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Office Master Specs: 5 Things to Consider


By Bob Bailey, AIA, CCS

Years ago with a previous employer, I worked with a principal who would harp on me that the firm ought to have an office master specification document for each type of building it designed. 

This was an idea I disagreed with then and continue to disagree with now. Materials, products and assemblies often vary greatly depending on the building type and client involved.

Specification documents
Photos courtesy of the author

Creating and maintaining a set of office master specification documents may be beneficial as a centralized place to consolidate office policies, list material and product preferences and “lessons learned.”

Exterior materials and cold-formed metal framing specs, for example, may be similar between an office building and a university academic building. However, there will be many differences in interior finish materials, equipment and furnishings in these projects.

Highly specialized work, like laboratories, could be more conducive to a master specification. But, even with labs, there are differences in quality for a commercial lab compared to a college level lab or even a high school level lab.

I believe more standardization is likely to occur with a specific client than with a building type. For instance, some healthcare systems standardize on particular interior finishes. Further, almost all of these organizations have rigorous standards for bidding requirements, contracting requirements and general requirements (the “front end”). Hospitality clients, always brand-conscious, promote themselves through their exterior materials palette and their interior finish selections. Retailers seek similar statements, including one well-known giant of the industry that likes its green roofs.

While it's hard for me to imagine a design firm that would have a master specification that suffices for all the work it does, I realize there may be some valid reasoning.

Perhaps the best argument for creating and maintaining an office master spec is to have a centralized place to consolidate office policies, material and product preferences and “lessons learned.” 

lesson learned

A “lessons learned” section could include the positive experiences as well as the failures; i.e., “This installation method worked well in this application.”

These policies could include stipulations about the way alternates should be worded, about the kind of brick ties the office will accept or information about experiences with certain types of products or manufacturers. 

Material and product preferences are obvious—nearly every firm has products that have served them well and others that they just don’t have the same comfort level with and so choose to avoid. 

“Lessons learned” can include the positive experiences as well as the failures; i.e., “This installation method worked well in this application.”

The benefit of having an office master spec is that it theoretically truncates the amount of work involved in preparing specifications for a project, by including information that you would otherwise have to either distill from, or add to, a master guide.

In any case, and for whatever reason you may choose to develop an office master spec, here are a few key points to keep in mind to help keep it functional and manageable.

     1. Decide what you’re trying to achieve with a master document.

Is the document trying to keep on top of reference standard updates and technology changes? A published master guide specification may do this better than you could hope to. Is it listing office material and manufacturer preferences? Some firms have had a committee of a few key, highly-experienced people to review specs and comment on content. Conversely you must beware of firm preferences becoming dated. That tile edge you've been specifying for years may no longer meet the Americans with Disabilities Act, for instance. The paint you swear by for steel door frames may no longer be available due to VOC limits. Be careful to cull firm standards and preferences to avoid embarrassing requests for information that begin "Two of the three products listed in section XXXXXX are obsolete..."

     2. Decide what you’re going to base the master on.

Some firms have decided to go with that old set of specs they’ve been cobbling together for 20 years. Others have decided to base a master off of a favorite job that went well. If you subscribe to a published master guide set of specs, that’s your best bet for a solid foundation for an office master. That old set of yours is sure to be outdated in terms of codes and standards. That favorite project is not going to be able to cover other materials, products and assemblies you will need on future projects.

     3. Decide on a limit.

If your firm does primarily retail work you’re not going to need to include a spec section on radiation protection in your masters. The firms I’ve worked with over the past 20+ years do exclusively commercial and institutional work, yet I can only think of one instance where I’ve had to specify escalators. Seldom-used sections are not worth carrying in an office master. I’d make an exception for more exotic work that doesn’t change all that much over time, such as gold leafing.

     4. Take care with how master specs are used and who has permission to edit them.

Ideally there should be one person who is ultimately responsible for content and that content should be unalterable by all in the office except that person. It’s important that a protocol of copying masters AND editing them be adhered to, particularly if they contain comments on firm experience and policy. At the very least make these comments hidden text so there is less likelihood of them appearing in print if they are not edited out.

     5. It’s all about maintenance.

An office master spec is a like having a vegetable garden—it takes ongoing continual work to make it worthwhile. Updated codes and standards, emerging technology, ongoing experience—these are just a few of the factors that need to be worked into the “soil” of your master specs as you continue to cultivate them.

Thinking about what you want to achieve, deciding where to begin, being selective about what to include, and regularly updating are the keys to having a solid set of office master specifications.

Being thoughtful about your approach to, and purpose in, compiling and office master spec will help you create a useful set of documents that will give you assurance and save you time as you work on future projects.


Bob Bailey, AIA, CCS

A full-time specifier for more than 25 years, Bob Bailey, AIA, CCS, CSI, LEED AP, is Specifications and Constructability Specialist for IKM Inc. of Pittsburgh, PA. An award-winning specifications writer, Bob is the founder of the Pittsburgh Specifiers' Roundtable and immediate past president of CSI Pittsburgh. His professional passions: continuing education and internship development. Contact Bob.



Tagged categories: Architects; Good Technical Practice; IKM Inc.; LEED; Specifiers; Architecture; Building operations; Business management; Coating selection; Commercial / Architectural; Specification; Specification writing

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