Sunday, February 27, 2011


Recently I’ve tuned in to several of CSI’s excellent BIM Practice Group webinars.  Last Friday’s session, which featured two experts from Autodesk explaining their Autodesk Seek product/service, got me to thinking about how much construction document production has changed during my time as a spec writer. And about how much more it’s destined to change in the next few years.

Contrast BIM’s intriguing interoperability with the way specs were prepared at the time of my first job as a spec writer.

Bill Lohmann, one of the finest people I’ve ever known, gave me the opportunity to work as a spec writer in his department at C. F. Murphy Associates in Chicago in early 1973. 

All the major AE firms had begun using some sort of word processing by then, and the routine at CFMA was a multi-step process consisting of the following:
  • Spec writers marked up hard copy of firm master specs.  There were three of us at the time, Bill Lohmann, Paul Tiffin, and yours truly.
  • Word processing was performed by three secretaries using key punch machines.
  • After they punched the cards, two secretaries proofread the cards, out loud.
  • They then took them to the firm’s mainframe computer on another floor in the building.  Hours or days later, the draft printouts were ready.  Since the spec drafts were printed on continuous form paper, they had to go through a burster, a loud machine that pulled apart continuous form paper at the perforations into 8-1/2 by 11 pages.
  • The burster was prone to jams which tore or wrinkled the paper, prompting consternation, muttered expletives, and usually reprinting.
  • Secretaries proofed the hard copy against the punch cards before it was released to the spec writers.
Seems almost comically redundant to our 2011 sensibilities, right?  It was more or less state-of-the-art at the time, though.

I haven’t yet had an opportunity to use any of the BIM-enabled specification systems, but I can’t wait to get started.  BIM’s potential for better, faster construction document production seems fabulous to me. I don’t have a clue about the details of construction document workflow in a BIM-enabled spec system, but I’m trying to absorb as much about BIM-specs as I can until I get a chance to work with it. 

Some in the specorati have expressed concern that linking BIM and specs will make spec writers obsolete, primarily because some of the specification system marketing claims will probably leave naïve AE executives with that impression.  I don’t think spec writers will disappear any time soon, though, and here’s why:
  • Most architects using BIM will still need assistance with specification/product matters.  I know some extremely able and productive architects, but it’s too much to expect that they can deal with what’s already on their overflowing plates, and be responsible for all of the embedded spec choices in the model.
  • Architects are fascinating, creative, resourceful problem solvers, but most of them are much less comfortable with words, writing, than they are with graphic means of expression, drawing.  This often manifests itself in their avoidance of reading text, seemingly on the ground that if something is typed neatly, it must be correct. Somebody has to be responsible for the fine print in the model and how it meshes with specs, and I think spec writers will claim a considerable share of that work.
In ten years (or maybe sooner) when BIM-enabled specs have become commonplace, my MS Word spec processing routine will probably look as primitive to us as the punch card system of the 1970s looks now.

1 comment:

  1. Another huge leap of technology in spec production was the photocopy machine. When I started, we photocopied the master spec section, used scissors to delete what was not needed, type whatever additional pieces of text were required, and then taped the required pieces together and photocopied the end result.