Really Short-Form Guide Specification.

A building product manufacturer wanted me to write a guide spec that said, "No substitutions allowed."

I replied that, if they REALLY think the architect will reject substitutions, their guide specification needs only three lines:

Part 1 - General: Submit manufacturer's product data and installation instructions.

Part 2 - Products: Provide: Model XYZ with options ABC and LMN as manufactured by YourNameHere, Inc.

Part 3 - Installation: Comply with manufacturer's instructions.



Should a manufacturer request a substitution during bidding?

I posted this question on CSI's LinkedIn group:
One of my clients, a building product manufacturer, calls architects during bidding to ask them to accept his framing accessory as a substitution. (He gets their names from a subscription service of jobs being bid.) When I said that Instructions to Bidders typically states that architect consider substitutions only if requested by a bidder, the manufacturer said that many architects don't abide by their own documents and he has a high rate of success at changing the specs. Now he wants my help with calls.

What would you say to this manufacturer if he told you his strategy? Should a manufacturer treat specs as inviolate or accept the realities of the marketplace?
Here is the gist of the feedback I got from CSI members. As a group, they want manufacturers to know and follow the instructions to bidders as published in the bidding documents.  CSI members may not be representative of the industry as a whole, but it is dangerous to ignore them:

  • Tell him "No, it's not right". Just because he breaks the rules does not mean you have to. There is a possibility that you will loose this client, but doing the right thing never fails. I have witnessed this principal to be true many many times. I understand that sometimes the rules must be broken, but from my perspective, this is not one of those times. 
  •  I would absolutely tell the manufacturer "no." If bidding documents say no substitutions or approved manufacturers only, then we should abide by them. I don't accept any calls from manufacturers during bidding as any information would give them an unfair advantage in bidding. I refer them back to the General Contractor or CM.
  • I would stick to your specs as the product manufacturer should be looking to get into your own office MasterSpec for future projects and not just for the "Now" project.
  • Manufacturers who market by playing outside of the rules or riding the fence can develop a reputation with the specifying community that is less favorable. It is the merit of the products and the value brought by good support of the products, that really wins, in my opinion. 
  • I would say that in that situation, the manufacturer needs to spend his efforts to convince the architect to include his product in future projects rather than the one out to bid.
  • ...the design professional is the one who's on the hook. If something is designed in, added by addendum, or approved after award of contract, it makes no difference; the person who certifies the documents is responsible. That alone makes me wonder why architects often appear eager to approve anything that comes in the door. Note that I didn't say design professionals in general. Neither engineers nor interior designers I know show little inclination to approve anything other than what they chose, even in public sector work. 
  • I often see that we Architects and Specifiers do not follow what we write or preach. We do allow substitutions be submitted without backup materials and often it is left to us to research and analyze the substitutions. Having said that...we often allow substitution during bidding process for value engineering, but if considered, we still request a formal Substitution for formal review. 
  • As a manufacturer's rep for a line that hasn't had a lot of presence in my territory, there is not a lot of consistency on how to approach substitutions.. .At the end of the day I recognize it's persistence, follow through and building a proven track record in my market.
  • Maybe it's the backwater I work in, but local reps generally follow the rules, and the new ones have been pretty good at calling to discuss their wares before applying for prior approval or substitution. 
  •  The point of having the substitution come through a primer bidder is so that the archtiect doesn't waste time approving products that no one wants to use. And, the manufacturer/subcontractor needs to know what the rules actually are for projects.
  •  Rules is rules, but the reality is, we often make exceptions. If one of my go-to guys calls me, I'll listen. They earned that status by helping me do my job, and I will listen to their advice at any time. They will understand if there is some reason I can't do anything for a specific projects.

