The Big Picture, part 1

by Sheldon Wolfe, RA, CSI, CCS, CCCA

OCCS and MasterFormat

a quick look at MasterFormat reveals that it is inconsistent

the Big Picture
part 1

the Big Picture
part 2

the Big Picture
part 3

the Big Picture
part 4

the Big Picture
part 5

the Big Picture
part 6



Many interesting comments have appeared in chapter newsletters and in on-line discussion forums at and bricsnet. There seems to be some misunderstanding about what OCCS (the Overall Construction Classification System) is, and how it might affect MasterFormat. Before looking at that issue, we should first look at MasterFormat, and the reasons it may soon become inadequate for construction documents.

A quick look at MasterFormat reveals that it is inconsistent and illogical. Some Divisions and documents deal with basic materials, others with product function, product location, still others with procedural and contractual matters. There is no logical way to know if wood flooring belongs in Division 6 because it is wood, or in Division 9 because it is a finish floor material. Some Divisions are relatively empty, while others don't have enough five-digit numbers to go around.

Despite these inconsistencies, MasterFormat has proven to be a useful system for organizing construction information. Some creativity is occasionally required to use it, but its very lack of specificity makes it adaptable to nearly every situation.

Because not all numbers are assigned, unused numbers can be used by specifiers as needed. Closely related sections in "crowded" areas can even have the same section number in a firm's master specification library. One of the reasons this loose system works is that it is used by humans, who have far more imagination than any computer.

People would have no difficulty finding wood doors under section number 08200, 08210, or 08211. Besides being listed as such in the table of contents, a person used to looking in Division 8 has a good chance of finding them. Why? Because humans can recognize similarities that are hard to describe to a computer. We aren't locked into one-to-one correspondence between the world and our thinking.

As long as humans write and interpret specifications (and drawings) a loose framework of organization is not just o.k.; it can even be a benefit as it allows us to communicate complex ideas in relatively few words, the context helping decide what is being said. For example, we casually use the word "grout" for several products, yet we have little problem understanding that ceramic tile grout is not the same as masonry grout. Computers still need a little help with such things.

So what has changed?

Computers, once limited to governments and large-scale projects, are now common in the workplace. Unfortunately, most of us don't truly realize what they can do. I suspect most specifiers still use them in the same way they used typewriters, the primary benefits being the elimination of the carriage return bar and typewriter correction fluid.

They can do so much more, but some things will have to change to allow real progress in construction communication. One of those changes is increased definition of products and services. Because they have no imagination, computers rely on unique identifiers for each datum they process; close enough is not in the computer vocabulary. If solid core wood doors are supposed to be in 08210, then 08211 won't work! If twelve products have to fit into a ten number range of Level 4 numbers, something has to give.

2001 Sheldon Wolfe, RA, CSI, CCS, CCCA, 
on the web at 

Top of page  

go to Mpls.-St. Paul Chapter CSI home page home page