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Has technology made Division 17 inevitable?

Proponents of the Division 17 initiative, started by a grassroots effort of telecommunications professionals, hope to revamp the construction industry's MasterFormat model to keep pace with technology. Only time will tell if this master plan in the making will become a reality.As the marketing manager swipes his security card through a sensor at the lobby door, his workplace begins to come alive.

Proponents of the Division 17 initiative, started by a grassroots effort of telecommunications professionals, hope to revamp the construction industry's MasterFormat model to keep pace with technology. Only time will tell if this master plan in the making will become a reality.

As the marketing manager swipes his security card through a sensor at the lobby door, his workplace begins to come alive. First, lighting in his workstation automatically adjusts to a preset level, his PC boots-up and connects to the network and the coffee maker starts to percolate. And that's just the beginning. The possibilities seem almost endless in some of today's high technology "smart" buildings. Surrounded by technology such as life-safety systems, elevator control, security systems, radio paging, lighting controls and digital thermostat controls, this worker also draws from such business technology, as wireless links and image retrieval.

Although all of these applications rely on extensive wiring, each is a separate system of appreciable complexity. But they do have one thing in common: They are all communications systems. That's where the Division 17 dilemma comes in. The objective behind Division 17 is to ensure telecommunication systems are designed into a building during the design phase versus the more traditional method of retrofitting them in during construction.

Still, the question remains. Does the current MasterFormat model, produced jointly by The Construction Specifications Institute (CSI), Alexandria, Va., and Construction Specifications Canada (CSC), Toronto, adequately address today's technology requirements? Or should CSI add Division 17 to better categorize telecommunications? Depending on who you talk to, you may get a very different answer.

What is MasterFormat? This document is a master list of numbers and titles for organizing information about construction requirements, products, and activities into a standard sequence. This includes organizing data in project manuals, categorizing cost data, filing product and technical data, identifying drawing objects, and presenting construction market data. Currently in its 1995 edition, the MasterFormat has arranged related construction products and activities into 16 level one titles (called divisions) since its first edition in 1963.

Although it's not mandatory, most architects and engineers use this standard as a reference to organize requirements for a new building or renovation when preparing construction specifications.

State of the industry. In the current version of MasterFormat, technology and communication systems take up two of 317 pages. According to most telecommunications professionals like Thomas Rauscher, president, Archi-Technology, Rochester, N.Y., that's simply not enough. After working as a sales/project coordinator/designer for a cabling contractor and particularly after managing one project with more than 80 sites nationally, Rauscher says he remembers when he realized technology had outgrown the current MasterFormat model. "Essentially, I was charged as a project manager with bidding the installation requirements in each of the 80 cities without any national standards," he said. "Additionally on local projects, we were seeing more telecom bids coming out under the electrical contract side."

As a cabling contractor, Rauscher said he was always bidding to the electrical contractors as a subcontractor or second-tier sub. However, he was being asked to bid off of drawings and specifications that essentially had no requirements. "They wanted a price, but there was nothing on the plans to go by," Rauscher said. "That's analogous to saying, `I want 110 outlets everywhere in the building, now what's my price?' You can't come up with that!"

Rauscher said the problem stems from technology planning that often begins when the rest of the project is going out to bid. This results in poor coordination and an occasional note to "coordinate in field with owner."

"You end up spending most of your time trying to be a financial and space magician to figure out how to pay for technology and squeeze it into tight spots," Rauscher said. "In a lot of cases, clients are getting substandard solutions because there's just no way to do it."

Frustrated with the system, Rauscher started the Division 17 initiative several years ago. However, after attending a BICSI conference in 1997, he communicated the concept to the organization and drafted Version 1. Out of this grass roots effort, he gathered feedback from industry professionals through his Web site ( Then, in February 1999, he drafted Version 2, based on all of the feedback he'd received.

Submitted in October 1999 to CSI as an official BICSI proposal (including letters of support from ACUTA, BOMA, TIA, NSCA, the University of Rochester Medical Center and the Port of Seattle), Rauscher developed Division 17 to serve as a comprehensive stand-alone model or as an addition to the existing MasterFormat. Although he's obviously very close to Division 17, Rauscher is adamant that this isn't an Archi-Technology document. "I may have been the impetus behind it, but I wasn't the only one involved," he said. "This is definitely an industry document."

Industry perspectives. Is Division 17 really necessary? According to Brooke Stauffer, director of codes and standards at the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), Bethesda, Md., this is not a yes or no question. He admits Divisions 15 and 16 are packed to bursting. However, he says NECA supports keeping telecommunications and other low-voltage systems in Division 16.

