Arcom's Masterspec is enough to drive anyone out of architecture


I haven't had to write a full-blown spec in a long time, probably six years or so. So I just bought the Arcom Masterspec software for a client's project. It was dreadfully expensive, over $1100 for a one-year subscription. It isn't even really a stand-alone program, it's sort of a Microsoft Word add-on. The graphics are lousy, and the interface is non-intuitive. I had to watch an hour-long tutorial on their website to figure out how the program worked. 

The Arcom website has all these promises of fabulous, detailed support. What a joke. Trust me, you will be as lost was you ever were trying to figure out things like which of 12 different millwork finishing systems to use, or what the differences are between spec sections with similar sounding titles. There is a narrative for each specification section, but it gives little if any guidance on how to edit down the section and eliminate choices. There is a total lack of comparative information in the so-called support section. There is also a total lack of illustrative examples. A really helpful guide would tell me in which section I should place certain items, and in which section they don't belong, and why. I've edited enough specs to know to start from the last page and work to the front, because invariably the product that best applies is buried later in the document. But most of us architects don't specialize in spec-writing, and when called upon to do it, it should not be a completely brain-damagingly difficult task. Masterspec has been around for decades now. I was deeply disappointed to see that it has evolved so little except in cost.

May 15, 17 11:04 pm
MasterSpec's Word plugin sucks, I'll give you that, but I have no sympathy for an architect that doesn't understand how to edit a spec or which section something should go in. MasterSpecs evaluation sheets are packed with useful information. The aren't going to write the section for you though, that's your job as a licensed professional.

I've been hearing good things about a new spec writing plugin called VisiSpecs. You still need to provide content though, and that's really the value in Arcom's MasterSpec. Try finding other commercially available master guide specifications that have as much content as Arcom and you'll see MasterSpec in a different light.

Arcom recently purchased Interspec which develops E-specs, a true stand alone spec writing software package. You could buy a license for it if the MasterWorks plugin is too cumbersome to use.

However, if you aren't going to write another spec for six years I wouldn't bother. Not sure why you did in the first place. Sounds like you're out of your element. Are there no good independent specification consultants in Texas?
May 16, 17 12:58 am

Four or five years ago, there was a thing ARCOM provided called Linx.  It was awesome for starting the spec.  Then they tried to replace it with something called Altarix.  That never worked.  The plug-ins don't work unless you have the most up-to-date version of Office.  Even then, they don't always work the way I want them to. 

I understand that software developers have to keep themselves employed.  If they don't update, they don't have a job.  But Linx was fine.  They never should have changed it. 

May 16, 17 9:43 am

Spec writing is not architecture - that is why there are specialized practitioners that make a career out of doing it.  

Specs are legalese bullshit required out of the sheer incompetence and lack of accountability of most GCs and the litigious environment that we have to practice in. 

I've used master-spec and it sucks.  Try to cover as much as you can in the drawings - add spec sections in normal/everyday language to the drawings that describe what you want.  Most contractors appreciate the immediacy.  Nobody wants to sift through a 1000 page document to figure out what type of corner bead you want on your sheetrock.  

May 16, 17 11:32 am

If your gypsum board section is 1000 pages you're doing it wrong. Don't tell me the contractor doesn't understand how to find the gypsum board section when you're following MasterFormat numbers and titles and provide a table of contents.


spoken like a true bureaucrat


Contrary to your assumption, Everyday Intern, I am not incompetent. I have been licensed for 25 years. I know how to edit a spec. I haven't written a one in six years because the projects I have worked on in that period didn't require it. What I was complaining about was that the Masterspec software that costs so much adds so little value - I get better information from a free internet search. However, I recognize that general practitioners like me are an endangered species in this profession, as are small firms that must have multiple skill sets. It simply isn't possible to compete against larger, specialized firms anymore and be profitable.

May 17, 17 10:54 am

I didn't think I ever assumed you were an incompetent architect. I just pointed out that it sounded like you were out of your element. If you really know how to edit a spec, then why are you looking for Arcom to spell it out for you?