  • Our market tends not to have very many manufacturers who try to bend the rules. Our reps do present their products to us for prior approval to put in our specs for projects. It's only once in a half year or so that I get phone calls or letters asking to bend the rules and they are mostly from outside our market area.
  • I am in belief that bidding should be done by the process. To that end I will share a story. Years ago I put a project out to bid. The hardware schedule specified products, and acceptable manufacturers. Further, I noted that no other products are acceptable without preapproval by the architect (me), and such request for substitution must be received 7 days prior to bid. So, the contractor submitted the hardware schedule submittal with non-approved products. I sent the submittal back with a statement, these products are not acceptable refer to Section 08700 (the hardware section). Contractor responded that they did not understand. You need to request a substitution. More ??????? from the contractor.
    Finally, I issued a statement that the products were not allowed under the terms of the specification section. Should the hardware supplier wish request that these products be used they must request a substitution, and I would have to see the cost back to the owner for this substitution. The contractor said that he could put together the data needed for a substitution review, but that the cost savings was already in the bid price. I responded no it is NOT. The bid price reflects the specified products. Your request for substitution will have to be a cost back to the owner. Guess what I got the specified products. This required me to educate my owner and I had to hold firm in the face of an frustrated, and irritated contractor. If we as the architects, perform lazy, the contractor will seize the opportunity. When that happens, the good products reps get chewed up. I do not want our trusted advisors chewed-up.
  • I feel like my company is on the same page as most posted here, we do not let manufactures submit for substitutions, it must be the bidding contractor. Buy in is critical, why would a specifier allow a product that won't be bid, it weakens your spec. manufactures are trying to show traction to the corp levels, but in reality if the product doesn't get used everyone just wasted time and money. The other way for contractors/manufactures to do this is actually use the substitution listing form at time of bid, have the contractor bid what is specified and then show a substitution with the alternate product and cost difference. This would prove much more to the owner reviewing bids.

    Here is my own answer to the question:

    Thanks, everyone, for the thoughtful answers to my questions. I spoke with my client today and recommended against his initiation of substitutions during bidding. I explained it to him this way:

    "If you approach the architect during bidding, you might get named in an addendum, but that will not help your long term cause. Bidding is a rushed, chaotic process, and most of the team that put together the contract documents will have moved on to other projects as soon as the job is put out to bid. This means that most substitution requests are reviewed by just one or two members of the project team. They might say 'yes', but that information does not become part of the institutional memory of the firm. Instead, I recommend working with the office so they understand the benefits of the product and you get buy-in from the project architects, draftsmen, specifier, engineer, cost estimator, and other members of the team. Otherwise, they will simply fall back onto old habits, cut and paste old details, reuse existing spec masters, and you will have to fight for another substitution on the next project."

    I suggested a sales-oriented approach of working with sub-contractors to submit substitutions after contracts are issued. This works to my client's advantage due to the reduced labor associated with his product.

    In tandem, I recommended a business-development goal of working with architects to show how to bring their standard details and spec masters into compliance with best industry practices.

    One of my mentors was a forensic engineer. He told me that most of the product failures he had investigated were substitutions that were rushed through without adequate research, coordination, or documentation.

Marketing with Standards

Standards: Dense Prose
Industry standards are essential to the construction industry. Yet they are often confusing, out of date, and contradictory. Produced by consensus organizations, they are subject to political pressures that can favor or exclude proprietary products and innovative solutions. Moreover, designers, builders, and building material suppliers are challenged to stay current with revisions to standards.

This complexity can work to your marketing advantage.

First, building product manufacturers should be active in standards writing organizations affecting their work. These consensus-driven committees need your insight into best industry practices, the needs of your clients, and the pragmatic limitations of current technology.

Further, you can keep your clients up-to-date and informed of changes to standards. This will make your firm the "go-to" resource for current and reliable information. For example, changed standards provide a great opportunity for publicity; contact the editors of trade journals and offer to provide an article about the revisions.

Your marketing and technical literature should be up-to-date, and that your sales representatives and customer service personnel are trained. Then use your product literature, e-mail blasts, guide specifications, and continuing education programs to inform your customers.

Your point-of-purchase and packaging provide other opportunities. Imagine a customer that has a choice between two products; one has a sticker proclaiming: "Complies with the New 2011 Industry Standards," and the other is silent on the matter. Which has the greatest appeal?

I recently updated a guide specification for a client that produces pigments for integrally-colored concrete. In the decade since I wrote the original guide spec, most of the standards it references had been revised. The updated standards cost over $100, an expense few construction firms are willing to pay, especially when a firm has to stay abreast of revisions in dozens or even hundreds of product categories. An even greater cost is the time required for a professional to review the steady stream of updated documents. This provides an opportunity for my client to be of service to their customers.

