The hidden value of SectionFormat

October 21, 2014

SectionFormat is the standard for locating information within a technical specification section. The benefits go far beyond than for just specifiers, however. Photo © BigStockPhoto/Kasia Bialasiewicz[1]
SectionFormat is the standard for locating information within a technical specification section. The benefits go far beyond than for just specifiers, however. Photo © BigStockPhoto/Kasia Bialasiewicz

By Steve Londry, B.Arch, Dip.Arch.Tech, LEED AP
A joint publication of CSC and CSI, SectionFormat is now more than 40 years old, but remains the standard for locating information within a technical specification section. It guides the specifier to a uniform and clear arrangement of information, and provides readers of construction documents with a clean, predictable format.

A section is divided into three primary Parts, subdivided into Articles, and then further divided into Paragraphs—all with recommended headings and arranged in a particular sequence. SectionFormat 2008 is a relatively small guide document, and includes a two-page summary that is an excellent desktop reference.

A general principle of organization is ‘everything has a home.’ When you are looking for a particular tool in an orderly mechanic’s workshop where everything is kept in a proper place, you know where to find it. If a 3/16 socket is not in its spot in the case, you know it is missing at a glance. Conversely, if you have a large bag of sockets (i.e. a disorganized system), it can be difficult to know if one was missing—its absence unapparent until the moment you need it most.

It is a universal truth no person in the design/construction process has a surplus of time; everyone would benefit from increasing efficiency. Specifiers are the first people in a long chain of parties that use the project manual, and authors’ seemingly small decisions (such as determining the location of particular specification text) are magnified by the numerous readers and scrutinizers. SectionFormat offers advantages for everyone.

Advantages for technical representatives
A technical representative’s audience is frequently the designer and specifier, who has little free time and who also need reliable information to input into the contract documents. Manufacturer’s information is complex and can be overwhelming, but it is more easily digested when organized in a predictable format. Using a consistent document format will ease reading. For example, all material safety data sheets (MSDSs) follow a standard format, and the reader can quickly find specific content or discover what content is absent.

Advantages for specifiers
Following SectionFormat reduces the likelihood of writing a duplication or conflict within a Section, as the guide identifies in great detail where to locate particular text. By analogy, in a home, towels are appropriately stored in a linen closet. A pantry is a distinctly different type of storage closet. Everyone in the family only needs to look for towels in one of these places.

One of the most pressured times of a project is during the bid period. When the design team must issue a revision by addenda, there is a definite advantage when the specifications are written following SectionFormat. A particular text requirement is likely located in only one Article, which means less text to revise and simpler co-ordination with other related sections.

When specifiers update office master specifications, they appreciate consistent documents’ contents. When the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC) issues an update to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) requirements, master specifications must be revised to follow suit. Consistent text organization in specification masters allow quick master updates, sometimes even as simple as ‘cut-and-paste.’

Advantages for the design team
Design members commonly have little time to review a pre-bid specification to confirm the specifier has correctly interpreted the design intent. For instance, mockup requirements are located in Part 1, after “Submittals” and before “Delivery, Storage, and Handling.” SectionFormat makes pre-bid reviews of a project manual more efficient, which includes discovering where key specification requirements are missing.

Advantages for bidders
During the bid period, a general contractor may only have a few weeks to familiarize him or herself with a stack of complex drawings, plus read the entire project manual. This tome could easily be the size of Moby Dick (though Melville’s work is likely more entertaining). Bidders never have excess time, so they need consistency in bid documents to quickly understand the design intent and project requirements.

Advantages for contract administrators
Contract administrators are commonly not the authors of the project manual, but they need to enforce those requirements during construction. Consistently located text requirements allows fast searching of the project manual. The requirement for a “Mock-Up,” a “Mockup,” and a “Mock Up” are equally valid and enforceable, but following SectionFormat strictly also allows electronic searching for specific terms. This can reap huge rewards in time management.

Advantages for estimators
Similar to contract administrators, estimators benefit from consistent and predictable specification content. Specifications that follow SectionFormat allow estimators to quickly search for content, and determine whether the needed information is absent.

There are always exceptions to a rule. The obvious is MasterFormat’s Division 00 and 01 do not easily follow SectionFormat. It is also important to remember SectionFormat is a guide. The primary purpose of specifications is to appropriately explain the design intent and project requirements, and this should never be subservient to the recommendations of a guide document. That said, SectionFormat 2008 is comprehensive and, when well understood, provides appropriate guidance to the arrangement of specification content in almost every case.

2SLondry2014[2]Steve Londry, B.Arch, Dip.Arch.Tech, LEED AP, is principal of Construction Specification Solutions in Edmonton. He has volunteered for the CSC Education Maintenance Task Team (EMTT), has more than 20 years of experience in the construction industry, and has worked with two CSC presidents and some of the finest specifiers in Canada. He is also a member of the Construction Canada Editorial Advisory Board. Londry can be reached at

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