Again, I'd point out that MasterSpec is not a software, so don't expect it to be one. It does come with the Word plugin MasterWorks, but we've already established that it sucks. The value in MasterSpec is the content in each section (metal shelf rests with hold-down clips being an exception). On that aspect, MasterSpec is the best available and worth the price, IMHO. If you can find better information through a free internet search ... be my guest. However, if that is the case, why did you purchase MasterSpec in the first place?

I've worked at small firms and big firms. Both profitable. Specifications were written pretty much the same way at both ... by people who knew what they were doing, using MasterSpec as a starting point. Sorry if you're not able to compete, but I doubt the "larger, specialized firms" are winning the jobs based on specifications alone. 

May 17, 17 11:22 am

a little sympathy doesn't hurt

I sympathized that the word plugin sucks. Was that not enough?

Sorry if an unlicensed 'intern' can figure out how to write a project manual using MasterSpec better than the OP.

Of course if chigurh is correct and "spec writing is not architecture," perhaps I've been trying to learn too much as an intern?

I'll throw the OP a bone. For figuring out which finishing system to use, the Arcom evaluation sheet points you to the right source to figure it out:

"AWS lists finish systems and provides information on the advantages and disadvantages of each. Unfortunately, finish-system terminology is inexact, qualities of products vary, and evaluations of finish systems are subjective. Regardless, the information on finish systems in AWS provides a starting point for selecting finish systems."

Here's a link to the AWS chapter dealing with finishes.

May 17, 17 1:01 pm

"sorry if you're not able to compete,..."

"sorry if an unlicensed 'intern' can figure out"

you sound arrogant, not sorry

(i don't hate you or have anything against you, and i think you've offered some helpful info in various threads including this one, but i couldn't help comment on the delivery here)

for perspective, a sole proprietor doesn't do the same thing everyday and may be out of practice by the time he returns to a project type or project scale or even a random but critical section of the zoning code in his area. It's OK to seek help. If the OP described incompetency in his post, knock yourself out. But he didn't; he bought expensive software that's not quite as helpfully documented as he'd hoped. So, to call someone out and imply they aren't competent is a bit much, IMHO.


[edit]and then you go being helpful in the post above...! thx

May 17, 17 1:06 pm

Fair enough. No worries, you're probably right on the delivery. No hard feelings. I'm not working on the same thing everyday either, but if I hadn't done something for 6 years I might expect a steeper learning curve to get back into it ... or get someone else with more recent experience to do it. I never meant to imply the OP wasn't competent, just out of their element. Like you said, that's ok, and they are ok to seek help. However, the OP didn't come here seeking help, they came here to complain about it (at least that's what I see in their posts). I just pointed out that in my opinion their complaints are off base ... and then I gave them some helpful information about different programs to write specs because it seems that is what they are looking for if they were seeking help at all.


Did you, by chance, download the supporting documentation?  It does come with pieces that explain some of the choices.

When I came to my current firm, they weren't downloading those.  I have no idea why, but they're useful. 

May 17, 17 2:52 pm

EI is totally arrogant.  Half the shit he posts is amateur attorney level garbage.  I know many interns that know everything, they are called millennials.  They should be running a practice at 22 years old, writing full specs from memory, and making 7 figures.      

May 17, 17 4:44 pm

SenJohn, If you talking about the Supporting Documents that are under "User Resources" and organized by spec section, yes, I have been reading through those. I will moderate my comments somewhat -there is useful commentary in some of those sections, but in others I found very little information to make editing the section faster or easier. If I should be looking somewhere else on the site, I'll gladly admit to "user error".

BTW, EI, thanks for the AWS link, but I had already found that on my own. It is exactly the sort of qualitative comparison that is in that chapter that I was hoping to find in the Masterspec support materials, instead of having to search an outside source. That was my point.

May 17, 17 6:16 pm

Tex_arch, I think your last comment is illustrative of my point that I think your complaints with Arcom are off base.

Arcom, with MasterSpec, is in the business of writing master guide specifications.  They have created the content for the specifications and put it together for you in a master which you can edit. They love to use the reference standard method of specifying (there are advantages and disadvantages to this, but more on that later), that's why you see so many ASTMs and ANSIs and BHMAs and WDMAs and other acronyms in the specs.

