Substitution Abuse

This is an encore of an article Michael Chusid wrote two decades ago. The situation has not changed much since then.

Too many architects refuse to accept responsibility for their actions or to recognize the consequences of their behavior when it comes to the enforcement of project specifications and tolerance of product substitutions. During a complex building project, it is, inevitable that some substitutions will be used in lieu of specified products. In moderation, substitutions provide a sort of value engineering, save time and money, and introduce innovative solutions. But too frequently the integrity upon which the construction industry depends is disregarded and substitution abuse occurs.

Architects usually blame substitutions on the avarice of contractors who gamble on increasing profits by cutting corners or on suppliers who arc unavailable when design assistance is needed, but who materialize at bid time. Architects, however, must accept responsibility for their own behavior rather than look for ways to justify it. We must enforce fair and practical procedures for substitutions, and refuse products that do not meet specification. For those who give in to temptation and become substitution abusers, the consequences can be severe.

Building Failures
Substitution abuse greatly increases the potential for building failures. The myriad products on a building must be carefully researched and coordinated throughout the design and specification process. Substitutions made during the bidding process or during construction are seldom given the scrutiny afforded the originally specified products. This occurs  because, too often, insufficient time or money is allocated for contract administration. Decisions about substitutions am made under pressure from bidders, the contractor, or even the owner, leading architects to use products with which they have no experience. And because the design team that specified the product often has broken up by the time submittals are considered, substitutions may be evaluated by individuals who do not understand the original design intent.

According to estimates by a leading forensic engineer, building failures are ten times more likely to happen when a substitution is involved than when the project is built according to spew. Also the legal claim of responsibility for an inadequate substitution is a difficult charge for an architect to defend against.

Substitution abuse increases failures even when the substitute product is apparently similar in quality to the specified product. While proposed substitutions may be compared against the specified product, the effect of a substitution on related construction may be overlooked.

Sales Support
Architects depend on building product manufacturers and sales representatives for far more than just keeping catalogs up to date. Few architects have comprehensive knowledge of all building materials, sorely on reps as uncompensated consultants. Many architects, for example, depend on hardware salespeople to prepare hardware schedules or on roofing representatives to inspect existing roofs. Architects also have become accustomed to using manufacturers' toll-free telephone numbers and getting next day delivery of catalogs, details, specifications, and samples at no charge. While paying for these services may seem inconceivable, it may come to that unless the architectural profession starts re-asserting control over substitution abuse.

Many suppliers are reducing their architectural sales forces and placing greater importance on selling directly to contractors and to building owners. "Why should I spend time with architects," many building product manufacturers ask, "when they can't even enforce their own specs?"

Architectural Credibility
Substitution abuse erodes the foundation of confidence and authority upon which the status of the architectural profession is based. From our historic stature as master builders, the profession has gradually but steadily retreated from a position of authority with regard to construction. By allowing nearly uncontrolled substitutions, architects further undermine their position. Once contractors realize the ease with which they can break a specification, then what will be their impetus to comply with any architectural requirements? And once building owners perceive that their architects' specifications are not fixed and that contractors are making most of the actual product selections, then what will be the impetus for an owner to hire an architect instead of a design/build contractor?

Architectural firms must develop and enforce clear and practical specification policies regarding product selection and substitution procedures. And contract documents must say what you mean and mean what you say. To provide competition without the problems of substitutions, architects should avoid specifications that name a single product "or equal." As recommended by Walter Rosenfeld in Progressive Architecture (October 1990, p.53), architects should "do the research to find the three acceptable products before bidding (or pricing) starts, not during bidding or after construction has begun." After the start of construction, substitutions should be treated formally as change orders instead of casually as shop drawing submittals. Firms must allow an adequate budget to review  substitutions and prepare their clients to pay for this service. As a project moves from one phase of architectural service to the next, new members of the project team must be oriented as to why certain products were selected. To break the habit, substitution abuse must become part of the architectural agenda. It must be discussed in architectural and trade associations and included as part of each firm's quality assurance program.

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By Michael Chusid
Originally published in Progressive Architecture, Copyright © 1991