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Has The New Masterformat Made A Difference?

A decade after its last revision, the new MasterFormat released last November now includes more divisions relating to pro AV than ever. But has it been successful? Here's a look at how AV integrators and consultants are implementing the new document one year later.

Has The New Masterformat Made A Difference?

A decade after its last revision, the new MasterFormat released last November now includes more divisions relating to pro AV than ever. But has it been successful? Here’s a look at how AV integrators and consultants are implementing the new document one year later.

When the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) published the new 2004 edition of its MasterFormat last November, one of its key features was a new approach to describing and specifying AV and related systems in construction documents. Many AV industry organizations and professionals involved themselves in the revision process, hoping to shape a new document that would reflect a better understanding of low-voltage AV systems and secure a more prominent role for AV consultants, integrators, and contractors. Nearly one year later, how’s it going? Initial industry reports seem to be mixed.

Bill Ketts, lead estimator specializing in large projects at Audio Visual Innovations in Tampa, FL, says his firm has seen very little specification written with the new format so far.

“I haven’t seen a job go out yet using it,” reports consultant Bill Thrasher. Among Thrasher’s recent projects is the highly publicized First Baptist Church of Woodstock, GA, which included extensive projection and media systems and was recently honored with a 2005 Project Achievement Award by the Construction Management Association of America. The architect on the church project was Andrew Duckett of Niles Bolton & Associates, Atlanta. He shares the concern that the old MasterFormat had serious shortcomings in such areas as AV and security, but he also hasn’t seen a rush to embrace the new tool yet.

“Some of the older architects may never accept it,” Duckett says. “It’s going to take some time to work its way into the system.”

Nevertheless, one of MasterFormat 2004’s strongest proponents, National Systems Contractors Association’s (NSCA) Executive Director Chuck Wilson, sees the new format clearly taking hold. “One member per week is reporting seeing bid documents using the new system,” says Wilson, adding that a growing number of public agencies, including San Francisco’s BART transit system, have announced they will adopt the new document.

Wide adoption of MasterFormat 2004, though, may not automatically be good news for the pro AV community. Consultant Timothy Cape, a co-author of ICIA’s new book “Audiovisual Best Practices: The Design and Integration Process for the AV and Construction Industries,” served on both the ICIA and NSCA Consultants’ Councils during CSI’s revision of the MasterFormat. He characterizes the resulting document as “still not structured the way we want it, but we can work with it.”

Among the difficulties facing the revision task force was the need to fit an essentially “one-off,” highly customized set of systems into a framework built to accommodate standardized products and services. “The traditional building trade specifications are mostly centered around a single product or a small set of related products,” Cape notes. “AV is different. A system can consist of hundreds of products, and many building industry professionals don’t realize how integrated it is.”

16 divisions to 50

CSI describes MasterFormat, which is more than 40 years old and has been revised several times, as a “Dewey Decimal System for organizing data about construction requirements, products, and activities,” and claims it’s used for more than 70 percent of all commercial and institutional building projects in the United States and Canada. MasterFormat’s chief goal is to facilitate better communications and more precise specs by giving architects, contractors, and other project participants a common vocabulary and body of information. For many years, MasterFormat held to a structure of 16 “divisions,” which roughly paralleled the traditional building trades. AV, projection, conferencing, and related systems — the lifeblood of the pro AV business — were actually scattered across several of these divisions, but mostly lumped in with other electrical products.

The new document keeps the original divisions more or less intact but augments them with new sections for a total of 50 divisions, addressing all sorts of building technology and interests that have emerged since the last revision in 1995. There’s a big difference, though, between changing a guideline and changing the behavior of users in the field. Publication of MasterFormat 2004 is just one step in that process. A potentially critical stage yet to come is the evolution of the language and structure of MasterFormat 2004 into “template specs,” the master guide specifications published by Salt Lake City-based Architectural Computer Services Inc. (ARCOM) and other firms.

These template specifications are virtually ubiquitous in the architectural and engineering community. Duckett, for example, notes his firm subcontracted the writing of actual specs for the First Baptist Church to a professional spec-writing company, which in turn relied on ARCOM. Duckett notes that in the past some specification writers would pull out the template and fill it in. “It was a bad habit to just update and re-use the specs, and whatever problems that were in the spec were continued,” he says.

Greg Ceton, technical programs manager at CSI, explains that all of the major master guide specification providers in North America have agreed to convert their specifications to MasterFormat 2004 Edition numbers and titles. “Most have already made the transition and will be providing some kind of dual structure for their users in the foreseeable future,” he says.

But what if, as some AV professionals fear, the “new” template specs are just updated equipment lists like the old ones? Cape fears it will take a huge effort to get them to do it the way it should be done. Ultimately, he adds, “AV integrators could get into trouble trying to work with contracts based on bad template specs.”

