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The Long View: CSI Board Chair Reflects on Organization’s 75th Anniversary

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 Board Chair Cam Featherstonhaugh kicks off the series.  
Cam, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on CSI’s 75th Anniversary. Looking back on CSI’s history, what are some of the key impacts you see this association having on the AECO industry?

Before CSI, there was a lot less consistency in the written specifications used throughout the country. CSI has clearly accomplished its original mission, which was to standardize the way in which specifications were organized. Getting consistent results that were understandable by everyone on the design and construction team had a huge impact. That’s the biggest, most obvious piece. But for decades now, CSI has also been focused on construction administration, building product representation, and other aspects of the project delivery process, improving communication and understanding through those project teams as well.

It's hard to understate how important that connection is. The longer I do this, the more I realize that the people who know how to get things done and make things work are in CSI. They’re making projects happen properly across the country and the globe. Because CSI’s flagship classification standard, MasterFormat®, is embedded so ubiquitously in the process, some people may tend to underestimate how much influence the organization really has. 

As the CSI board chair and a longtime member, what does it mean to you to play a role in marking this special anniversary?

It’s the honor of my professional career. What an awesome responsibility to be here at this moment. Seventy-five years is a diamond anniversary and so many organizations are not able to persist for this long. I think that says something about not only the community but also the value of the work we do. It’s a privilege to be able to be a part of this incredible milestone and serve our community. 

I’m always fascinated by the fact that CSI members, standards, and certifications are at the hub of every project, tying the project together. Is that what the association means to you? 

It’s why I’m here. As an architect and as someone who was involved early on in AIA as well as CSI, I made the conscious decision to go all in with CSI as the organization I wanted to support and help move forward. It has this egalitarian aspect where anybody who’s a member of the project team can be a professional member of the organization with full voting rights and can serve on the board of directors. I see it a little bit like the construction equivalent of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, where everybody has sort of a democratic view.  

I think that means something, because what I see is a clear level of respect given to people who are different, which is something that culturally we struggle with a bit in this country. In CSI we like to celebrate those differences because having adjacencies to those other disciplines and other points of view strengthens our work and makes us all better. That is very meaningful to me. 

Why are CSI’s standards and formats so important to how work gets done—from inception to completion—especially in terms of risks involving cost, claims, and delays?

Most legal interpretations about responsibility and blame are based on written words and contracts. The specifications are the written portion of the work we do. Construction is a significant portion of our GDP. With so much of our nation’s economy wrapped up in what people write and how they write it, it benefits everybody to have standardized ways to do things because it’s more predictable, understandable, and can be interpreted over and over. 

The hardest thing for owners to do when they’re starting a project is predict the risk. Is it going to make any money? Is it going to lose money? The predictability and functional nature of having standardized documents, standardized contracts, and standardized ways of communicating is critical in having a healthy environment for construction and design. 

In what ways have specifications changed in terms of how they are developed and used, and how do you see them changing?

I think the nature of specifications is changing slowly right now. If specifications are in essence the qualitative–descriptive—aspects of design and construction, then as we move towards automated buildings or 3D printed buildings, we add quantitative elements. The specifications and the quantitative elements of product performance end up being embedded in the code or even in the designs of the people who build the machines that build the buildings. Because the output of those machines must be programmed into the construction of the machines that do the work. 

The role of the specifier is changing as well. A lot of architecture firms no longer employ full-time specifiers. My own firm of 35 doesn’t have an in-house specifier. We do rely on specifications consultants, but a lot of people in-house do their own product selection and research. In fact, we would love to be able to hire someone who can do product research and interface with design teams on specification issues. Some professionals have changed their title from “specifier” to “research specialist.” That speaks to the nature of change in the work more than anything else. 

As the cycle of product development increases in speed, and codes change more dramatically towards energy efficiency and healthy materials, more and more research is needed. The role of specifier is less about writing or coordinating with people who are drawing but more about researching what materials will work, be compatible, and meet the owner’s requirements. So, I do see dramatic changes happening, but slowly. 

What are your thoughts on the growth mindset needed to “master change” in an ever-changing world, and how can CSI help its members develop that mindset to continue to embrace change in the future?

Change is hard and does not come easily. People get comfortable with the status quo. Things get simpler when you’ve been doing them for a long time, and it’s harder the longer you do it to break ranks and try something new. I think what we can do is reinforce that change is inevitable and that we exist as a place where people can gather and exchange ideas and continue learning. That’s the key—that you never lose your commitment to keep learning. Change becomes impossible when you have ceased to be willing to learn. 

As impressive as celebrating the 75th anniversary is, I know CSI is also already looking to the future. Where do you see the association going from here?

What’s happening is the organization is being discovered by a whole new generation of practitioners. And the network is really the best there is for the kind of work we do. I see the organization growing in influence and maybe even membership over the next 10 to 20 years as people rediscover how much there is to offer through this community. There’s no shortage of need, and we know that CSI’s community and products are well received. I think it’s about being consistent, staying positive, and providing a space that’s inclusive, where people can really thrive. If you do that, then the rest will take care of itself. 

Anything else you’d like to add?

I would say the hallmark of this organization, the reason it persists today, and why I’m bullish on the future, is because we offer a network of professionals who, whether they’re lawyers, engineers, architects, specifiers, or product reps—no matter what their position or role is on the team—just want to help to get the work done and have it done right.