The Construction Specifications Institute’s MasterFormat is a catalog of the construction process — basically the Dewey decimal system for the construction trades. It is a 40-year-old tool that has served the building industry fairly well, but a realization by CSI of the MasterFormat’s own shortcomings and a brouhaha between electrical contractors have helped force changes.
By spring 2003, the MasterFormat won’t look like the venerable old document it used to be — or at least parts of it won’t. The reason it’s changing has a lot to do with the rising importance of electrical systems in buildings and the need for a new division for telecommunication systems.
The changes will certainly improve the MasterFormat by making it more adaptable. The changes’ impact on the construction process, and more importantly, a building owner’s bottom line, however, is unclear.
The MasterFormat is logically broken into major divisions that represent the building construction process, such as doors and windows, mechanical systems and roofing. As it exists, it begins with a division on general requirements, Division 1, and ends with one for electrical systems, Division 16. These divisions help to organize information in project manuals and cost data, to file product information and other technical data, and to identify objects on drawings.
The MasterFormat takes a potentially chaotic process — building construction — and organizes it, making the building project progress more effectively and efficiently. This saves building owners money.
CSI recognized in the early 1990s that the MasterFormat was getting tight. Certain divisions were too crammed to fit any new technologies or systems. Also, certain similar construction processes were scattered among the divisions. In 1999, CSI formed an Expansion Task Force to look into changing the MasterFormat.
Meanwhile a minor battle was building between the chief trades involved in Division 16, which includes all the work on electrical systems — high- and low-voltage systems. The feud boiled down to how electrical jobs are bid. Typically, large electrical contractors would often bid for both the high-voltage and low-voltage portions of a contract, giving them the position as prime contractor. They would subcontract the low-voltage work if they didn’t have the staff and expertise in-house. This put low-voltage contractors under the direction of the high-voltage contractors. This also relegated low-voltage systems to a second priority status in the construction process.
The construction process doesn’t always work this way, but it did enough times to raise the ire of low-voltage contractors and the group that represents them, BICSI, an association of telecommunication system designers, manufacturers and installers. BICSI fought for creating a new division that would include them and therefore make it easier for its members to bid on telecommunications or life-safety aspects of the job.
CSI Expansion Task Force and then the Executive Committee decided early this year that the MasterFormat should be changed for a number of reasons, one of which was that low-voltage contractors should have a home of their own. New divisions were created.
Dennis Hall, chairman of the MasterFormat expansion team, says the new MasterFormat, when it’s published late in 2003, will reflect what was already happening in the industry.
“Evidence of the low-voltage contractors’ interest was out there,” Hall says. “They were making their own positions. The low-voltage groups were using a Division 17 designation even though it didn’t exist. They had a description of what 17 would look like. When you talked to them, they talked of a separate division. It happened to be 17 because that was the logical next number, but it could have been 18, 19 or whatever.”
The numbers aren’t important. In fact, come 2003, there will be no Division 17 or Division 16 or 15 for that matter. The MasterFormat, which used to run from 1 to 16, will now stop at Division 14 and then start again at Division 20. The expansion of the MasterFormat now allows plenty of room for adaptation and addition of new divisions after 14 for as yet unrealized technologies, processes or systems.
The low-voltage systems will be split between life-safety systems, which will be Division 21, and telecommunication systems, which will be 25. All environmental engineering systems, including high-voltage systems and mechanical systems, will fall in the 20s. The MasterFormat also will include site engineering with divisions in the 30s; divisions for process engineering, such as power systems and waste treatment, will be in the 40s.
BICSI members aren’t the only ones to win a place at the table. For all the years the MasterFormat existed, the work the American Society of Civil Engineers did was only ambiguously addressed in the MasterFormat. Now that work has its divisions.
Thomas Rauscher, president of Archi-Technology and a member of BICSI, says the importance of voice, data and communication systems has risen dramatically over the years, and making them lower priority would have jeopardized the quality of the system design and installation.
“Too often these systems have been treated as ‘Oh well, it’s just wire,’” Rauscher says. But, he says, there is a big difference in the design and installation of high-voltage electrical wire versus data and communication cables.
It’s more than the installation. Low-voltage systems should have their own division to underscore their importance in the eyes of architects and engineers and get low-voltage contractors in early on the design stages, Rauscher says.
The National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), which represents a number of the electrical contractors who can do both high- and low-voltage systems, disagrees with the decision and argues building owners may pay for it in the end.
NECA had argued that the two electrical systems aren’t separated in a modern, well-integrated building, and, therefore, neither should their design and installation. Keeping all electrical work in a single division smoothed the design and installation because a single contractor was responsible for them, NECA contended.
“We think the trend today is clearly toward greater integration of electrical-electronic building systems, and separating low-voltage systems off into a little division of their own is going 180 degrees the wrong direction,” says Brooke Stauffer, executive director of standards and safety for NECA. “We believe it is in the building owner’s best interest to have kept things integrated.”
Stauffer points out that there is a gray area where responsibility for high-voltage and low-voltage systems isn’t so clear. When there’s a problem with the system, the building owner could be put in the middle of deciding who is responsible for what.
“In our industry, we see the electrical contractor as the general contractor of the wiring system in the building,” he says. “If something goes wrong with that wiring system — if there is a short or problem somewhere — and you want to find what went wrong and you want it fixed, you call the electrical contractor.”
But Rauscher says the gray area isn’t all that expansive. High-voltage contractors would likely still be responsible for the wire and cable infrastructure, such as pipes, conduits and cable trays, but pulling the actual cable will be the responsibility of communication specialists. That is not to say a high voltage contractor, who can demonstrate the expertise, can’t do it, he says.
The real benefit, Rauscher says, is the visibility a separate division will provide for the communication systems.
“With separate divisions, now the issues of communication and life-safety systems are brought up early, and the systems are planned up front rather than as a secondary process,” he says. “Building owners save money from not having to make as many change orders.”