For example, American Concrete Institute document ACI 303.1 - Specifications for Architectural Concrete has not been revised since 1997, but it references another document that has been revised, ACI 117. The 2006 version of ACI 117 changes how construction tolerances are specified. Had my client reissued a guide specification with the obsolete tolerances, it would have been a disservice to their customers, a potential source of embarrassment, and perhaps even a legal complication.

Another document, ACI 301 - Specifications for Structural Concrete, also contains requirements for "architectural concrete." ACI does not offer guidance for coordinating specifications where loadbearing (structural) concrete must also meet rigorous appearance requirements (architectural). Having identified this conflict, my client can now help their clients by offering guide specification language that reconciles the conflicting documents.

Requirements for concrete pigments are defined in ASTM C979. Yet ACI 303.1 adds requirements that are not in the ASTM standard. The added requirements are not representative of industry practices and can actually be a detriment to successful concrete work. One suspects the committee was influenced of the one manufacturer that benefits from the added requirements; my client did not have a representative at the table. My client's revised guide specification explains the rationale for sticking to the ASTM requirements, and tries to paint their competitor into a corner.

I now serve on an ACI committee that is updating some of the outdated standards. While I am there to represent my client's interests, I must always work towards the goal of advancing the entire industry.

How do Spec Writers Decide?

The following is from the blog of Liz O'Sullivan, AIA, CSI, CCS, LEED AP, NCARB, a Denver architectural specifications writer.

One for Construction Product Manufacturers: How do Spec Writers Decide What Products to Specify?

Maybe in a perfect world, spec writers would research ALL the available products, and specify ALL of the products that meet the project requirements.  Think of the competition that would create, and the potential cost savings to the Owner because of that competition… and think of the additional costs to the Owner for the time the specifier would have to spend on all that research!

The construction industry generally seems to agree that having 3 competitors provides enough competition to get a fair price for a product.  I believe that the law of diminishing returns would apply to a practice of researching and specifying any more than 3 comparable products, or “equals”.

So how do spec writers select those three products?  Sometimes the Owner tells the design team what they want us to specify.1  If an Owner doesn’t have a preference, the Architect often makes selections based on aesthetic requirements.2  And, if neither the Owner nor the Architect has a preference, the specifier makes product selections.

Last night, I got a comment from Kirk Wood about the third situation.  Kirk was wondering if it’s a case of “who you know” rather than “what you have to offer” that determines which manufacturers’ products get specified by spec writers.

First, I have to mention that the manufacturers’ reps that spec writers know best are those whose products we have researched and have had questions about; the reps we know best are those whose products we know best.  We know these reps through the process of researching the products we were specifying, NOT the other way around.  It’s NOT that we know them, so we spec their products; it’s that they rep products that we spec, so we turn to them when we have questions about the products (compatibility, pricing, product options, availability, et cetera).

So how do specifiers know about these products or manufacturers in the first place? 
When preparing specification sections for a project, many of us start with commercially available master specifications.  (I use MasterSpec, by ARCOM.)  These master specifications usually list available manufacturers for the products we’re specifying, and many of us start the selection process there.3

Moving ahead from the master is where, due to time and budget constraints, the process of product selection has the capacity to get random…

When possible, we select products and manufacturers that we are familiar with, and we do research to make sure that these familiar products work for the specific project.  If we haven’t ever researched any of these products before, they’re unfamiliar, so we start from the list provided by the master specification, and research those.  It’s a very rare situation when all the products listed in a master specification will meet the project requirements.  So, I research the listed products until I get three that meet the project requirements.

Here’s how I go about this:  I start with the list, and delete those that don’t work.

A manufacturer’s website with too many barriers to entry will make me jump to the next manufacturer on the list.

A manufacturer’s website with no information, just contact information for the manufacturer’s rep, will make me jump to the next manufacturer on the list.

A manufacturer’s website that is running too slowly will make me jump to the next manufacturer on the list.

A manufacturer that has NO WEBSITE is OFF THE LIST.

It’s not who you know.  I’m not saying that product selection isn’t a bit random at times, but generally, if a manufacturer has clear, easily accessible, easily navigable, correct, quickly available, concise, complete, and non-conflicting4, information on the internet, that manufacturer’s products are more likely to get specified.

Spec writers are a predictable breed of design professional.  We prefer to see things published, in print, rather than to listen to someone tell us about them.  We’re skeptics, and aren’t likely to blindly accept things that we can’t independently verify.  We are detail-oriented and generally are not interested in information beyond the technical.  Most of us are introverts, and a lot of us would rather write than talk (can you tell?).

