Are your specs as up to date as you are?

Office master specifications (OMS) are only useful if they are kept updated.
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By Vrej-Armen Artinian, CSC, CSI

Every architect knows each new project and experience enrich our know-how, offering an edge on others who have not had the same opportunity to learn and advance. But how does this acquired expertise get integrated into your practice? There is no better place than your office master specifications (OMS) to absorb this new information into your professional system.

You may have ‘typical’ specs to use as the basis of your next project specifications, but how helpful are they if not continuously renewed and updated? It is easy to keep older construction documents, using them over and over again for projects of the same nature. However, this is exactly what I strongly advise against, even if for a consecutive phase for the same building. Things change, and what seemed right for yesterday’s project may not be suitable for today’s one.

Project specs do not constitute OMS. As their name suggests, they are project-specific, rather than general documents that can be applied to any job at any time. Are the National Master Specifications (NMS)—or similar commercially available spec compilations—good enough to be used as an OMS? The answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no.’

NMS works well as a minimum basis to start a project spec, but it does not contain all the specific information needed to specify a certain product. This comes from your own input, and it can only be preserved if you keep your own OMS. (Further, since NMS and similar specs are updated periodically, basing your work on last year’s version may not be 100 per cent accurate for a new building.)

What to do?
Instead of putting down instructions on how to update specs, I will explain how I went through this endeavour to create a tool that now serves everyone in our office who puts together a project manual—in a very expedient and thorough manner—thereby saving time and money.

More than 25 years ago, when I started my new job as a spec writer (specs were typewritten at that time, if not handwritten first), I had a series of paper copies of project specs on my shelves. My first manual was put together with photocopied pages taken from several previous projects, with red annotations everywhere. Thankfully, computers came about just at the right time.

The first typeset project spec I produced, I decided to use as a basis to start an OMS. A copy of that spec was put aside, and when the second project spec was done, I introduced the new items into that first spec. Little by little, it started to grow; it now includes every new product or instruction that new projects brought.

Today, my OMS can provide 95 per cent of the contents of any project spec we have to produce. All articles and paragraphs not required for the new project are simply deleted, and the rest receives a little touchup here and there. Having to prepare specs in either French or English (or both for federal projects) means keeping current parallel series with exactly the same content.

Of course, compiling information and keeping them updated are two different things. It is not enough to add new materials, installation methods, or other requirements. Obsolete products must come out of your specs, while new or modified requirements need to replace old ones.

The first and easiest step in doing this involves comparing your OMS with the latest version of NMS, using its revisions as a guideline to revise your document. One must also take care to check against MasterFormat and SectionFormat/PageFormat since these CSC/CSI documents are also renewed from time to time.

The second step is to ask manufacturers to review your specs and suggest modifications due to product changes, the introduction of new offerings, or the addition of further information concerning installation. At this stage, you should also review the codes and standards mentioned in your document to ensure they correspond to the latest revised versions in force, as well as compliance of your text to them.

The third, and by far most important, step is to listen to your colleagues, project managers, and site supervisors when they come back with comments on what is written in your specification. This is the most valuable updating of your specs—that practical office experience specific to your firm and to the personnel whose collaboration you enjoy. Often, contractors can also contribute in setting straight your instructions and requirements since they are responsible for putting together and building what you are specifying. In the same manner, when two or more offices come together to form consortiums, they mutually enrich each other’s experience.

Finally, the last updating step comes down to you, the spec writer. You will always find an error, a typo, or something else to correct each time you reread your specs.

Updating specifications is no easy task. Keeping abreast of innovation and progress is challenging. While it may seem to be an expensive endeavour, it saves the office a lot of headaches in the long run, offering clients better service. In fact, with an updated OMS, the project spec is produced faster and with less effort.

I look forward to one day seeing an industry-wide updating process independent from manufacturers; one offered by a central body whose task is the common good and security of the users and the clients, private or public. With the proper funding, the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) could become that body, integrating that process into the production and revision of NMS and perhaps making it available to design/construction professionals at no charge.

In the meantime, it is up to each one of us to ensure our specs reflect the latest of our know-how and experience.

Vrej-Armen Artinian, CSC, CSI, is a graduate of Cairo University (B.Arch, 1964) and McGill University (M.Arch, 1969). He started his career specializing in the design of school buildings, then moved on to industrial buildings, laboratories, and research centres. Artinian has been a specification writer at Montréal-based NFOE since 1992. He is a member of Construction Specifications Canada (CSC), Ordre des architectes du Québec (OAQ), Construction Specifications Institute (CSI), Conseil du bâtiment durable du Canada (CBDCa) Section du Québec, and a Life Member of the Conseil de l’enveloppe du bâtiment du Québec (CEBQ). Artinian is also an award-winning contributor to the Armenian press in Canada. He can be contacted via e-mail at

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