the specs right when every AE firm (and sometimes every architect within a firm) organizes drawings differently.
The Spec Curmudgeon thinks this problem is the bane of the architectural business, causing many mistakes and hurting AE firm profitability.  Specifiers have to interface their specifications with the work of outside consultants of all types, tenant architects, associated firms, and corporate clients, among others.  When trying to coordinate with another firm's drawings, you never know whether they're going to show some particular type of information on elevations, or schedules, or abbreviations, or in notes of some sort. What the Spec Curmudgeon finds even worse is the use of so-called "keyed notes". This method serially numbers products or finishes and shows the numbers on an elevation or plan. The Spec Curmudgeon's problem is that the numbers usually bear no relation to the objects or actions they describe. What's even worse, some firms use separate lists for each drawing in a project, so that for example Keynote 15 on a floor plan may refer to a dock seal, while on a sheet of interior elevations, Keynote 15 may be a dishwasher.

This lack of drawing consistency has to be as big a problem for construction contractors and subcontractors as it is for specifiers. Cost estimators in particular must be driven to distraction by the lack of consistency in organization of construction drawings.  The Spec Curmudgeon thinks  the solution to this sorry state of affairs is for everybody in the design professions to finally get on the bandwagon and use the National CAD Standard and other drawing formats promoted by CSI. Specifications long ago benefited from wide acceptance and use of CSI organizational formats. It's time for people who produce drawings to adopt the same degree of self-discipline and use the industry's common standards.

OBSOLETE MANUFACTURERS AND PRODUCTS: Construction product manufacturers never tell the Spec Curmudgeon or other specifiers when they're going out of business, and rarely tell us when they're discontinuing a product line.  They just abandon their obsolete catalogs, leaving them to mislead our professional staff and clutter our already overcrowded library shelves. The Spec Curmudgeon thinks that the industry's magazines should include in every issue a corporate obituary page to alert the industry to the passing of obsolete manufacturers and brands.

OTHER ISSUES: With any encouragement at all, the Spec Curmudgeon may at some time in the future rant about other irritants such as the abominable state of the news industry's coverage of construction issues, or the tendency of architectural magazines to focus on the most impractical designs and to use trendy, twitchy, hard-to read graphic styles.