"We at NECA think these low-voltage systems belong in Division 16 because they're all electrical," Stauffer said. "We think you get better coordination if they remain in electrical like grounding and overcurrent protection."

Since the NEC covers these systems, it's still all electrical - whether you call it power or communications, he said. "NECA's perspective is we think it maintains better control and coordination of the overall electrical job, if it remains in Division 16," he said. "If a Division 17 is instituted and the telecommunications contract is separated from the electrical contract, we are worried about things like safety, increased electromagnetic interference (EMI) and grounding problems. We think this could get worse if you split it up."

Ron Provost, responsible for governmental relations at BICSI, Tampa, Fla., disagrees. He said adding Division 17 makes sense. He agrees with Stauffer that this is a competency issue; however, he maintains telecommunications professionals deserve recognition for their specialized skills. "One of the things opponents of Division 17 need to remember is MasterFormat does not specify who does the work, it just specifies what work has to be done. "We simply want the process to be better, but who gets the job depends on bidding and competency," he said. "If you're competent to do the work, you should be able to do it. We're not trying to take over the world."

Bob Bower, one of two executive vice presidents at San Jose, Calif.-based Rosendin Electric, one of the largest and oldest electrical contractors in the nation, located in San Jose, Calif., is also in favor of Division 17. He projects the opposition is probably coming from smaller contractors - not from contractors that have the capability of supporting Division 17. Established in 1919, this NECA contracting firm built its own network systems and teledata communications group about four years ago.

"People have to understand this idea is very progressive," Bower said. "This is a sector that's going to change dramatically from year to year. And as it changes, it's important not only to support the engineering but also the specifications, drawings and field resources, primarily because this work will continue to distinguish itself from standard electrical installations."

That's the foreseeable problem facing the small contractors, he said. "This is an investment for them, but they have to understand technology is pushing the investment. Like anything else, you'll lose your market share because you're not keeping pace with the changes," Bower said. "You're not going to lose this work for lack of quality of effort, but you're going to lose it because you're complacent."

Like Rosendin's contracting firm, Syska & Hennessey, New York, identified the need for telecommunications services long ago and started its own subsidiary to handle this specialty 15 years ago. Cyrus Izzo, a principal at Syska & Hennessey, said technology is definitely dealt with up front at his engineering firm. "If it's not dealt with early on, it creates a lot of turmoil and change orders," he said. "If anything, I think Division 17 would make things better in the sense that people will realize this is a major trade."

That's why so many electrical contractors are starting their own telecom divisions, Izzo said. He said it basically comes down to levels of expertise. "Pulling power cable is a lot different from splicing fiber," Izzo said. "There's a big difference in what those people need to do."

James Moravek, P.E., a consulting specifying engineer with Hammel, Green & Abrahamson Inc., Minneapolis, views Division 17 more as a housekeeping concern. And don't forget, this is also about establishing turf, he said.

"Primarily what the low-voltage people want to do is segregate themselves so their work is not controlled through Division 16," he said. "This way, they can bid directly to the general contractor or to the owner, and that's accomplished through Division 17."

Even within his engineering organization, Moravek sees differences of opinion. "I've been using Division 17 for 20-plus years, and I've always put telecommunications where I felt it was appropriate," he said. "I think even if CSI decides to come out with a separate Division 17, I don't think we're necessarily going to treat it that way."

Since it's a standard and not a code, it becomes more of a client decision in Moravek's mind. "A client with a good strong IT department will probably be very knowledgeable about Division 17 and in favor of working this way because they can control who does this work," he said. "If it's a client that typically outsources this work anyway, they probably won't care."

Working in the booming Las Vegas construction market, Troy Moser, project architect for the Hnedak Bobo Group, estimates about 50% of his clients take technology into consideration up-front. "Depending upon how a project is organized, my proposal to a client may or may not include design services for technology. We often refer to it as the low-voltage package," he said. He agrees this can sometimes cause problems. "A lot of times, my client or the owner doesn't make technology decisions soon enough to get the conduit installed, systems coordinated, and space set aside," he said. However, he warns against bringing the telecom consultants on board too early. "Generally, those consultants want to know so many details that it's difficult to bring them on too early in the design phase," he said. "If you get ahead of yourself, you end up wasting time."