So, my advice to manufacturers is the following:  Have a good website.  Have a good technical information department.  Have great manufacturer’s representatives!  Encourage your reps to join CSI, the Construction Specifications Institute.5

Being active in CSI is not about getting spec writers to know you so that they’ll spec your products; it truly does not work that way.  Being active in CSI is about getting spec writers to realize that you, a local manufacturer’s rep, are there to answer our questions, and to help educate us about your products, and about comparable products (your competitors’ products).

Reps should become resources for spec writers.  Specifiers aren’t really susceptible to old-style salesman techniques; we’re skeptics, remember?  Don’t go to CSI meetings and try to “sell.”  Go to CSI meetings and let design professionals know that you’re there, and when you’re given the opportunity, educate us about your products (and about how they compare to your competitors’ products.)

We’re all in this construction industry together.  The primary goal that all of us have is to get a building built for an Owner, and to make a living doing it.  When one manufacturer’s product is more appropriate for a project than another’s, that’s the one that should be used in the project.  I think that, objectively, we can all agree on that.  The best way to make sure that the most appropriate products are being incorporated into the project is for manufacturers and their reps to make their best efforts to educate spec writers.  And if there are a bunch of equally appropriate products, then specifying 3 of them is a good way to get a fair price for the Owner’s project.
  1. Ah, yes – the natural question is, “How does the Owner pick the products that they want us to spec?”  Well, that’s always a bit perplexing.  Many of the products that Owners require in their technical guidelines aren’t actually comparable, but are written as if they are.  Many of the products in the Owners’ technical guides have been discontinued, and listed manufacturers have gone out of business.  Some of the products and manufacturers never existed – curious typos and misspellings have created shadowy products or manufacturers that somehow get repeated, project after project…  Truly, a mystery.
  2. When the Architect makes product selections, the spec writer researches the Architect’s desired products, and if they meet the project requirements, and are compatible with other specified products, the spec writer specs the product or products selected by the Architect.  If there are comparable products, or “equals”, selected by the Architect, the specifier will include those.  If there really aren’t exact equals, the specifier will usually indicate that the Architect’s selected product is the “Basis of Design,” and will allow substitution requests for products that almost meet the specifications.  The Architect will decide if proposed substitutions are acceptable.
  3. More than once, I have suggested to a manufacturer’s rep that they should contact ARCOM, MasterSpec’s publisher, to see if they can get their products listed.  If spec writers don’t know you exist, we can’t specify your products…
  4. Yes, I have reported conflicts between different bits of technical information on a manufacturer’s website.  Come on, people!
  5. CSI’s website:
Thank you, Liz.
COMMENTS David Stutzman posted the following comment on Liz's post:
I might add one more thing for manufacturers to do. When called or emailed, please respond promptly. I cannot tell you how many times I have filled out the contact form on a manufacturer’s website because the architect selected their product and then waited and waited. I recall one that did follow up by phone several months later. I asked what project the call was about. The caller had no idea. Neither did I. That ended the conversation and left an impression that will not be forgotten.

Great story about bad specs

CoatingsPro editor Jack Innis tells an insightful and entertaining story about what happens when paint specs go bad.
"...Dave looked up and saw sheets of paint hanging from the structural beams. Bedsheet-sized sections—seven stories up—were fluttering like laundry on a clothesline. Newspaper-sized pieces swirled toward the ground. The parking lot was littered with leaves of paint."
Without giving away too much of the ending, the problem came about because of a poorly advised substitution allowed by loosely written specs. Reading this story reminded me of the importance of helping your clients write strong, substitution-resistant specs, especially if there are known or suspected material interaction issues to consider with your product.

Basis of Design Specification

When writing guide specifications for building products, my clients sometimes ask me for a "Basis of Design" specification. Their assumption is that, if their product is identified as Basis of Design, any substitution would have to match theirs.

A recent discussion on the CSI Forum explains the problem with this type of specification:
The term “Basis of Design” is frequently used as a shortcut to avoid a more detailed specification. There is no definition in the AIA or EJCDC documents nor is there one in the old CSI Manual of Practice or the current Project Resource Manual. The term is frequently used to fool ourselves into thinking we have a good spec or something (mostly something!).

