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CSI CEO Mark Dorsey, FASAE, CAE Shares How CSI's Rich Past Will Lead to Future Opportunities

By CSI HQ posted 04-26-2023 11:27 AM

Now in its 75th year, CSI continues to drive project delivery excellence in the architecture, engineering, construction, and owner (AECO) industry.

In a new set of interviews, we ask key stakeholders how they view the association, the industry, and the future of construction.

CSI CEO Mark Dorsey shares his thoughts and insights on the past and future of CSI. 

As the association celebrates this significant milestone, what are some of the most impactful contributions that the CSI has made for the benefit of the AECO industry?

Fundamentally, if we go back to our roots, our most consequential successes have been to create systems and processes that have radically improved how our industry functions. In the past, architects had one language and contractors had another. Today, CSI standards and formats enable different members of the project team to communicate more effectively about the needs of the project. It’s hard to imagine meeting those objectives without these tools, isn’t it? 

CSI tools encompass the complete sphere of construction, too, not just architectural projects. Our standards and formats extend to just about anything that’s built from design and construction to the facilities management phase once the project is complete. Because people work together in groups and cross-functional teams, there’s less of an emphasis on the sequential hand-off of data and information, too. That, to me, is the single biggest value of CSI historically: staying focused on how we can improve quality and efficiency, increase communication, and reduce risks associated with miscommunication in any given project.

How do you explain the importance of specifications to someone who may not be familiar with CSI and what its members do, especially in how they enhance the built environment?

The textbook definition of specifications would say it’s a document that outlines the materials, methods, and practices that are used in a construction project, but that leaves out a lot of critical nuance provided by the specifiers themselves. CSI members translate all of this information into words so everybody’s as clear as can be about how their project comes together as via the information in the drawings.  The specs are critical in establishing the quality, compatibility and code-compliance issues related to performance of products and systems, all of which results in a three-dimensional expression, which is the building or project itself. 
Specifiers construction administrators are always looking to minimize error to ensure the project comes together on time, on budget, the way the owner or designer envisioned, and that the materials selected work together well. They strive to make sure the project—for example a building, a public utility. or a bridge—lasts and performs as envisioned. This result helps us be more productive and comfortable where we work and live. When these projects are well-designed and well-built, it helps us move forward as a society. That laser focus from CSI and its members benefits us all.

For decades, CSI has continually created new standards, study groups, formats and now, new technologies to help members stay on top of change. How do you see that as part of this association's DNA?

If the DNA of the organization is to document those materials, methods, and practices and provide specific information about a project from an architect, engineer, or other design professional to contractors and other stakeholders, we’re at the hub of any given project. Because technology is always changing, we need to constantly stay on top of that.

We need to be vigilant, though, about the accuracy of the information that’s shared so quickly. When CSI was founded in the late ’40s, you had to pick up a phone and get an operator to dial into somebody else’s office. Your written communication time was days if not weeks. Now it's instant global communication through a multitude of channels. This has had a major impact on the way practitioners handle Construction Administration, which has been accelerated to the point where every project is basically a fast-tracked project.  And there’s risk in that you can look up anything on the internet and “reply all” in an email, but then all your documentation, commentary, and perspective is shared instantly around the globe. That means all of us are required to be more diligent and thoughtful in order to separate the signal from noise, or trust actionable information from volumes of data.  I think that the pace of information is something we need to pay attention to so we can maintain our roots, which is sharing information that is clear, concise, complete, and correct.

Why are CSI standards and formats so important to how work gets done, especially in terms of risk involving cost claims and delays?

Risk management is a huge part of avoiding work delays, unanticipated costs, and health and safety concerns with any given project. That’s why the standards and formats, especially MasterFormat®, Uniformat®, and Omniclass®, relate to the organization of information in how work gets done. They are available to the entire industry and have been adopted broadly throughout North America and overseas. of a road construction project that goes six years or a redevelopment of residential and business districts. If each member of the project team organizes information differently then it’s that much harder to find information that might be handed off or contemplated within the construction documents. That is the essence of what we do—enable folks to find and develop accurate information more consistently. Done right, it reduces the opportunities for error and miscommunication, and that relates to risk.

In what ways have specifications changed in terms of how they're developed and used, and how do you see them continuing to evolve?

I see several changes. Maybe the most important is the increasing use of digital tools and platforms for creating and sharing design information. The need for more effective collaboration is intersecting with the decreasing cost of more powerful technology. These digital tools make it easier to update specifications in real time, ensuring everybody has access to that information. And we can look at dozens of software companies trying to address this issue. 

One result is the growing recognition of the importance of performance-based specifications. Rather than relying on the exact materials and methods, we’re also looking at outcomes embodied in digital information about how the product is supposed to perform. The selection of that product will have an impact on what an owner needs to know when that project comes online. So, we shift from documenting a product to being central to managing data about the product and its processes.

Another trend is the focus on using sustainable materials, reducing waste, and improving energy efficiency—all of which can be addressed in certain software. These technological developments all have implications for our industry, which requires people in specifications to be ongoing learners so they can stay on top of these emerging trends.

How do you see the role of the specifier changing?

While specifiers are researching and putting together all this documentation, they are also understanding building information modeling and construction information. Building information modeling has begun to realize its potential where instead of it being a glorified representation of an object in computer aided design, you also have all the data related to it.

As artificial intelligence (AI) evolves, it is likely that people engaged in specifications become more fact checkers and data analysts than writers. Already there are applications that can create a video on your behalf that will fill in design elements if you plug in the dimensions of the space you want to create. The issue around AI isn't necessarily whether it will take your job, it’s how it will change your job. But the human part of the equation is judgment and aesthetic. The human part is understanding how products and processes interact. So, the role is evolving to be even more of a thought leader, fact checker, and critical player in the design and construction process. It’s not about who writes the best spec. It’s going to be who can troubleshoot the best spec and manage related data.

This mindset to master change, what does it mean to the association and also to you?

Mastering change is about being open to change. That’s a challenge because humans crave consistency and certainty. But being a student through life, being curious about what change you might want to initiate, is absolutely critical. We can see how technology has changed all our lives. The fact that we have come through a pandemic where video communication envisioned in the '50s and '60s was accelerated in the last two years and now is woven into our daily life means we must continue to figure out how are we going to keep the things that work for us and discard those things that don’t. To master change, you have to embrace it.

As impressive as celebrating the 75th anniversary is, where do you see the association going from here?

I see CSI really leaning into the idea of having virtual and face-to-face communities so that people have a network that helps them be better at their jobs. While it’s true we are about improving building performance and project outcomes, that doesn’t happen without a board of directors that’s focused on helping every professional be the best they can be at what they do and have the support of their professional peers. We do that by learning from the past, so we can honor those processes that will allow us to address changes in technology, in how we work, and in how projects and products come together. Although we’ve come a long way in 75 years, one thing will never change: our commitment to building those spaces, places, and infrastructures that enable us to function as a healthy, productive, and joyous society.