In the field, though, work-arounds may become common, Cape says. Electrical engineers, for instance, who are asked to spec AV systems for projects may simply call in a local AV consultant or integrator with whom they have worked before. “In the trenches, people will usually work around it,” Cape says. “Nobody believes we can ever come up with a single template spec that will cover everything.”

One solution that’s been proposed is for the industry to create a new “do-no-harm” template specification. While providing beneficial text as a basis for an AV specification, this type of template would be unbiddable without inserting additional text from a knowledgeable professional. The challenge, however, is to get publishers like ARCOM to consider such an approach.

Who will feel the effects?

At HB Communications in North Haven, CT, Vice President/Systems Contracting George Bing says his firm has felt all along that the bigger impact will be on consultants rather than on contractors. Bing sympathizes with the motivation of the revision, calling AV “the Rodney Dangerfield” of the construction industry. “AV systems haven’t been treated right for a long time,” he says.

Devoting a separate MasterFormat division to communications systems is a positive step, but complexities remain. “The biggest challenge is the commingling of other, less sophisticated low-voltage systems,” he says. “There are less experienced and less qualified contractors who will chase after our work, thinking they can do it. After all, most people can go to the electronics store, buy a bunch of components, hook them together, and they usually work.”

But integrated AV systems are much more challenging, he adds. Some require extensive programming and careful planning. “A contractor who just bids an equipment list isn’t bidding a fully working system,” Bing says.

At AVI, Jim Colquhoun, vice president/systems integration, agrees. “You’ve got consultants who will create, in effect, a glorified equipment list and not talk about functionality,” he says. “Getting AV systems separated from the catch-all ‘equipment’ category was the biggest benefit for our industry, but overall I don’t know that the new format is any better.”

Colquhoun feels the biggest challenge to MasterFormat 2004 now is getting architects and general contractors to understand it. “The larger architectural firms may be the first to pick it up,” Colquhoun says, adding that he believes the industry will benefit from broader adoption in the long run.

Bing sees some significant gains to be realized, as well. Higher visibility for AV in the MasterFormat can mean the AV designer or integrator is included in project planning at an earlier stage, and that architects will be less inclined to consider AV systems as last-minute add-ons or “furnished by owner” items.

For Wilson, gaining ground in the minds of designers is a key benefit of all the labor that went into the MasterFormat revision process. “We supported this because we want our industry to grow,” he says. “This is a way to grow our industry and to get our work right up front, to be sure we’re in the spec and not an afterthought. It’s a way for our systems to become an integral part of the functionality of the building.”


The number of “divisions” in MasterFormat 2004 — each addressing a different specialty or discipline — has increased from 16 to 50.

  • Divisions 00 through 14 are basically the same as in the 1995 edition.
  • Some division numbers are reserved for future expansion.
  • A new six-digit numbering system will allow for many more new sections within a division.
  • AV and communications systems, which were once addressed in several different divisions (chiefly Section 16, “Equipment”) now have a division of their own: Division 27.
  • “Integrated Automation” and “Electronic Safety and Security” also have distinct divisions: 25 and 28.

CSI says implementing the new MasterFormat could save up to 10 percent in construction costs, by eliminating changes and delays that can result from incomplete, misplaced, or missing information. Wilson sees the same gain: “This will allow for better project manuals,” he says. “It allows people to clearly articulate the scope of their work.” Companies specializing in design-build construction, in particular, could have a lot at stake. “Those who embrace this quickly and understand it could increase the scope of their projects. They’d have an opportunity to go in to clients and talk about all the components of what they do.”

But this higher visibility puts an onus on the industry. “What we have to do now is live up to this, by providing high levels of competency,” Wilson says.

Education effort underway

NSCA, CSI, and others are rolling out national education efforts this year to promote MasterFormat 2004. NSCA’s Wilson notes that about 175 people have been certified by CSI as MasterFormat instructors. “This is the year for training, and for getting people to learn what they have to do,” he says. “In 2006, we’ll focus on our own industry adapting to this as well.”

Knowledge is one part of the formula for adoption of the new edition. But some constituency in the construction industry is also going to have to push for it, and many believe that constituency will be building owners and their designers. “Architects and owners will want to see it adopted,” Thrasher says.

CSI’s Ceton agrees that owners are driving the adoption as much as any other group. “The reaction to MasterFormat 2004 among the specifier community has been very positive,” he says, adding that “the only remaining roadblocks tend to be in the area of education, a need that CSI is working hard with our industry partners to meet on an ongoing basis.”

As Wilson reminds AV pros, architectural firms have been through changes in the MasterFormat many times, so they should also adapt to this new edition eventually. “For us,” he adds, “this is the first time.”

John McKeon is an independent consultant and writer based in the Washington D.C. area. He can be reached at [email protected]

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