Below is from the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR)

"11.104 Use of brand name or equal purchase descriptions. 

"(a) While the use of performance specifications is preferred to encourage offerors to propose innovative solutions, the use of brand name or equal purchase descriptions may be advantageous under certain circumstances. 

"(b) Brand name or equal purchase descriptions must include, in addition to the brand name, a general description of those salient physical, functional, or performance characteristics of the brand name item that an “equal” item must meet to be acceptable for award. Use brand name or equal descriptions when the salient characteristics are firm requirements." 

These are good words to live by when specifying products, whether in the public or private sector.

Unless the “salient” characteristics of the “Basis of Design” product are listed, you have an incomplete specification.

In the private sector, unless the words “No Substitution Permitted” are included, I should think that the Contractor is free to make an offer with maybe a commensurate “credit.” We can't use these words in the public sector without a LOT of good reasons.

If the product named as the “basis of design” doesn't meet the design criteria, then there is an “impossibility of performance” and he is still allowed to make an offer, usually with a commensurate increase in cost. It's now time to negotiate!!!

Additionally, if the product named as the “Basis of Design” doesn't meet the design criteria, then somebody on the design team dropped the ball. (Been there, done that!) Comment by Mr. Jon V. Harpool, CSI, CDT
The phrase "Basis of Design" is just another way to say, "our product, Or Equal." Unless the specifier makes it clear what is considered an essential criteria, the Contractor has wide discretion to offer substitutions.

Whenever practical, a good guide specification should help the specifier identify those features that are really important to a project.

For more information on guide specifications, click here.

I am the Victim of a Substitution

Is beauty just skin deep?
As an architect and a Certified Construction Specifier, I have spent most of my professional career trying to write clear and enforceable specifications. And as a consultant to building product manufacturers, I teach classes on how to avoid becoming the victim of substitution abuse – providing sales and engineering support to a designer only to see a competitor take the work with a product of inferior quality. Surely, with so much insight into the problem of substitutions, you might think I would be immune from them.

Think again.

I am writing this while sitting on my new bedroom floor. It is not the floor I specified, but it is the floor I have now bought.

Listen to my tale, and perhaps we can learn some lessons from it.

There is a stereotype that architects live in pristine homes that reflect good taste and a high sense of culture. But I count myself among members of my profession that have, shall we say, “different” standards. Perhaps it's because we can live vicariously through the award-winning projects we design for others. Or perhaps it's a profession that attracts individuals that are, shall we say, “different.” I really could be quite content to live in a cave. So long as the roof doesn’t leak and there are no immediate threats to life or property, my wife’s pleas to redecorate the house keep moving to the bottom of the list of how I want to spend my non-working hours and limited discretionary funds.

But she was insistent about this project. She was trying to refinance the house to get a lower interest rate, and after months of paperwork and negotiations, the lender finally sent an appraiser. The appraiser apparently did not notice that we still haven’t fixed the cracks from an earthquake fifteen years ago, or that the hillside on which we reside is rapidly succumbing to gravity. But we did get red tagged for not having flooring in the bedroom.

The caveman does not understand this because he thinks the douglas fir plywood and slab on grade – exposed seven years ago when we finally got rid of the cat-stained shag carpet from the 1960’s – is beautiful. My wife, the psychologist, suggests this has something to do with the unfinished starter home that was all my parents could afford when I was six years old, but to me cold pavement and splinters are some of the simple joys of life.

My wife got the name of someone that works cheap. He showed up with samples of a laminate floor that he said was Pergo, and gave us a great price “if you pay cash.” I know the Pergo brand and submitted to my wife’s insistence that the work proceed the very next day to meet the mortgage company deadline.

When Mr. Low Bid arrives, the boxes he carries in are labeled “Castle Material,” not Pergo. It took more than a little explaining before he understood that “Pergo” is a brand, not a generic term of laminate flooring. But he insists that it is “even better” than Pergo.

Pretending I know something about construction contract administration, I call Castle to ask for their performance data, which most emphatically is not on their website. The gentleman I spoke with at Castle agreed with Mr. Bid, “Oh yes, it's better than Pergo. It is class AC3.” To my continued prodding, he says the material is made somewhere in China, that he has no test data, and he doesn’t know who publishes the AC3 criteria or what they are. But he reassures me we should be able to get a 30 year warranty from the distributor.