Arcom is not in the business of republishing or providing the standards they reference in their specifications. They couldn't be. They'd run up against copyright laws and/or license agreements that would make their product even more expensive than it already is. If something is sufficiently covered (or qualitatively compared) in a standard or other industry publication they will reference it in their support literature, and then expect that the architect will seek it out and become familiar with it enough to satisfy their standard of care. I think that is fair, and simply part of writing specifications. To expect otherwise is criticizing Arcom unfairly.

This leads to the significant advantages and disadvantages to reference standard specifications. The biggest advantage is that the specs are concise. If you had to include all the information included in reference standards in all the sections, 1000 pages would seem unusually short for a project manual. The biggest disadvantage is that it is easy to make mistakes in your specifications this way because it requires that you know the standard. If you don't know the standard you might contradict it in the specification leading to confusion, or leave open embedded options in the standard that allow for the contractor to choose and provide something that you never intended.

If you are still looking for information on architectural woodwork (I'd imagine if the 12 different wood finishes was frustrating there might be other things in the standard as well you might find helpful, and Arcom heavily relies on it) ... I'd suggest getting your hands on a copy of the current AWS (2014, Edition 2) and working through it with your questions. Also, note that WI and AWMAC recently diverged from AWI and no longer support the AWS with the AWI. WI and AWMAC are publishing their own standard, NAAWS (version 3.1 is effective July 1, 2017). It is available for free via the committee's website. Much of the information is the same and very applicable if you can't get a copy of AWS. I mention it because I don't know if Arcom has picked this up in their woodworking sections yet, nor do I know whether they will favor the AWS or the NAAWS going forward. AWS is due for an update, but they are working toward ANSI certification, or something like that, and it is taking longer to go through that process.

May 17, 17 7:55 pm

EI, your points are well taken, and objective analysis of the many options given in each specification section is clearly beyond the scope of the software and would probably open Arcom up to litigation.

May 18, 17 9:51 am

Spec writing is not architecture - that is why there are specialized practitioners that make a career out of doing it.  

ROLF... So, all windows are the same right?  How about Doors?  Sealants? Wall finishes? Paint? Etc., and so on.  What are you designing around? (if you can answer that, you are already starting a specification system).  

How are you accepting and rejecting the work of the contractor if you haven't set a enforceable base line?  How are you approving shop drawings if you haven't even set the basic requirements of the testing it must pass? What kind of work are you doing where none of this is part of the "design"?  

And how are you setting up the general requirements (Div 00, 01) like submittals, pay applications, meetings/schedule, mockups, etc.? 

The advantage of ARCOM masterspec is they have already done most the legwork and research for you and have been around for decades.  They have very good technical information if you bother reading it to know why this might be better than that.  If you answer something early, it changes the options so everything is coordinated.  Yes... it's a PITA the first couple, but you quickly get used to it.   

May 18, 17 4:02 pm

I wouldn't bother trying to explain anything to chigurh. Anytime I've ever challenged their ridiculous posts, the response is nothing, or an ad hominem attack. YMMV.


No experience of this package myself, and something like 20 years since I last wrote a specification myself, but if you want struggling, try and figure out (as the site architect approving materials proposed by a clueless contractor) what the MEP designers meant when writing a spec, when they didn't know what they were doing or wanting, and didn't understand the design codes and standards they are also quoting.

They just expected someone else would know and would make it all right in the end, as they didn't have the experience to know different, and were copying what someone said was OK, and what sounded nice to have, and were expecting that because in their home country a subcontractor would make it all right, it would happen on this foreign project with a crazy mix of subcontractors and suppliers too.

Not helping: any questions, even the simple ones where you propose an answer, take a minimum 4 weeks to be responded to, which invariably comes after you've had to reject the materials proposed 'because they weren't to specification'.

Complaints about this debacle of course get filed under 'the site architect is inexperienced and doesn't know what he is doing', coming of course from people who know less themselves about the subject matter, but should also know better than to say such things.

May 19, 17 11:50 am

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