Lots of Questions. Coding system objective is more clarity. (Photo courtesy of CSI/Martin J. Allred)

After four years of deliberation, the Construction Specifications Institute has retooled its numbering system for classifying work results in contract documents. But it may take several more years and millions of dollars for commercial and institutional construction professionals to adopt it, according to CSI members.

The new system, called MasterFormat 2004, represents a major shift in the way project manuals detail work. "This is a real sea change," says Mark Kalin, a specifications consultant in Newton, Mass. Firms will need to retool their in-house libraries to adapt, which could take years and "will only cost money," Kalin adds. Industry-wide repercussions could be several million dollars, other members speculate.

Owners already have started the switch in order to improve project communication. The U.S. General Services Administration plans to require MasterFormat 2004 for all construction put-in-place starting in fiscal-year 2006, according to Charles G. Hardy, GSA’s Chicago-based deputy director of property development. Firms working with GSA "have to come to the table speaking the same language," he says.

CSI published the newest version of MasterFormat, its flagship product, in November. The 518-page document, co-developed with Construction Specifications Canada, follows the 1995 edition. Late last month, the association launched an effort to teach members how to use the new version by holding a round of train-the-trainer classes just prior to its April 20-22 annual conference in Chicago. "We’re going to be looking at this for the next three to four years," says Michael D. Chambers, principal of MCA Specifications, Daly City, Calif., and chair of CSI’s implementation task team.

The 42-year-old coding system is a standard set of numbers and titles that 95% of owners, architects, engineers contractors and material suppliers in U.S. and Canada use to communicate work results in writing. "If there is...anything uniform about construction, it would be this numbering system," says Leon LaJeunesse, president of Custom Contracting, Lake Zurich, Ill.

When MasterFormat 1995 came up for review in 2001, some members thought the old code was ambiguous and left out important professions like civil and mechanical engineering. "It was our intent to not only look at the construction of a facility, but the life-cycle," says Dennis J. Hall, principal of Hall Architects, Charlotte, N.C., and chair of CSI’s 17-member expansion team.

The 2004 edition, which uses a six-digit numbering system instead of five, balloons 16 top-division numbers into 50 and allows users to drill down more precisely into middle and bottom rungs. For example, sand-cushion terrazzo flooring, represented simply by the number "09410" in MasterFormat 1995, changes to "096613.13" in MasterFormat 2004.

Such change has far-reaching implications and Hall’s team encountered much resistance. After responding to thousands of e-mail questions, Hall started a monthly, electronic newsletter called The Southern Fried Architect and used it to recap the panel’s activities. It reached 208,000 subscribers. "I’ve run into people from New Zealand who read this thing," says Hall.