I noted that the cartons have the logo of the National Hardwood Floor Association (NHFA), and decide to call them. I was not surprised to learn that Castle Flooring’s membership had lapsed, and that the NHFA only publishes standards for solid hardwood flooring, not for laminate flooring.

So I call the distributor. He concurs, “Oh yes, Castle is even better than Pergo,” but he does not have any test data or know what the criteria are for AC3. When asked about installation instructions, he says they are included inside each carton. (They weren't.) But he did fax a copy of the warranty to me – a NHFA form that has nothing to do with laminate flooring.

A bit of research online identifies that AC3 might refer to a standard published by the Association of European Producers of Laminate Flooring (EPLF). But their classification that best match the performance claimed by Castle, the distributor, and Mr. Bid is “23”, not “AC3”. I would feel comfortable with rating 23, which covers abrasion resistance, impact resistance, resistance to staining, resistance to cigarette burns, effect of a chair caster, and the thickness swelling of the flooring. But no one in the supply chain can tell me anything about these criteria.

Mr. Bid offers to take exchange the Castle Material for real Pergo at no upcharge. But I doubted this since I had already priced Pergo and knew that the wholesale price for materials is several times greater than the installed price he quoted. Delaying the project while he gets new materials also means we would lose his window of availability and we would miss the deadline for the appraiser’s return visit and jeopardize months of negotiation with the lender.

So like a good caveman, I grunt that I have to go to work, and capitulate to Mr. Bid. And I leave home without thinking to review how he was going to handle details at the steps in the room. (Big mistake on my part.)

So now I have a floor of questionable quality that emits odors that irritate my eyes. But my wife thinks it looks great and it is installed in time for the appraiser’s return visit.

As for me, I’ll just go back to my cave and wait for the hillside to collapse.

Lessons learned:

Have a written contract that includes things like cleaning up after the work.

Write a specification or use a data sheet that clearly establishes acceptable products and quality.

If you do not know the contractor’s craftsmanship, look at projects the firm has done or work out the details in advance.

Verify that the installer has a license and insurance.

Listen to your wife when she first says it is time to decorate.

Putting the Brakes on Substitutions

This is an encore of an article Michael Chusid wrote nearly 20 years ago. Substitutions remain an issue, and the article is still relevant.

Be involved in the entire specification process, and you'll increase the chances that the specs will be followed.

The only people who benefit from substitutions are the subcontractors and suppliers who win bids from competitors and then boost their profits by supplying lower-cost materials than those specified. Everybody else loses. This means that building product manufacturers have something in common with the specifier, general contractor, and building owner: You all want the project delivered as designed and specified.

So, instead of seeing yourself as the hapless victim of substitutions, act as an ally to the design team. From this position, you can influence the design and contracting procedures to help avoid or control substitutions.

Why specs go astray
Substitutions occur throughout the design process. You know the scenario: An architect calls and asks for assistance evaluating your product for a job. After a long discussion, you agree on details and specifications, and the architect says it's just the solution he's been looking for. But when the project appears in the plan rooms, the spec is based on your competitor's product, and you aren't even named as an acceptable manufacturer. What happened?

First, many layers of decision makers are involved on all but the simplest projects. Designers, draftsmen, project managers, specification writers, general contractors, subcontractors, suppliers, and building owners all play a role in product selection and substitutions. One of your toughest jobs is to identify everyone who influences the sale. You must provide each with the information they need to understand how your product contributes to the project's overall success. You should also help the design team as a whole develop a shared understanding of, and commitment to, your product.

Even after your product is specified, however, you must continue your sales effort. At each project phase, responsibilities may pass to new team members. These newcomers may not share their predecessors' understanding of your product, or they may have new criteria for the project. Promote your product with information appropriate to the phase: aesthetic or functional information during design, technical information during the construction document phase, quotes during bidding, and field support during and after construction.

Once the design team is committed to your product, they will welcome your input to assure they get what they want on the project. When this happens, you can use your understanding of construction documentation and the contracting process to steer the project to your cause.

Begin by helping the specifier prepare a tight specification. In my experience, most substitutions occur because the specs are not specific enough to keep out undesirable materials. Poorly written specs are difficult to enforce or to use as a basis for evaluating proposed substitutions. Offer designers complete and accurate technical data about your product, and help them specify it correctly.

