Much is made of the efficiency of the US industry, and it is often seen as a role model. Meanwhile, criticism is levelled at British designers for being too vague, too detailed or too bespoke. And manufacturers are continually under pressure to produce standard products – as if restricting designer choice will somehow make buildings cheaper.
With this in mind, I accepted an invitation to the Specification Consultants in Independent Practices' annual meeting, held in Dallas last month, which coincided with the Construction Specifications Institute conference. These bodies have a great influence on building specifications in the US, so the trip gave me an insight into differences between the UK and US industries.
The CSI is an individual membership society, whose responsibilities include the US standards for CAD and the "Overall Construction Classification System", which it developed recently. The society offers an education and examination programme, which is the closest thing I can find to a qualification in specification writing.
The conference was huge, with more than 1100 exhibits dominated by salesmen promoting their products with the usual pens, mugs and so on.
Running parallel to the exhibition, for an extra couple of hundred dollars, lectures and seminars were available on a wide range of related subjects – a very profitable little enterprise.
SCIP is a completely different organisation. It is mostly made up of sole practitioners from all over the USA, who provide specifications to architects and product manufacturers that choose not to produce their own documentation. The largest firm of specification consultants, based in Boston, has a staff of six people.
This is an interesting group, which I thought would help me find some answers. The first thing to strike me was the similarity in our working conditions. US practitioners have the same problems and frustrations as we do in terms of the time available to complete documents, late changes and keeping up with new standards and materials.
US specifiers focus on designs that tend to be less innovative. This makes life a lot easier. But look at the buildings it produces
Where we differ is in the standardisation of the procurement and contractual process and the size of the marketplace. Anyone who has been to the USA realises how big the country is and how insular the people can be. To many Americans, nothing exists outside their east and west coasts. And when it comes to specification writing, there is nothing outside city boundaries.
All the people I met are so busy working in their home town that they never dream of working elsewhere. The great advantage they have over UK specification consultants is that they rarely face complex and changing procurement routes or forms of contract.
US specification writers focus on materials used in standard ways, based on designs that tend to be less innovative. This makes life a lot easier. But look at the buildings it produces: grand in scale but often disappointing in terms of quality and detail; cheaper, yes, but rarely groundbreaking.
Much of the reduced cost comes from economies of scale and competitive pricing of standard products. Architects are obliged under their contract to produce designs on budget.
Much of our practice's work in the US involves carrying out cost exercises for architects who face redesign costs and possible claims against them if the project goes over budget.
At its meeting, Specification Consultants members voiced the view that the UK construction industry seemed more exciting and challenging when compared with the cautious American approach. Indeed. there is a trend among some clients to appoint UK and European architects to projects in the USA to shake it up a bit.
Nick Schumann is a partner in Schumann-Smith Davis Langdon & Everest.