Specification is an essential part of the design process. Unfortunately, for most engineers, it is the least enjoyed task. This often results in specifications of inferior quality. If a specification is written badly it can cause major problems for every member of the construction team, and can cost the client a great deal of money. If the specification is well written it can enhance project delivery for the whole construction team while saving everyone money.

The use of an office Master Specification ensures improved development efficiency and content quality for every project specification. By using a well defined structure and clear, concise language the resulting project specification will be comprehensive and unambiguous.

A commercial Master Specification brings further advantages. Master Specification clauses are written by specialists, dedicated to researching and monitoring the latest construction methods, standards and legislation. This makes commercial Master Specifications a current and authoritative source of text, information and guidance.

1 Specifications

Specifications are an important part of the design and construction process. Specifications are a valuable tool during the design stage, are part of the contract documentation, and have a key role in the efficiency of project fulfilment.

A specification is:

  • a tool for conveying the required quality of products (both fabric and services) and their installation for a particular project; and
  • a means of drawing together all the relevant information and standards that apply to the work to be constructed.

The specification is a set of instructions from owner/client to constructors, prepared by designers, and should be written in a form that is easily understood. Specifications must be arranged in a clear structure so specific information is easy to find. The language must be clear, concise, complete, and correct. The writing style should be unambiguous with minimal legal phraseology or stilted formal terms. The content must be current and authoritative.

The best guarantee that the project specification will meet these high standards is to base it on a sound master specification.

2 Benefits of using office master specifications

Improved efficiency in specifying

Using an office master specification saves project specification preparation time. A comprehensive master contains descriptions of most of the required products in a concisely written, well-organized, finished form, allowing the specifier to quickly delete products not applicable to the project. A small amount of work is then needed to add products unique to the project but not in the master. Changes noted from site observations can be made to the office master easily and efficiently for the benefit of succeeding projects.

Expanded decision-making capability

A comprehensive office master includes a wide range of options from which to choose. The master specification becomes the corporate memory of the design firm, taking advantage of the expertise of all firm members and consultants. Policy decisions can be annotated in master specifications to benefit project specification development. This collective decision-making capability can be applied at times other than the last-minute crunch time for finishing a project specification.

Avoidance of delays in project development

Because office master specifications can be made available to the design team early in the design phase, project specifications can be developed concurrently with drawings. Annotations can be made to the master specifications to guide the product-selection and design-decision processes at the most appropriate time. This allows drawing details and associated specifications to occur simultaneously. Too often, specification development is left till last, when production time and resources are limited, allowing little time for coordination.

Minimize repetitive work

A comprehensive office master specification frees design professionals from the drudgery of creating project specifications from scratch or from previous project specifications. Design professionals have more time to design and coordinate their designs.

Reduce errors and omissions

An office master specification becomes a project checklist to assist in considering the many issues and choices to be made during design. Errors and omissions can be minimized because the amount of new text generated is minimized. Tried and tested specification clauses can provide some assurance of completeness and correctness. Specification errors discovered in the field can be annotated and corrected in master specifications for the benefit of future projects.

Reduce exposure to liability

By reducing errors and omissions, office master specifications minimize the potential for litigation.

Unified office terminology

Use of an office master specification helps standardize terminology for the firm. Terminology from project to project can be made consistent for the benefit of designers and contractors alike. Use of proven products and applications can be standardized within the firm and problematic products and applications can be annotated for avoidance in future projects. The master specification becomes the repository for corporate design policy.

Stabilized office practice

Office master specifications, as a source of information, can be used to train inexperienced design personnel. The process of developing and maintaining master specifications can be an educational experience and activity. The process of using master specifications for projects can standardize project production procedures.

Easier updating of specification data

Products and standards are constantly changing. Using an office master specification, a firm can incorporate these industry changes as they occur for the benefit of future projects. Systematic review of masters in general, and products and standards in particular, can be done at off-peak production times.

3 Benefits of using commercial master specifications

Commercial master specification systems permit the benefits of office masters to be applied nationally, with more rigour and efficiency.

