Richard Waterhouse has just been appointed managing director of National Building Specification (NBS) - the industry standard specification service. His position and background mean that he is very much directly involved in a wide range of decisionmaking processes: from deciding on how best to develop products for market, to attending worldwide business conferences on the future of the industry.
Having relocated offices from Newcastle's Quayside to the converted Old Post Office near the Central Station, however, he is still exercised by how best to stop people coming in to try and buy stamps from the receptionist.
An architect by training, after qualifying from Newcastle University and working in a number of practices in the North East, he carved a niche for himself as an architectcum-CAD manager at the offices of Geoffrey Purves Partnership. Working on housing association projects, speculative developments and healthcare projects, developing notional standard details on screen, he was in regular contact with NBS, on the other side of town, feeding back criticism of the early versions of its software, making contacts and generally helping out with market testing.
When a local post strike threatened the delivery of one of his tender packages, he realised the potential of 'electronic submissions' - still a futuristic concept for most small practices in the mid-'90s.
Noticing a job advert for NBS in the local paper, he made a career decision, and applied. Starting as a sales manager in 1996, he spent his time driving around the UK to sell Specman upgrades and deal with technical problems in architects' offices.
After serving his time, he rose to development manager, and was appointed as development director in 2001 responsible for new products.
He is modest about his architectural abilities and says that he does not miss practice at all. Describing himself as 'competent but not inspired', he realised early in his career that his designs 'would never make it onto the front pages of the AJ'.
Instead, he believes his skills to be in communicating design information and he sees little difference in whether that is done graphically or in words. His function is to inform the construction process in his own way.
To clarify this point, he described the various stages in the realisation of a project.
Although he acknowledges that architects with flair and aesthetic vision are credited with the scheme's visual conceptualisation, many projects rely on non-drawings-based documents; as well as rigorous site management and working details, in order to get the project built.
All stages of the process play a part in the whole and, rather than try to indulge the common vision of the architect as draftsman, he is keen to help realise the architectural vision: taking the graphic image and communicating it in words. His role, he says, 'is actually the classic project managerial role of the architect': overseeing many different professional functions.
He is passionate about the need for an integrated approach to the architectural 'process', whereby the specification writing is not seen as an add-on - a package of the works separate and distinct from the 'real' business of drawing - but is built into the development of each particular project.
He still plays with products and insists on being involved in testing new software packages but less so than before and misses the day-to-day development activity; 'the fun bit' of the organisation.
But with his new authority he has too many other responsibilities and has moved from his central position on the mezzanine floor of the building to a enclosed ground floor office. Betraying his architectural background, he has yet to hang a picture on the wall of his new office, preferring to see it languish on the floor beside his desk.He says he would have preferred to remain with the 'people messing about with software ideas' but recognises that he cannot play games any more. His tasks now range from writing technical position papers to liaising with RIBA companies; from managing the sale of NBS' Quayside property to adding 1,100m 2of additional office space for internal expansion; from assessing the merits of online provision in the current market conditions, to keeping a watchful eye on his competitors.
On that point, even though NBS is in a fortunate position in that it has been in e-business and dedicated to product development for longer than most, Waterhouse says that he would welcome competition in the marketplace. 'It might save us from having to do all the R&D, ' he says.
'The problem with NBS is that it's worthy but dull. I'm more than happy to continue as worthy but we must show that we are anything but dull.We are vital.'When I point out that it must take a certain type of person - perhaps an anorak - to want to write specifications, he tells me that it couldn't be further from the truth. I cite the fact that his squash game has lapsed and he has become a sneaky advocate of Friends Reunited.
'Far from it, ' he says, 'the people who are involved in this technology are cutting edge;
they are usually some of the most extrovert and eccentric people with a wonderful sense of humour.'
We proceeded on to the next hilarious topic of conversation: object technology, whereby NBS is building-in increasing inter-operability into the specification and scheduling packages. Object-based technology, commonly recognised as having had labour-saving benefits in graphics packages, has rarely been taken advantage of in terms of the written word. His eyes light up while explaining the transformative potential of the technology: minimising the amount of first generation inputting required; relying on automatic transfer of data into various packages and clauses.
The new object-based software will also mean that packages can be split up into various sub-trades without manual duplication and without the risk of omitting key cross references. 'At the end of the day, ' he says, 'the point is to spend less time doing specs so that there is more time for doing designs.'