Classifying Product Information

By Robert W. Johnson, AIA, FCSI, CCS, CCCA

We have used MasterFormat™ for many years to classify product information. This however, was not its original purpose. The stated purpose of "The CSI Format for Construction Specifications" published in the early 1960s, later renamed MasterFormat™, was for the organization of the project manual. Early on, the format also started to be used to classify product and other technical information. As time went on, it also became the standard in North America for this secondary purpose. It is now almost impossible to find a source of construction product information that does not use MasterFormat as one of its organizational and search tools.

Heating Cable

In the 1995 Edition of MasterFormat™, heating cable is listed under 15770 Floor-Heating and Snow-Melting Equipment. Heating cable can also be used for pipe tracing (keeping piping exposed to cold conditions from freezing). This means that heating cable could be properly listed under the following locations: 13910 Basic Fire Protection Materials and Methods, 15140 Domestic Water Piping, 15180 Heating and Cooling Piping, 15230 Industrial Process Piping,15300 Fire Protection Piping, as well as 15770 Floor-Heating and Snow-Melting Equipment. Because it is electric, the 1988 edition listed it under 16850 Electric Resistance Heating.

Extruded Polystyrene Insulation

This product is commonly used for foundation insulation, insulation for precast concrete wall panels, cavity insulation, insulating sheathing, insulation at horizontal waterproofing, and as roofdeck insulation. This means that extruded polystyrene insulation could be properly listed under the following locations in MasterFormat™: 02315 Excavation and Fill, 03450 Plant-Precast Architectural Concrete, 04810 Unit Masonry Assemblies, 06160 Sheathing, 07130 Sheet Waterproofing, 07210 Building Insulation, and 07500 Membrane Roofing.

Some other examples:

  • Wood and plastic laminate cabinets in 06410 Custom Cabinets or 12320 Manufactured Wood Casework.
  • Steel pipe in 02510 Water Distribution, 02550 Piped Energy Distribution, 05520 Handrails and Railings, 13910 Basic Fire Protection Materials and Methods, 15100 Building Services Piping, 15200 Process Piping, or 15300 Fire Protection Piping.
  • Cold-formed metal studs in 05410 Load-Bearing Metal Studs, 09110 Non-Load Bearing Wall Framing, or 09260 Gypsum Board Assemblies.
  • Brick pavers in 02780 Unit Pavers, 04210 Clay Masonry Units, or 09630 Masonry Flooring.
  • Gypsum board in 06160 Sheathing, 07220 Roof and Deck Insulation (fire barrier board), 07820 Board Fireproofing, and 09250 Gypsum Board.

Historical Approaches to the Problem

This data filing problem was recognized in 1972 with the publication of the Uniform Construction Index which contained three complete versions of the format for specifications, data filing, and cost analysis. Each version was slightly different for the three applications. Division 1 of the data filing version was considerably different and was titled General Data.

With the publication of the first renamed version of MasterFormat™ in 1978, the publication went back to one version of the format to include all the purposes in one listing. The 1978 publication recognized the problem by including notes in the detailed listing indicating when a particular item was most often used for data filing versus specifying. This practice continued through the 1983 and 1988 editions, but disappeared in the 1995 edition where optional locations are sometimes noted, but no reference is made to data filing locations. The 1995 edition application guide discussion of data filing at the beginning of the publication refers to a consideration for the most frequent use of the product.

Making It Work

How have we dealt with this situation of having more than one location to file product information? Those of us with our own private libraries have made choices based on our own experiences, practice, and preferences. We make a choice of where to file technical information in the system and establish it as our practice probably based on our history of the most frequent use of the product. Others who use our library, including administrative personnel, have to learn our individual practices. After making due with this imprecise filing system for many years, it becomes a part of our normal business operations and we tend to overlook the problems to the point that we do not even think about it.

If, however, your library of product data is in the public arena, you have a more difficult problem. You now have various manufacturers wanting their particular product classified in a particular location or locations in the MasterFormat™ for competitive reasons. Their desires may not conform to the choices you have made previously and it now becomes very difficult to maintain a consistent filing system. Classifying products within a system where there is not necessarily one location for each particular product becomes a major headache and will drive a librarian to distraction.

The problem changes dramatically when you move into the realm of our electronic age. The accessibility and volume of the technical information has grown exponentially and having one location to file the information becomes imperative. Linking this information to other data such as drawings, specifications, cost data, and maintenance data becomes paramount. An imprecise data filing system is a major liability.


Help, however is on the way. An industry-wide movement called the OmniCIass Construction Classification System™ (OCCS) is attacking the total classification problem. The goal is to create a classification system that covers the entire built environment from inception to demise. You can find more information about OCCS in the article "Information, Information, Information!" in the Fall-Winter 2001 issue of this newsletter ( and on the OCCS website(

Three of the tables in the OmniClass™ system of twelve related tables are in reality, a relational database that relate directly to the issue we have been investigating:

Table 03 - Elements which is based on UniFormat,
Table 04 - Work Results which is based on MasterFormat,
Table 06 - Products which is based on EPIC™ (Electronic Product Information Co-Operation) ( a new international standard for product classification. These three tables will allow us to classify products as a pure product in the Products Table, by their functional purpose in the Elements Table, and by work results or construction practice in the Work Results table. A combination of these tables in a faceted approach allows us to classify a product and its particular function or use very precisely.

The OmniClass™ tables are organized in a faceted, rather than an enumerative manner. The same object may be comprehended from multiple perspectives, or facets. The intersection of these locations among the tables provides for the detailed classification of a particular object. The Products Table has one location for each construction product from the viewpoint of a product that can be purchased. The Elements Table (UniFormat™) may have multiple locations based on the functions that the product might perform in a construction project. The WorkResults Table (MasterFormat™) may have multiple locations based on work results for products with multiple uses in our construction practice. A single product in the Products Table can then be related to its multiple use locations in the Elements and/or Work Results Tables. The following are examples (Numbers are fictitious since a numbering scheme has not yet been applied to the OmniClass™ tables).

Gypsum Board in Products (06) and
Work Results (05) Tables

Gypsum Board in Products (06) and
Elements (04) Tables

Metal Studs in Products (06) and
Work Results (05) Tables

Metal Studs in Products (06) and
Elements (04) Tables

The above illustrates how OmniClass™ will allow products to be classified as a pure product, by their functions, by their uses, or by combinations of the three. No longer will manufacturers, classifiers, and consumers of information have to make arbitrary decisions about where a product should be located in a classification system. The products will be able to be found by various means but still classified in a precise single location.

Printed Product Data

Does this mean that the sets of hard copy catalog files with manufacture's literature will no longer use MasterFormat™? Probably not.

The catalogs will most likely have multiple indexes such as a products listing, a work results listing, and a functional elements listing. No matter how the manufacturer's literature may be physically organized in the catalogs, you will be able to find information by searching byproducts, work results, or functional elements. This is similar to a common practice of having an index of brand names which will lead you to an index of manufacturers. You can find the manufacturer by their brand names or by the manufacturer's name directly. Similarly, you will be able to find products as a pure product, by their uses in construction practice, or as a part of a functional element.

About the author: Bob Johnson is a Past President of CSI, a member of the Board of Directors of CSRF, and Vice President of RTKL Associates, an international A/E/P firm headquartered in Baltimore, MD.




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