Although MasterFormat is more widely known and used, the original Manual of Practice (MOP) embodied the essence of CSI's raison d'être - clear communication in construction documents. Along with MasterFormat, the MOP provided impetus for CSI's growth through the end of the twentieth century, as design professionals across the country sought to improve their specifications. Despite its relative obscurity, I believe the MOP's significance was second only to MasterFormat and AIA's contract documents in the world of building construction.
In 1947, the founders of the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) expressed five goals for the new organization:
- Standardization of building codes
- Better specification writing
- Simpler specifications
- Standardization of specifications for public works
- Greater efficiency and cost effectiveness throughout the industry
Standardization of building codes
Other than the basic principles of "say it once" and the four Cs, the Manual of Practice and MasterFormat appear to have little relevance to building codes. I don't know how much impact CSI or its members had, but some progress toward standard building codes was made with the introduction of the IBC. The result is somewhat misleading, though; most of the US has adopted the IBC, but virtually every state and locality has modified it.
In my first job as a specifier, I worked at the University of Minnesota, which has an excellent records department. While there, I was often thankful for the University's extensive record documents, including those for several buildings built in the late nineteenth century. Even that far back, most of the project manuals I looked at were well organized and easy to interpret. However, by current MOP standards, they had a number of deficiencies.
Document organization was not universal. The location of similar information varied from one project manual to the next, sometimes even when the project manuals were produced in the same office. Also, there was some tendency toward stream of consciousness specifying. The specifications might start with masonry, go on to carpentry, return briefly to masonry to specify mortar, and so on.
The 1964 publication of "The CSI Format for Construction Specifications" marked the beginning of a move toward standard organization of information. This document evolved into MasterFormat, which later became a joint publication of CSI and Construction Specifications Canada (CSC). Today's nearly universal acceptance of MasterFormat in the US and Canada clearly makes it easier to prepare and interpret construction documents.
The MOP offered a comprehensive, logical way to organize and prepare construction documents that was based on two simple concepts: say it once in the right place, and say it correctly. In other words, communication in contract documents is most effective when information is easy to find, and writing clearly expresses the requirements of the work.
You likely learned the first from your parents, though they probably said "A place for everything and everything in its place." In documents that comply with the MOP, every requirement is stated in a specific location, which makes it easier for both the writer and the reader to find the information they need.
The second is expanded in the MOP's famous "four Cs" - clear, complete, concise, and correct. Another way these can be expressed is, "Say exactly what needs to be said - no more, no less - in a way that can be easily understood." This should be nothing new to those who are familiar with Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, a standard reference for writers of all persuasions.
Standardization of specifications for public works
The founding members were, according to CSI, primarily "architectural specifications chiefs from various government agencies" who "discussed problems that resulted from non-uniform construction document policies." We must admire their audacity in setting standardization of public works specifications as a goal. Had they been successful we would enjoy the benefits of standard specification format and content throughout the country, and neither specifiers nor bidders would have to try to puzzle out what each government agency is trying to say. Unfortunately, this goal has not been achieved, and, despite all the improvements that have resulted from CSI's standards in other areas, government agencies remain the worst violators of the principles established by the Manual of Practice.
Typical government bidding requirements ignore the difference between bidding and contract documents, use a variety of terms interchangeably, repeat the same requirement in more than one place in different ways, include non-biddable policy statements and goals, and quote extensive excerpts from various laws and statutes, all with the unrealized intent of saving the poor taxpayer a few bucks - at least for the initial contract amount.
Those who interpret the rules seem to have trouble understand the meaning of "responsive, responsible bidder" and quickly back away from any threat of legal action. Bids are not required by law to be evaluated solely on the bid amount, yet low bid appears to be the most common basis for awarding public contracts.
Greater efficiency and cost effectiveness throughout the industry
This has been one of CSI's great successes, due in part to its Format series documents, and in part to its expansion throughout the country in the late twentieth century. Although there has been little success in bringing uniformity or simplicity to public sector documents, the rest of the industry has demonstrated acceptance and support of CSI standards. In the US and Canada:
- All major master guide specifications are based on MasterFormat and SectionFormat.
- The vast majority of design firms use MasterFormat and Section format.
- Manufacturers produce literature with MasterFormat numbers prominently displayed on brochures, binders, and technical information.
- There has been a great increase in the number of manufacturers offering guide specifications based on MasterFormat and SectionFormat.
Although the wide implementation of CSI's Manual of Practice and Formats documents has been successful, work remains to be done, especially in the public sector. CSI should encourage government agencies to standardize and improve their construction documents through adoption of the principles of the Manual of Practice, and to encourage building code officials to learn and understand the organization of contract documents.
CSI got off to a great start; can we build on it?