Archive for September, 2016


This series of posts began as a commentary on day to day communications when I explored the notion of how the same words could have completely different meanings given context, tone of voice, body language and other emotional cues. It quickly evolved into a second post on graphic construction communication.

This third post deals with overly verbose specifications I often see from consulting engineers who are often not versed in specification writing principles:

“2.2 Materials & Equipment: standard components, of regular manufacture for this application.  All systems and components shall have been thoroughly tested and proven in actual use.  The commissioning requirements of this specification shall be strictly adhered to.  Trane Tracer Summit ICS products are used as basis of the design.  Siemens Apogee or Johnson Controls Metasys are acceptable subject to compliance with the specification

“2.5.2 Communications: The Building Controller shall reside on the network, which is the same high-speed network as any connected workstations.  The Enterprise wide network shall support the Internet Protocol (IP).  Local connections of the building Controller shall be on ISO 8802-3 (Ethernet).  Communications shall use Annex J of ASHRAE Standard 135-95.  The Building Controller shall also perform routing to a network of Custom Application and Application Specific Controllers.”

The language I just quoted was written by a mechanical engineer as part of a building automation specification section. There is a problem with the fact that both paragraphs violate two of the four Cs of specification language promoted by CSI: clear, correct, complete, and concise.  These two paragraphs are neither clear nor concise.  Because they are unclear, I have no idea if they are correct or complete.  They also appear to be combining prescriptive with performance specifications.

Assuming the technical content is indeed correct, the problem can be fixed by applying some basic principles espoused by the CSI in the CSI Specifications Practice Guide. The information presented should be separated into multiple (correct) locations to comply with CSI SectionFormattm.  Portions of both paragraphs should appear in PART 1 GENERAL, and part of the second should be in PART 3 EXECUTION.  The remainder is correctly located in PART 2 PRODUCTS, but needs to be broken up into shorter statements using streamlined language in smaller subparagraphs to allow the reader to more easily access and understand the information.

The first paragraph could appear as follows:

2.2 Materials & Equipment

2.2.1 Manufacturers

  1. Trane
  2. Siemens
  3. Johnson Controls

2.2.2 Basis of Design: Trane Tracer Summit ICS

The remainder of the non-superfluous information from this paragraph should appear in PART 1 GENERAL.

I could rewrite the second paragraph as well, but you get the idea. Adherence to CSI principles would facilitate communication of the information to the bidders and eventually to the contractor.  Remember, communication occurs when the reader/listener understands the intent of the writer/speaker.  When the information is correctly stated and presented, it is understandable by all the parties to the construction process.  The CSI Education and Certification Programs are an important first step to better communication within the AEC industry.


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In my last post, I discussed the problems inherent when communicating simply with words. The same can be said of graphic communication.

One of my mentors once told a story of a world renown architect who was meeting a client to present the design for a project. He did so using a series of axonometrics on a white background.  Architects and architecture students often used this technique because of the ease of producing this type of view (remember this was in the 1960’s and all was done by hand).  The building committee (client) hated it, and considered firing their architect.

A few weeks later, the architect asked the client to reconvene the committee because he had something new to show them. The format of the presentation was a series of water colored pen and ink perspectives.  The committee loved them and the design was eventually built.

It was also the exact same design they had earlier rejected.

Fast forward to today. It is currently possible to create a three dimensional model using any number of software packages.  The output can be exported in various file types with varying degrees of realism.  When presenting a project to a client, consideration needs to be given to levels of contrast, softness of color, hardness of edges, contextual rendering, etc.  Additionally, you will need to consider who the client is and what the purpose of the presentation is.  The same information presented two different ways to the same client using today’s media can easily elicit different reactions in the same way it did in the 1960’s.

Bottom line, use care in choosing how to communicate in today’s world. That choice can make or break your intended result.

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I have been fascinated with State Farm Insurance’s ongoing ad campaign where in one of the ads a young lady, upon seeing a new Fiat in the driveway, asks her father “Is that my car?” This is immediately followed by a distraught motorist whose car has been stripped asking “Is that my car?”  As the ad continues, both individuals utter identical dialogue, but it has two entirely different meanings.  There are at least three different ads in this campaign, and in all cases it involves a happy statement followed by an expression of distress using exactly the same words.

As an architect and specifier, a significant part of my stock in trade is written communication. All too often I hear complaints about the tone of this or that e-mail (usually described as angry) when the intent of the communication is to be a factual transmission of information.

With that said, I like e-mail for professional communications, because it creates a searchable written record the moment that the send button is pressed. The downside to it, though, is that the sender should think long and hard about exactly what is said.  As the State Farm campaign clearly demonstrates, the same words mean very different things depending on the circumstances (the reader may be in a very different frame of mind than the sender).

Communications that are not face-to-face conversations lose a certain amount of meaning, because body language and tone of voice disappear. In the case of a telephone conversation, the tone of voice is still there, so that words that on paper may appear angry won’t be heard that way if delivered in a calm even handed manner.  As we move from e-mail to text messaging, to whatever other medium is used, much of what we intend to convey is lost.

Coming to my point, in this day and age of social disengagement through social media, it is important to foster those interpersonal relationships through actual conversation, preferably in person. If a face to face conversation is not possible, use the most personable means of communication available at the time and follow it up when you can with the more personable.

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