Canadian Consulting Engineer

The New MasterFormat

January 1, 2005
By Bronwen Parsons

By early this year the federal government of Canada had already reformatted its National Master Specifications to match MasterFormat 2004, which means that any firm working for the federal government...

By early this year the federal government of Canada had already reformatted its National Master Specifications to match MasterFormat 2004, which means that any firm working for the federal government is going through a radical adjustment period. And the impact will soon be even more widespread. When MasterFormat 2004 was launched in November, a spokesperson at the U.S. press conference advised that it was to be adopted by Sweet’s and nearly all the major master specification providers throughout North America, including the Architectural Institute of America and the U.S. Department of Defense.

MasterFormat is a system of organizing construction information that has become ubiquitous since it was launched 40 years ago. It is a master list of numbers and subject titles for everything to do with a construction project — a kind of “Dewey” system for the built environment. It is a joint production of two non-governmental organizations, Construction Specifications Institute in the U.S. and Construction Specifications Canada.

Until now the MasterFormat system primarily catered to the architecture sector, but in 2004 — following a lengthy program of industry consultations and four draft documents — the listing has been expanded to embrace engineering in a more comprehensive way. It has a special subgroup to deal with civil engineering and heavy construction, for example, and that subgroup in turn is sub-divided into sectors such as transportation, utilities and marine work. There is also a whole new subgroup dedicated to process and industrial engineering, including power plants. Building engineering is also deeply affected by the changes. Plumbing and HVAC now each have their own divisions, as do fire suppression, building, automation, communications, and electronic safety and security — components that used to be grouped under Division 13, Special Construction.

The new MasterFormat is divided into a Procurement and Contracting Requirements Group and a Specifications Group. Within the latter are five Subgroups: General Requirements, Facility Construction, Facility Services; Site and Infrastructure, and Process Equipment.

As an example of the kind of changes facing civil, structural and geotechnical engineers, Division 2 “Sitework” in the old version is now renamed “Existing Conditions” and becomes Division 2 in the Facility Construction Subgroup. However, this Division 2 is reserved for work done in preparation for building, including geotechnical investigations and site remediation (and some foundations). All new site construction, including heavy civil and infrastructure, utility and pavement work is part of various divisions in the Site and Infrastructure Subgroup.

Instead of the traditional five-digit numbering system, MasterFormat 2004 uses digits organized in pairs to indicate different levels of classification and growing specificity. For example, 03 20 00 represents Concrete Reinforcing, and 03 52 16.13 represents Lightweight Cellular Insulating Concrete. The new system is meant to provide greater flexibility and adaptability than the 1995 version, because with each level of classification represented by a pair of digits, there is room to address over 10 times as many subjects at each level. As well, the authors have left several divisions open to allow for expansion in the future.

The main force driving the changes was that the old system was proving too much of a straitjacket and could not accommodate the growing plethora of new construction practices and equipment. According to Thomas Dunbar of Construction Specifications Canada, who gave a presentation on the new format at Construct Canada in Toronto in December, mechanical and electrical engineers in the building sector were finding more and more of their work did not fit the slots of the old system and had to be gathered into an invented “Division 17.”

In the meantime, as one consulting engineer put it, “there will be a lot of agony” as consultants, their clients and the contractors, adopt the new system in their own time — or refuse to. The changes have a wide impact, since the MasterFormat system is used not just for specifications, but for project manuals, for organizing cost data and for referencing keynotes on drawings. Moving to the new format could affect everything from a firm’s software to websites.

Dunbar acknowledged the changeover will bring a cost for firms in time and money. He advised that they should carefully plan and manage the transition as they would any project, realizing that it is a major undertaking.

Educate your staff, he advised. Communicate with everyone from the bottom up and top down; schedule a start and completion date for the changeover. He also emphasized that it’s important to have a technical person in charge of assigning the numbers, someone who understands engineering and the construction industry, rather giving the job to administrative staff.

MasterFormat 2004 is available in Canada from Construction Specifications Canada, CSC is running information sessions on Masterformat 2004 across Canada between March 8-11, 2005. See


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