Maintaining Office Master Guide Specifications

Almost all architectural firms and specifications consultants maintain full sets of office master guide specifications, which, among their many benefits, serve to streamline the development of project specifications.  Development and maintenance of master guides requires significant investment, likely in the thousands of hours.  This time is spent:

  • Researching construction products and standards.
  • Collecting and documenting experiences of real-life construction issues.
  • Incorporating comments by manufacturers' technical reps.
  • Talking to colleagues, contractors, subcontractors, estimators, and trade association experts.
  • Utilizing many other means of building a knowledgebase.

When building a master guide, most firms will begin by using commercially available master guide specification product like Avitru's MasterSpec or Building Systems Design's (BSD) SpecLink-E.  They then build upon the commercial product by making edits within the specification text itself, and by adding notes to the specifier that provide guidance on selecting among available products within a particular section.  The information added to the specifications provides guidance regarding technical requirements that help with decision-making.  All these edits and notes, added over time and spread across hundreds of specification sections, become a valuable repository of collected knowledge.

A problem arises, however. As master guide specifications age, information they contain becomes outdated.  Reference standards change. Manufacturers are bought out or change names.  Old product lines are dropped and new ones are introduced.  A guide spec section that served perfectly well five years ago may, if not continuously maintained, suddenly need a significant overhaul.

In the meantime, the commercial masters are updated on a continual basis.  Updates are published four times a year. Within the updates, some sections may have a word or two changed, while other may be completely rewritten.  How does a specifier who is trying to maintain an office master keep both the accumulated corporate knowledge in the office master guide and incorporate the steady drumbeat of updates?  This question is compounded for MasterSpec users in that Avitru does not provide line-by-line indication of what edits were made.  BSD, on the other hand, allows users to accept or decline updates on a line-by-line basis.

Master Maintenance Methodologies

Here are a few options for specifiers seeking to keep up the quality of their master guides:

Commercial Master as Resource

Specifiers can start with a collection of commercial master guides and continually invest time in them by incorporating both new corporate knowledge and important changes published in updated commercial guides.  This is Conspectus's approach.  Conspectus's staff of specifiers frequently evaluates and makes updates to the office masters by incorporating new text, notes, or other reference information, and tracking the revisions in a table at the head of each section.  The weakness of this approach is that even with the resources that Conspectus puts toward maintaining its masters, some sections do still get out of date, especially if they're infrequently used.  An architectural firm using an in-house specifier or requiring project managers to write specs may find it impossible to keep their master guides fully up to date.

Commercial Master as Start Point

Another specifications consulting firm has a different approach.  They start with current 'out of the box' MasterSpec for most spec sections.  On top of that, they maintain a collection of separate but complete guide sections that is not frequently updated, but that they use to specify things that are not covered in the commercial guides.  They also maintain a set of documents containing specification 'inserts;' where they collect and keep updated text modifications that are routinely applied to the specifications.  This works well for this consulting firm, but it would be cumbersome for an architectural firm.  The weaknesses of this approach are that there will be multiple files opened every time that a section is started, requiring reading multiple documents and copying text between them, which may lead to errors.  In addition, starting with fresh MasterSpec sections every three months requires being acclimated to whatever is changed within MasterSpec.

Infused Commercial Master

Some architectural firms have tried encoding their in-house text and comments with the commercial guide masters.  This is intended to allow them to identify quickly what is customized, and then copy over their custom material each time new masters are published.  They do this using text styles or colors that are easy (or automatic) to find.  However, having this be too automatic risks copying bad or outdated information and overwriting whatever is current in the commercial master.  Unthinkingly copying information from one master guide to another is just as bad as unthinkingly copying specifications from one project to another.

Periodically Updated Custom Masters

Other firms and institutional owners use their master guides with minimal maintenance for a number of years then send them to a spec consultant to be reviewed and updated. This is a service that Conspectus provides for some clients from time to time.


Master guide spec maintenance is an important process that requires up front planning and ongoing careful review to ensure that quality is maintained.  Each time a section is used in a project, the specifier should be thinking about improving it.  Construction administrators should provide feedback on any errors or weaknesses exposed and offer suggestions to correct them.

The bottom line is that there is no one-size-fits-all method for maintaining office master guide specs.  We're interested in learning about other approaches that our visitors have tried using.  What has worked for you?  Leave us a note in the comment section below.

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