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All Hail Division 17

Telecommunications groups want the new CSI MasterFormat to include a separate Division and fortunately, their hopes will soon be realized. The changes are likely to have a dramatic and pervasive impact.


August 1, 2003  


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What’s in a name? A great deal, it seems, especially if it happens to be Division 17.

For telecom professionals across North America, Division 17 connotes progress, new opportunities, a dramatic shift in roles, and a move from the fringes to the very heart of building design and construction.

For some other groups in the construction industry, it has become a bone of contention.

Flagged off in 1999, the Division 17 initiative had one key objective – to ensure that telecommunications systems are integrated during the planning and design phase of a building instead of retrofitting these systems during the construction phase or even later.

Backed by associations like BICSI, the National Systems Contractors Association (NSCA) based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) in Washington, D.C., the proposal was dubbed Division 17.

The goal was to have it implemented as the 17th Chapter in the next edition of the MasterFormat, the construction industry’s most widely used organizational model. The MasterFormat is jointly published by the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) in Alexandria, Va., and the Toronto-based Construction Specifications Canada.

As awareness of Division 17 spread – thanks to media publicity, and a comprehensive and constantly updated Web site (http://www.division17.net) – the proposal sparked much enthusiasm and debate.

The debate appeared to pit electrical contractors against telecommunications professionals. The latter generally favoured transferring telecommunications, local area networks (LANs), security, audio, video and other types of low-voltage wiring from Division 16 into a separate division – a change opposed by electrical engineering organizations, including the Bethesda, Md.-based National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA).

In August 2001, NECA submitted a proposal to CSI, calling for Division 16 to be updated and expanded by adding electrical/electronic systems currently located in other divisions. The proposal also urged that the name of Division 16 be changed to ‘Integrated Building Systems’ to reflect this expanded content and purpose. NECA’s motto: “integrate, don’t separate.”

New divisions

Excitement in the telecommunications industry peaked over the past year, as it became clear that the new and expanded CSI MasterFormat – scheduled for publication in 2004 – would include a separate Communications Division after all. The document will also have divisions dedicated to Occupant Protection (Life Safety), and Integrated Automation and Control – all of which address concerns raised in Division 17.

Telecom professionals, who often feel sidelined and even slighted under the current MasterFormat, were delighted. They welcomed the news of separate Communications, Life Safety and Automation (CLA) divisions as a long overdue response to a dire need.

“It’s a milestone for the entire telecommunications sector, including the cabling, data, voice, audio-visual, security and automation industries,” says Thomas Rauscher, author of BICSI’s Division 17 document and president of Rochester, N.Y.-based telecommunications consultants Archi-Technology Inc.

But the integration of Division 17 categories in the new MasterFormat is expected to have an even greater impact – one that extends beyond the telecommunications sector.

“It will have the same revolution- ary effect across the construction industry as the introduction of MEP (Mechanical, Electrical and Plumbing) systems into buildings had in the late 1800s,” predicts Rauscher, who heads BICSI’s Technical Information and Methods Committee.

He says MEP systems spawned new spaces, new consultants, new contractors and new codes. “Today, with the integration of CLA solutions, we’ll witness the same phenomena – new pathways, new consultants, new standards. The only difference is while MEP moved energy through the building, CLA systems will move information.”

Unlike MEP, Rauscher says the evolution of CLA will be rapid and driven by IP Networks, the countless devices currently connected to IP platforms and the presence of Ethernet. “All this simply means our days of retrofitting buildings with communications systems are nearly over. In future, we’re going to be installing cable plants and communications infrastructure during construction-related events.”

The future has certainly taken a long time coming though.

The current CSI MasterFormat was last revised in 1995 and as John Bakowski, product manager of cabling and connectivity at Bell Canada in Toronto says, “it doesn’t even begin to address the revolutionary advances in voice, data and infrastructure support technologies witnessed in the past decade.”

His view is shared by other Canadian telecom professionals. “Today it isn’t just a matter of providing analog phone hookups,” says Julie Roy, manager of systems and standards at Nordx/CDT, Pointe-Claire, Que. “We’re implementing digital technologies such as high speed Internet, IP telephony, video-conferencing and local area networks with data rates up to 10 gigabits per second. These facilities need to be supported by exceptional telecommunications cabling systems and installation techniques.”

Roy and others say this cannot happen under the existing MasterFormat, which devotes only two out of 317 pages to Technology and Communications systems and relegates them to the tail end of Division 16 (Electrical Requirements).

The near exclusion of Communications, they say, has led to technology needs being addressed late in a construction project. “Technology planning starts when the rest of the project goes out to bid. As a result, there’s hardly any space allocated in the building for technology, very little money in the capital budget for technology infrastructure, and virtually no time left to resolve any issues,” says Rauscher.

Cost overruns, disruptions to construction timelines and plans, and inefficient processes are not the only damaging consequences of Com- munications requirements being disregarded by the current MasterFormat.

According to Bakowski, the strained relations between telecom professionals and others involved in the construction process is yet another unfortunate impact.

“Architects rarely concern themselves with telecommunications. They pass that responsibility on to electrical/engineering consultants. Many of these consultants have handled telecommunications cabling for years – a role the current MasterFormat supports – and now feel it’s their exclusive domain.”