Focused preparation benefits content, format, and writing quality

Companies dedicated to the process, and focused on quality of content, organization, style, and format, produce commercial master specifications. Greater amounts of time and resources are brought to bear on the development of commercial master specifications making them more comprehensive and consistent than office masters could ever be. Coordination among specification work sections, both fabric and services, and with other construction documents, is a benefit.

Designed to accommodate a wide variety of applications

Commercial master specifications are written for virtually all types of projects and include most of the traditionally specified construction products and activities. They are written for a wide variety of project delivery processes. These commercial masters can be easily adapted to office practices. Commercial master specifications include guidance notes about application of choices, and automated features for choice selection.

Content peer reviewed for accuracy, comprehensiveness, and appropriateness

Professional associations often endorse selected commercial master specifications. This endorsement is usually in exchange for a peer review of the content by representatives of those endorsing organizations. These representatives are often practicing design professionals who use the commercial master for their projects. This gives them familiarity with the commercial master and guarantees their interest in its quality.

Currency of the master

A major benefit of commercial masters is that they are maintained by the developing organization. Work sections are continuously and/or regularly updated to incorporate construction industry trends, changes in products and manufacturers, changes in referenced standards, and changes in construction processes.

This is both a benefit and a liability. The benefit is obvious in that masters are maintained current with the industry. The liability, which is not so obvious, is that if you modify a commercial master for office practices, each subsequent update requires reviewing and editing for corporate policy changes. This liability can be minimized by proper techniques for annotating corporate policy issues and with commercially available software for automation. The benefit of currency far outweighs the liability of the work effort to maintain the derived office master. Using commercial master specifications as the basis of office masters brings the benefits of both approaches to the preparation of project specifications.

Commercial master specification companies spend literally thousands of hours annually in researching legislation, standards, and new developments in methods and products, to maintain their commercial master specifications. This is many more hours than most design firms can afford in the pursuit of current office masters.


Master specifications provide an opportunity for automated production. Many repetitive tasks can be automated by the computer, but automation can only be employed with a well-coordinated, consistently formatted master specification. Many commercial master specifications automate searching and replacing, page formatting features, report generation and creation of tables of contents. Many of these automated features can be applied to entire project specifications as well as to individual work sections.

4 Using a master to create a project specification

Always use the master

The first rule of project specification development is to always begin with the master. The urge to use the last most similar project specification is great, but should be resisted. Projects are like people - no two are identical. This is true no matter how similar the projects, even if the project is for the same client. Project specifications were created with particular project requirements in mind. Many of the wide variety of choices have been eliminated and therefore are not present for consideration. Problems from previous projects can be repeated on subsequent projects. Existing project specifications do not have the benefit of the currency of master specifications.

Editing the master specification

The second rule of project specification development is to edit the project specification specifically for the project. Do not retain products and activities that do not apply to the project. One way to undermine confidence in a project specification is to include a requirement that does not apply to the project. This puts the whole document into doubt. To be enforceable as a contract document, project specifications must be clear, concise, correct, and complete.

Using a master for a checklist for product selection

A master specification can be a useful tool as a checklist for project requirements. The master table of contents can be used to consider which work sections are needed. Work sections from the master specification can be used as a checklist to consider which products and activities are required for the project. The work section can also be used for a checklist during product selection. Master specification work sections can be annotated with guidance notes about product selection and application. Additional resource materials can be attached to work section masters for use in editing guidance and product selection and application.

5 The way forward

In this day and age it is vital for any organization to operate as efficiently as possible and to deliver maximum value to its clients. Master specifications are an essential part of delivering these aims by minimizing costs, giving maximum time for design and coordination, and limiting the potential for errors and omissions.

Further reading

Gelder, John (2001), Specifying Architecture, CISA, Milsons Point, Australia.

Construction Specifications Institute (1995), Manual of Practice, CSI, Alexandria, USA.

More information

This article previously appeared as:

Delany, Sarah & Mike King (2003) ‘The benefits of master specifications’, CIBSE/ASHRAE The world wide gathering of the building services industry conference, Edinburgh, September.

A poster paper presented at the same conference is also available:

The benefits of master specifications poster download (.pdf, 0.1Mb)