Robert Baird, vice president of apprenticeship and training, standards and safety at Independent Electrical Contractors Inc., Alexandria, Va., takes a similar stance. He agrees that the voice, data and video market is a growing area of importance. However, he believes the heart of this issue lies with accurate specifications, not classification numbers. "As long as the materials and specifications related to all low-voltage technologies are clearly spelled out and made available for the contractor during the negotiation or pre-bid, bid and construction process, it really doesn't make any difference whether it's Division 16, 17 or 27," Baird said. "Just because something isn't covered in a division, it needs to be covered in the contract. All applicable standards and guidelines need to be spelled out - what you call it makes no difference."

Adapting to change. If CSI adopts Division 17, the question most people what to know is: How will this affect me? From the point of view of Archi-Technology's Thomas Rauscher, the decision will touch everyone. Owners will feel it from a budgeting and planning standpoint. "They're going to be planning telecom systems during the construction process, but they're going to have different parts of their systems that are going to be capitalized and put into the infrastructure. So the requirements must be communicated out that way," he said.

Architects, construction management firms and electrical contractors will have to make room for a new player on the block, he added. Telecom contractors and consultants will also have to make some adjustments. "We're saying very similar things, but we're speaking English and French," Rauscher said. "The key here is that both sides are going to have to learn about the other. That's the irony - in order to learn, you've got to communicate."

If adopted, Hnedak Bobo Group's Moser would use Division 17. However, no matter what happens, he said it all comes down to what the owner wants. In fact, Moser doesn't really care if Division 17 is adopted because he plans to accommodate telecommunications in his projects, regardless if it's a CSI division or not. "If it's a component of my project, then I'm going to address it," he said. "If I don't, I'm the first guy my client calls when he has to pay in extra."

He said it's best to help clients make informed decisions but not to underestimate the power of personality. "Some owners are conscious of the importance of telecommunications but just don't place a priority on making those decisions," he said. "A lot depends on the value of the dollar. If they've got money to spend, time is money. They can put off making certain decisions in exchange for paying premiums later. Ultimately, they're writing the checks, so they call the shots."

Alternative solutions. For those parties who aren't in favor of adopting Division 17, there are other options. Since Stauffer recognizes the Division 16 subsections for telecom and LAN are incomplete and outdated, he said NECA is working on a proposal to establish a new subsection of Division 16 that better addresses telecom.

"What causes the turf wars out on the construction site is everybody is trying to get their stuff into that limited space first," he said. "We at NECA are going to propose a better specification framework for these considerations in Division 16. We think that keeping all of the specs integrated together will help keep the systems for the end users better integrated."

Stauffer said a perception sometimes exists in the industry that it's the electrical folks against the telecommunications folks or NECA versus BICSI. He says this is just not so. "An increasing number of NECA companies have BICSI members in them and BICSI RCDDs on staff," Stauffer said. "As our companies are getting into the telecom business, they go where they need to go for telecom training and expertise."

Along these same lines, Stauffer says NECA and BICSI are coauthoring a draft standard on installing telecommunications systems. "It's funny. Both organizations are big places, and the left hand doesn't always know what the right hand is doing," he said.

The deciding factor. Ultimately, the decision to expand MasterFormat lies with CSI and CSC. Michael Cassidy, director of technical information services at CSI, said it's too soon to tell what will happen with the issues being raised by Division 17.

Here's how the process works. The organization takes proposals from anyone for potential updates to the MasterFormat. In theory, the schedule for publication is every five years. A technical committee, made up of industry volunteers, addresses all of the technical publication material. They evaluate the issues and then set up guidelines. "Based on comments we have received, we may need to address changes and expansion of the current 16 division," Cassidy said.

Although there's a strong industry influence in favor of Division 17, Cassidy explains this isn't uncommon territory for CSI. "Throughout the years, a number of other groups have solicited CSI to expand the MasterFormat because they didn't feel it was appropriate," he said. "What CSI has determined is technology is changing by leaps and bounds."

However, Cassidy warns there's much more to this issue than expanding MasterFormat. The concerns different industry segments have with the overall design process will not suddenly go away if Division 17 is adopted. Nor will CSI's final decision force industry professionals to change the way they address telecommunications. CSI's ultimate goal is to serve the entire construction industry so people across multiple disciplines can effectively use the model.

CSI is forming a task team and conducting a study that will include focus groups, surveys and workshops to gather input. "Then, we will determine if it's appropriate to actually expand," he said. Basically, CSI has three options: Leave the document as is; modify Division 16 to better address telecommunications and other needs; or add new division(s). Anyone interested in providing feedback should e-mail [email protected]

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