If I'd been asked this question a few weeks ago, my answer would have been rather a brief one. In fact, "write specifications" would probably have summed up my knowledge of the workings of the organisation whose name I'd associated for the last fifteen years with a set of ring binders on the office library shelf. But then I responded to a job advert for a 'technical author' position, and began to look more closely. As has become the norm these days, I started with the internet. I soon learned that NBS, publishers of the National Building Specification, is one of a group of companies under the RIBA Enterprises umbrella; the others comprising RIBA Appointments , RIBA Bookshops , RIBA Insight , RIBA Publishing and the RIBA Journal .
At the next level, the NBS encompasses a suite of specification-related products (including the 'Classic' version with which I'd grown up) with, as the flagship, the new NBS Create next-generation tool. This will ultimately expand to facilitate the specification of everything from a city down to the maintenance of an individual building component (and if that puts you in mind of fractal geometry, then that's probably not a bad analogy). And now with the government's push towards industry-wide Building Information Modelling usage, the NBS National BIM Library is the latest in a series of products designed to harmonise and simplify the workflow of designers and specifiers.
So, what's it like on the inside? As you might expect for an organisation with so many strings to its bow, there are a lot of departments all interacting with one another. Apart from the obvious sales/production/IT and finance departments, there are information resources available that are second to none: a comprehensive and up-to-the-minute library; the Construction Information Service; and a seemingly-endless collection of articles, reports and other sources of knowledge. All are made available through a variety of sources, from the website to regular and one-off publications. But what sets NBS apart is the two-fold nature of its products – software and content. To borrow the eastern 'yin-yang' principle, each relies on the other. What's more, it's all produced in-house. Along with the other technical authors (about a dozen in total, plus editors and coordinators), we're collectively responsible for the maintenance and advancement of the knowledge which forms the 'content'. And this is really where the job differs so much from that of private architectural practice, which was my background. Whereas once I was beholden to The Client and my work was driven by the compromise of efficiency in racing to meet deadlines, now it's augmented by the pursuit of expertise. That is to say, in an organisation which prides itself as being a centre of excellence, the 'industry standard', then the individuals who comprise that organisation must maintain their knowledge in order to live up to that aspiration.
Once upon a time the practice of architecture had a civic (albeit moral) duty to provide quality in the built environment (just look how many ornately-crafted public buildings there are in any city centre). Over time, however, it is cost that has risen to be the primary concern of the procurer and this, inevitably, has had its consequences. But now I find myself in an environment where the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge is actively encouraged, and it's very refreshing. That I am now at liberty (actively encouraged, even) to make time for research and learning – in balance with my deadlines, I still have those – makes me think that this is How Things Should Be. Yet even as I write this I can hear the cynical cries of my commercial sector colleagues, but – let's be honest – why not? Why shouldn't we strive for expertise? If plummeting fee levels have resulted in the loss of learning time, then surely it's time to inject some 'added value' into the service proffered to clients. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. So it's entirely right that an organisation responsible for the publication and upkeep of industry-leading specification products should stay a step ahead of the game. After all, we're responsible for providing a service which is relied on to be accurate and up to date by the entire construction industry.
Besides the change in the demands on my time now, perhaps the other key difference to practice is attitude to process. Architects, particularly those where the majority of their clients occupy a specific work sector, seek efficiencies by means of standardisation. In contrast, the NBS technical team need constantly to question the status quo: to consider whether the products we offer are the best they can be, or if there is (and inevitably there always will be) room for improvement? Regardless of where those ideas come from, be it spur-of-the-moment inspiration or the result of testing products to (virtual) destruction, they are all given due consideration and, if they are of sufficient merit, investigated for future implementation. As standards rise and demands change over time, so must we continually adapt and respond by ensuring that our work is both relevant and accurate. At a time when integrated modelling and adaptive design (to climate change, for example) are becoming increasingly important, we need more than ever to maintain and increase our expertise across the board.
So at the end of a typical day, the average technical author might have spent a portion of their time on:
- Updating the NBS specification suite
- Familiarising themselves with any new legislation, regulations or guidance which needs to be incorporated
- Carrying out other research into topical fields of interest (and sharing it for the benefit of others through one of NBS's many voices)
- Liaising with industry bodies or manufacturers on new innovations
- Writing guidance notes to assist subscribers with the correct use of specification clauses
- Developing and enhancing specification content and organisation
- Answering technical queries from subscribers
- Testing new updates of the specification products before publication.
And if that sounds like a productive day's work, then I'd have to agree with you.