The long wait

Reasons why change was so long coming are partly historical.

In 1986, the U.S. judiciary deregulated telecommunications. In the confusion that followed, building owners wanted a structured approach that allowed them to specify, control and manage cabling that was historically installed by the telephone company.

Designers gradually began to think of ‘Communications and Cabling’ as a system – much like MEP systems. Despite this, in the 1988 and 1995 editions of the MasterFormat, Communications was not given a separate division. Instead, it was made a subset of Electrical (Division 16).

Up to a point this did not create too many problems. As Glenn Sexton, president of Portland, Ore.-based Northwest Information Services Inc. (NIC) says, “the transition from a telephone company/computer solution was slow and cumbersome and for the most part, not well supported by the building industry. Architects and engineers wanted to stay with what they knew and were comfortable with.”

Over the years, however, the need for independent divisions within the MasterFormat for CLA systems became even more acute and urgent.

This was triggered partly by the revolutionary development in telecommunications technologies and the push by technology and communications systems (TACS) professionals to play a more active role during a building’s design phase.

“It soon (became) clear we needed to add telecommunications as the fourth utility to the MEP process,” says Rauscher.

Many telecom professionals feel this goal is well on it
s way to being achieved.

All the outline drafts released by the CSI MasterFormat Expansion Task Team (in February 2002, October 2002, February 2003, and May 2003) address concerns raised in Division 17 and include a separate section for ‘Communications.’

According to Sexton, the complexity of Communications Systems mandates this change. “A separate division,” he says, “will allow a single point of contact for the project architect. It will enable architects to bring TACS professionals into a project on an equal standing with other engineers and consultants.” He predicts the acronym ‘MEP’ will become ‘MEPC’ as Communications is recognized as an equally important entity when defining a project’s scope.

Roy, an RCDD/LAN specialist and a graduate in architectural technologies, says the integration of Division 17 categories in the MasterFormat will make architects and others responsible for building design more aware and appreciative of telecommunications.

Pervasive payback

And the payback is likely to be pervasive.

According to Rauscher, building owners and managers will be the big winners. He says when building owners put items out to tender prior to construction, Communications is not usually included in the project scope and budget. “Typically, only after bids are received, contracts awarded, and construction begins, does it become obvious that Communications has not been addressed. By this time there is no space or money in the budget for the required technology. Besides, addressing Communications at this stage is a change order related event.”

Rauscher says when the change order is beyond the scope of the contingency budget, the building owner is forced to get funds from non-capitalized sources, which hikes costs even further. Because Communications infrastructure is retrofitted late in the process there’s also a labour overtime component. “So you procure items inefficiently, ship them hurriedly, install them hastily, use the wrong funds to pay for them, and spend far more than you need to. All these issues can be avoided if Communications is included under the coordinated design process.”

Bakowski, a telecom professional for more than 30 years, agrees. He says integrating Division 17 categories in the MasterFormat will translate into a qualitatively superior building – one that’s far better equipped to serve the needs of the modern client. “The building owner will have access to professionals who are knowledgeable about infrastructure and may even be able to use this expertise to provide new revenue streams for the owner.”

Drafts of the MasterFormat released by the expansion team indicate that scenarios outlined by Bakowski and others may be witnessed in the near future. But as those supporting the Division 17 proposal emphasize, the pace at which these changes occur depends a lot on the active participation of various groups in the construction industry. “There’s going to be a lot of pain,” says Henry Franc, associate director of cabling and wireless LAN solutions at Bell Canada in Toronto. “When talking with various groups, I’ve witnessed a great deal of resistance to the changes (in the expanded MasterFormat), as well as fear of the new processes and additional work involved.” He says this view is shortsighted, as it doesn’t recognize the incredible benefits the new MasterFormat can generate.

Embracing the changes, he says, requires a new mindset. “The traditional construction industry will have to figure out how to bring telecom into a project and do so effectively. And, on the flip side, the telecom guys will have to figure out how to play nice with the construction folks.”

Many telecom companies are already developing new strategies to prepare for the pervasive changes in the 2004 MasterFormat. One of these firms is NIS, which has instituted the following policy and procedural guidelines:

Proactively establish partnerships with architectural and engineering firms that recognize the value of the Communications Division;

Develop a specification template that reflects the standards embraced by CIS and the Architectural community;

Acquire AutoCAD expertise and building templates for “T” series drawings that will become standard for every project; and,

Communicate electronically with architects and engineers. Coordinate all drawings and specifications so that the Communications Division is part of the complete package.

Rauscher says for telecom professionals, much of the preparation will include building new relationships, forging new alliances and mending fences. “All of us,” he says, “have stories of being left out of the building design and construction process, which has sometimes created an ‘us vs. them’ mentality on both sides of the fence. It’s time for telecommunications designers and contractors to let go of the past, focus on the future, and realize that our expertise will be sought during the design phase.”

He emphasizes that when it comes to the construction industry, telecom professionals are the new kids on the block. “The new divisions may get us into the game. We still need to prove we can play ball.”

Joaquim Menezes is a freelance writer based in Mississauga, Ont. He can be reached at joaquimmenezes@rogers.com.