When an architect or engineer still won't limit the bidding to your product alone, offer to recommend qualified competitors. Assured that the specification allows price competition among several reliable producers, the specifier should be willing to limit the spec to the named suppliers without employing the dreaded "or-equal" clause. It is to your advantage to bid against competitors with similar pricing and capabilities than to bid against unknown "or-equals."

Another approach is to encourage specifiers to write a firm "base bid" spec for your product and an alternate for other products. By doing so, the specifier will be expressing a preference for your product a preference that will usually prevail.

Assist with cost control
Design professionals may also need your assistance with budgeting and cost control. Many sales reps make a mistake by not bringing up cost during sales presentations because they fear designers will reject their product as too expensive. But architectural design is somewhat removed from market costs, so designers tend to specify quality over economy.

This creates a perfect opportunity for substitutions later, because the reality of costs will no doubt become an issue.  It is better for you to deal with it while you are still in a position to affect the outcome. If the product  cost is over budget, try to help the designer find savings elsewhere in the project. If that doesn't work, suggest a substitution within your own product line.

Discussing costs upfront can also alleviate the designer's fear that limiting a spec to one source may eliminate competition and inflate prices. Overcome this resistance by making written price commitments based on design documents. This is especially effective with big-ticket items. With a major chunk of the budget fixed, the designer can predict total project costs more accurately.

If appropriate, negotiate a contract directly with the building owner or as an owner-selected subcontractor. If the owner has an ongoing maintenance program, try to establish a corporate purchasing program where you become the preferred supplier in exchange for a discount or improved level of service.

A well-written project manual spells out procedures for proposing substitutions in an orderly way during the bidding or negotiating phase. Proposed changes, if acceptable to the designer and owner, are added to the bidding documents and become part of the construction contract. Any changes that take place after the execution of the contract should be formalized with a procedure called a change order. Change orders are usually reviewed by the designer, owner, and contractor since they are legally binding and can change the contract requirements and price.

Despite the change-order process, many substitutions occur informally during the submittal process. Specification frequently require suppliers to submit shop drawings, product samples, or other information about the materials. Often, a product not complying with specifications is submitted and is then considered as an acceptable "or-equal" if the contractor or architect does not specifically object.

When such changes result in building failure, the architect and contractor often accuse each other of inadequate review of the submittals. The entire construction industry benefits when changes are documented with a formal change order instead of a casual submittal.

Have a question you'd like us to answer?
Send an email to 

By Michael Chusid. Originally published in Construction Marketing Today, ©1994

Stop Substitution Abuse

Develop strategies to convince specifiers to 'just say no.'

This is an encore of an article Michael Chusid wrote nearly 20 years ago.

I work closely with architects to get my products specified. I don't mind when they take "or equal" bids, as long as I'm competing apples to apples. But most of the time, contractors use cheaper products that don't meet the spec, and the architects let them get away with it. Does it make sense to call on architects when they allow so many substitutions? - UH., sales rep

Once upon a time, architects thoroughly researched building products and specified only those promising the highest performance for the lowest price. Contractors then dutifully furnished and installed the specified products, fearing that to deviate from the construction documents would incur the wrath of their clients and increase liability. At least that's the mythology of the construction industry. In the real marketplace, architectural specifications are frequently challenged by contractors and vendors hoping to make product substitutions that put them in better financial or competitive positions.

Occasional substitutions are a sign of a healthy competitive marketplace. When the substitution process is not abused, it makes buildings more affordable, stimulates product innovation, and responds to fluctuating market prices and availability. In fact, most bid documents even spell out procedures that encourage the orderly submittal and review of substitutions.

Frustration like yours, however, is very common. Every sales rep has horror stories about projects they lost because architects did not enforce the specifications. Indeed, many architects have assumed an unprofessional stance on substitutions. By doing so, they undermine the authority of their profession, increase the likelihood of product failures, and diminish their firms' stature to little more than that of contract drafting services.

But focusing your attention on the few architects who abuse substitutions will not help you increase your sales. Specifications remain an important key to selling many types of building materials, and most architects make a conscientious effort to enforce them. Furthermore, it is your responsibility, as a professional building product salesperson, to guide your specifications through the treacherous shoals of substitutions.

