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09 June 2010

Success Story

We are approaching the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of two seminal documents for the construction industry: "A Tentative Proposal for a Manual of Practice for Specification Writing Methods", and "The CSI Format for Building Specifications". The first led to the publication of CSI's first Manual of Practice (eventually becoming the Project Resource Manual), the second to MasterFormat.

Although MasterFormat is more widely known and used, the original Manual of Practice (MOP) embodied the essence of CSI's raison d'ĂȘtre - 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
Let's look at how these goals are related to the Manual of Practice and MasterFormat.

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.

Better specifications

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.

Simpler specifications

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.
It is hard to imagine doing business without the pervasive effect of CSI, and virtually impossible to estimate the effects on efficiency and cost that result from industry-wide acceptance of the Manual of Practice and MasterFormat. Without CSI's unifying influence, there might be several standards for writing specifications - or none at all. There might also be many filing methods; one office might file product literature by manufacturer's name, another by product name, and yet another by type of product. Some specifiers would begin their sections with a schedule, some with a list of products, and others with code information. And manufacturers would be less likely to present information in a common format, or to offer easily usable guide specifications.

Looking ahead

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?

1 comment:

  1. Very well said Sheldon. The MOP taught me what I needed to know when I first became a Specifier. I still live by it!

    Joseph J. Anetrella, AIA, LEED AP-BD+C, CCS, CSI