Do you have your OMS?

bigstock_Inside_of_a#AB6C19In “A Value Proposition,” the President’s Message in the October 2014 issue of Construction Canada, CSC’s president, Keith Robinson, FCSC, RSW, CCS, LEED AP, stressed the importance of “maintaining and creating master specifications,” which “gets your specs read, provides the project deliverables the owner expects, reduces the clarification requests from the contractor, and lowers project costs by appropriate allocation of risk throughout the documentation.” This is the return on investment (ROI)—and I believe it is a high return—that he considered as the titular ‘value proposition’ he made.

I agree with his sentiment, but the problem is many firms are reluctant to make this investment and engage in the effort to have their own office master specifications (OMS). The time requirements, and likely the initial cost, are the main obstacles—whether they are real or imaginary. Perhaps there is also an issue of having the right know-how.

However, it need not be such a frightening endeavour. In this article, I would like to share my experience, and show how having your own master specs can be achieved in a manner relatively easier than one might expect.

Creating office specs
With the tools we have at our disposal in this digital age, it is not such a difficult task to put together proper office specifications.

Construction Specifications Canada (CSC) and its southern counterpart, CSI, have offered MasterFormat and SectionFormat/PageFormat for final specs, as Robinson mentions. The two groups also published UniFormat and PPDFormat as the main guidelines for organizing the information and putting together the required documents or specifications for concept design and design development stages. These are updated periodically and are available easily, in printed or electronic formats. Moreover, the National Master Specifications (NMS) initially created for Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC), and other similar products, are marketed as samples for the preparation of construction documentation.

Most firms probably have project specs they have employed for their previous projects and are reusing with adaptations for their new work. These specifications may become the basis for an OMS. This was the case in our office, when I started my specifying career some 22 years ago. Fortunately, it was also the time when computers started to replace typewriters, so the manual method of ‘cut and paste’ was also replaced by its electronic version. This was the appropriate moment to push aside all those different project paper copies from the dusty shelves and start building up our master specs.

After the first project (Project A) was created with a word processer, a copy was saved for the OMS. When the next project spec was prepared (Project B), starting with a copy of the initial project, some of the clauses were deleted and new clauses were added, reflecting the differing requirements for products or procedures for the new project. While these additions were also introduced into the OMS, the deletions were not executed there. Thus, a new document was created including the info from both Projects A and B. It was a small effort—there was no special research done in addition to what was needed for Project B, but here was a new OMS, to become the basis of Project C (and so on).

While new projects developed, so did the OMS, as more data was compiled. At one point, we did not need to add as much new data as we needed to delete what was not required for the next project. Of course, it takes much less time to select what is required and to delete what is not than it does to write new articles, paragraphs, or sentences. The fact all we need is already found in one single source, instead of being spread over tens and even hundreds of projects, saves so much time.

Creating masters is easy; maintaining them is more difficult
There are four main paths to ensuring an up-to-date OMS; these should not be thought of as alternative options to each other, but rather approaches that should be taken concurrently.

The first and most important path to ensuring an up-to-date OMS is incorporating experience into the specs. That is, each new project specification may reflect the lessons learned from the previous one, if there is a procedure for project managers to alert the spec writer of all the different items needing improvement, such as inadequacy of materials or faulty installation methods. This makes the specs unique, as they incorporate a wealth of experience-specific information.

The second path is the incorporation of new or improved materials or products to replace existing ones. For this, it is important to be aware of new developments, new technologies in building materials, and construction methods. Manufacturers or manufacturing agents and contractors can be helpful when regularly consulted. They can be asked to review and comment on the documents. (Attending pertinent conferences and seminars also help.)

The third path concerns codes and standards, many of which become obsolete over time. One has to closely follow their status in order to avoid referring to old versions or even withdrawn documents.

The fourth path is to follow the development of the aforementioned standard CSI/CSC documents and the revisions to NMS. This helps avoid using old formats or obsolete versions.

In this entire endeavour, both time and money is involved. However, there is also the danger of losing even more time and money when such procedures are ignored. This author strongly suggests you think about your own firm’s office master specifications.

Another Perspective…

In addition to this article by Vrej-Armen Artinian, Keith Robinson’s October 2014 article drew numerous responses. One letter, by Keith McEwen, GSC (KMA Contracting Inc.), presented another perspective:I read the article by Keith Robinson with great interest. But if only it were so! The majority of specifications I see today are cut-and-paste conglomerations—often with sections not even relevant to the project. The sheer volume of verbiage in many of today’s specification for a $400,000 job exceeds what would have sufficed for a $40 million project a few years ago.

For these cases, it is as an abdication of responsibility by the document-providers. It’s a matter of ‘throw everything in and let the contractor provide it.’ It not only is a burden on the contractor, but also, when stated clearly enough, a financial hardship to the owner. If not stated clearly, it becomes a cost to the contractors. Unfortunately, many of today’s specifications are viewed by contractors as more of a weapon than an aid.


ArtinianVrej-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 et associés architectes 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). He can be contacted via e-mail at

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  1. I applaud the observations of both Mr. Artinian and Mr. McEwen. The limitations of the President’s Message mean that the 500 word maximum is often exceeded and requires considerable editing on our publishers part, meaning that the broader message I’d like to convey is truncated out of necessity. This and other topics included in the monthly columns are intended to spur debate and instigate required and necessary change to our communities approach to specifications as a throwaway commodity. The responses in this web exclusive article shows that natural extension of practical application to those abbreviated thoughts are being discussed… and perhaps through this form of dialogue real change will occur.

    In particular a feel the angst identified by Keith McEwen, the fact that he has identified real costs associated with the project based on the quality and quantity of documentation should make specifiers rethink their approach to information presentation. Owners would be very interested if a percentage cost component could be identified, and as a result require the professional of record to invest more than ‘a few hours’ to the real task of providing appropriately written specifications to our constructors.

    I would also add one additional thought to Vrej-Armen’s maintenance of the OMS thoughts – there are times when capturing project experience and updating with new information adds to the complexity of the editing – so a fifth element to consider… there are times when it is necessary to rewrite sections of the OMS from scratch to eliminate accumulations of old information that are no longer relevant or appropriate. Our company has an OMS with 50 years of accumulation –> and has shown that an old-fashioned ‘new broom sweeps clean’ approach to updating can also be an effective maintenance technique.

  2. Thank you to both Keiths. Mr. McEwen’s concern should be addressed before even deciding how to present the project documents, i.e. if complete or abriged specs will be needed, or just notes on the drawings (which I would not recommend).
    As to Mr. Robinson’s new broom, of course the intention of OMS is to remain up-to-date at all times, always replacing obsolete materials and conditions with new ones, otherwise it would be more an obstacle than an effective tool. Thanks again for having provoked these thoughts.

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