Using CSI formats effectively

Chambers_headshotINSIDE CSI
Michael D. Chambers, FCSI, FAIA, CCS
The role of formats in modern construction documentation is central to CSI’s vision and purpose; they enable the structured presentation and organization of construction project information. To meet the many and varying types of information needing structure and organization, CSI (in many cases in concert with its sister organization, Construction Specifications Canada [CSC]) has developed many formats for the design and construction industry.

Formats are powerful resources for enabling and empowering documentation in the construction industry. However, using them effectively takes knowledge, study, and practice. Though many CSI formats have multiple uses, demonstrating their value proposition is sometimes a challenge. Nevertheless, they remain a critical resource as the industry moves into integrated project delivery (IPD) and building information modeling (BIM).

Two of CSI’s central tenets are:
• the 4 Cs—clear, concise, correct, complete; and
• “Say it once, say it in the right place.”

Standardized formats provide a particularily effective way to accomplish these goals in the design and construction industry. Additional critical issues are the lack of coordination within and between disciplines.

By using standardized formats, project team members can create consistent methods for organizing and communicating information. Formats provide a consistent asset by enabling the ability to find, organize, present, and analyze critical information across the varied and often conflicting landscape of industry disciplines.

In late 2000, representatives from a number
of North American architectural/engineering/construction (AEC) industry organizations met to plan the development of a system to provide a standardized basis for classifying information throughout the full facility lifecycle, from conception to demolition, encompassing the different types of construction making up the built environment. The result of that effort is OmniClass (

OmniClass consists of 15 tables, each representing a different aspect of construction information. Each table can be used independently to classify a particular type of information, or entries can be combined with other tables to classify more complex subjects. Two of the primary tables that cover design and construction are Table 21–Elements and Table 22–Work Results. UniFormat provides the basis for Table 21, as does MasterFormat for Table 22.

MasterFormat (, CSI’s flagship format, is probably the association’s most influential and effective publication. Without doubt, it is the most widely used system for organizing construction information in North America.

Although it has been through several editions and has changed numerous times since its initial publication in 1963, it was dramatically expanded and changed in 2004, and undergone numerous updates since. This ever-evolving process allows MasterFormat to be much more responsive to changes and innovations in the construction industry.

The basic purpose of MasterFormat is stated quite well in the introduction to the 2012 update:

MasterFormat is a master list of numbers and titles classified by work results or construction practices, primarily used to organize project manuals, organize detailed cost information, and relate drawing notations to specifications.

MasterFormat consists of 50 divisions organized into groups and subgroups. Individual sections are organized by six-digit numbers. The resource does not define discipline and trade jurisdictions; rather, it simply organizes information about desired project outcomes.

This is reflected in one of the most basic changes made in the 2004 update to MasterFormat—the move from a focus on materials to Work Results, which expands the focus of the organization beyond the basic product to the associated and intended outcome. Simply put, rather than ‘carpet,’ we specify ‘carpeting.’ Accompanying this was a formal approach to the concept of Common Work Results. So, at the beginning of each division, Work Results that are common for most of the sections in that division are listed, including schedules, commissioning, operations and maintenance, and the like. This replaced the materials and methods sections that used to work across many sections.

SectionFormat and PageFormat
SectionFormat provides a standardized basis for organizing a specification section. This uniform approach to organizing specification text within sections allows for a highly standardized, and therefore effective, organization and presentation tool. SectionFormat can also provide an effective means for quality control and assurance (QC/QA) when it is used as a checklist enabling the specifier to check for oversights and missing information.

Though less commonly used, PageFormat is a great resource that defines preferred formatting for presentation of written content in a specification section. It is focused on critical issues such as readability, ability to be published, and adaptability and use of content.

One of the most useful and flexible formats in the CSI catalog, UniFormat provides a standardized basis for classifying the physical elements of a facility by their primary function without regard to the particular Work Results that will be used to achieve the function.

Substructure, shell, interiors, and services are examples of basic functional elements. The functional elements are often thought of as systems or assemblies comprising them. For example, the shell element can be broken down into superstructure, exterior enclosure, and roofing, or the services element can be broken down to conveying, plumbing, HVAC, fire protection, and electrical.

There are many applications for UniFormat. The major ones include:
• organizing and analyzing cost information;
• preliminary project descriptions (PPDs) and documentation for performance-based or design/build projects;
• organizing and presenting drawing and BIM object libraries; and
• facilities management information.

CSI’s PPDFormat is a document providing guidance on using UniFormat to organize design documentation to help communicate design intent, and coordinate it with cost estimates and product selections. In other words, it is useful for coordinating computer-assisted design (CAD), BIM, and integrated project delivery (IPD) applications.

Preliminary project descriptions are organized around systems and assemblies that document qualitative requirements for the project appropriate to the level of decision-making and detail in the design. Using an industry-standard organizational format provides a checklist to help design teams make sure appropriate subjects are included.

GreenFormat ( provides a standard method for building product manufacturers to self-report sustainable properties of their products.

While not technically a format, the U.S. National CAD Standard (NCS) ( contains many characteristics in common with the other CSI resources discussed in this article. In addition to CSI’s Uniform Drawing System (UDS), NCS contains the American Institute of Architects (AIA) CAD Layer Guidelines (CLG). NCS is used to organize drawings by providing drawing conventions, terms and abbreviations, symbols, and schedules. It also provides a significant amount of terminology standardization, which is very useful in coordinating drawings with specifications.

Application guides
Perhaps most importantly, all CSI formats include an application guide that offers information on proper application of the format to construction project information challenges. In addition to these usage guidelines, the application guides occasionally also provide useful educational material as well as best practices.

Michael D. Chambers, FCSI, FAIA, CCS, has been involved in the design and documentation of K–12 and higher education, healthcare, government, hospitality, housing, and sports architecture. With MCA Specifications, he works closely with clients in pre-design, materials selection, program analysis, post-occupancy evaluation, and marketing strategies. As an architect and specifier, Chambers develops and presents a wide range of continuing education programs for design professionals, especially on the use of specifications in enforcing design intent and employing Division 01 to protect design concepts from substitutions and quality assurance failures. An architectural graduate of the University of Southern California, he is a registered architect in California, and a Certified Construction Specifier. Chambers is a Fellow of both CSI and the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and a past vice-president for professional practice for the AIA California Council. He can be contacted via e-mail at

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