Your marketing strategy
Excessive substitutions could be a sign that you need to re-examine your marketing strategy. If yours is a commodity-type product, it may be especially sensitive to competitively priced substitutions. In general, commodity items are sold based on price, availability, or dealer service, not a designer's brand-name specification. While you may still have to call upon architects to provide support for your distributors, the onus of presenting commodity products to designers should generally be left to manufacturer's associations or industry promotion councils.

Products that are the most resistant to substitutions typically have proprietary features and benefits that differentiate them from other products in the field. One of my clients calls these "spec-locks," and prepares sales-training aids identifying the features his competitors can't match. By attempting to get these spec-locks written into the specifications, he has been able to lock many of his competitors out. Developing new spec-locks is an ongoing process, since successful proprietary products are soon copied and may eventually become commodity products. An increase in the frequency of substitutions may be a warning sign that your products are losing their competitive lead.

But even products with unique features will have substitution problems promoted on the basis of features that were of questionable value to me as a specifier. So before pricing your product, you may want to conduct market research to find out how specifiers assess your product's worth. Remember that specifiers are less concerned with your product's unit price than they are with the cost of the product in place in their building.

Gain allies where it counts
By blaming substitutions on weak architectural enforcement, you may be overlooking weaknesses in your distribution channel. Make marketing allies out of your contractors and distributors since they have access to lower priced fines and are frequently the ones initiating substitutions. Be sure they stand to gain by using your product instead of offering a cheaper one.

One way to strengthen their commitment to your product line is to make them part of the team selling to specifiers and owners. For example, invite contractors to join you when making major architectural presentations. Many contractors will appreciate the exposure and will be less likely to break the spec if they understand why an architect chose your product.

Make sure your pricing and promotions enable your client to make more money by selling up to your product. I remember one project where the HVAC contractor proposed a more expensive air-conditioning system because it was more efficient. And the roofing contractor took advantage of pricing changes that allowed him to sell a better grade of roofing for just a few cents more per square foot. In both instances, the architect persuaded the owner to accept the substitution upgrades. But on that same project, an electrical contractor missed an opportunity to increase his sale when he submitted substitute light fixtures of a lower quality.

In addition to assessing your product and your customer and dealer attitudes, you must also look at your own strength and limitations. Specification selling does not offer the instant gratification of other forms of selling, and many companies and individuals do better with a different approach. some vendors play offense: They keep possession of the ball by finding and developing good prospects, getting specified, and becoming well-positioned to make a sale. Others play defense: Their strategy is to intercept a sale during the bidding or purchasing process.

By knowing your company's game plan you can field a sales team trained to play like winners. But if you do initiate a substitution, remember that the principles of fair play should still govern your efforts.

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By Michael Chusid, originally published in Construction Marketing Today, ©1994

Cost to Correct Errors in Construction Documents

This graph illustrates that the cost of correcting defects in design and specifications can quickly escalate if not mitigated early in a project.

For building product manufacturers, this suggests the benefits of having a proactive sales force during a project's design phase, and of reviewing bidding documents carefully prior to entering into a contract. If you can help an architect, engineer, or other specifier to use your product correctly during the design phase, there will be less economic risk during construction.

Graph is from "Using Spec Writers Properly" by Derek B. McCowan, PE in the June 2010 issue of Consulting-Specifying Engineer.

Substitution Story - Sand Between Coats

A sales rep working for a major paint producer, recently told me this story:
Our Company was not named in the project specs. The contractor submitted a substitution request to use our products, and our brand's reputation made it easy to get a change approved by the architect.

A few months later, the contractor called asking for help. The spec said to sand surfaces lightly between coats. This is a reasonable requirement with most brands of paint since sanding typically improves adhesion.

However, the contractor was using our newly introduced line that was especially formulated to adhere without sanding, and we had plenty of test data to substantiate the claim. In fact, our product literature recommends against sanding. The spec clearly said to follow the manufacturer's application instructions, yet the owner's rep still insisted on sanding between coats as specified.

The contractor had paid a premium for a labor saving product, but still had the expense of sanding.
The sales rep felt the owner's inspector was being unreasonable. The conflict could have been avoided if the request for substitution had disclosed how the proposed product affected all the specification requirements. Too often, a substitution request deals with Part 2 - Products requirements, without addressing Part 1 - General and Part 3 - Execution of a spec section.

Marketing with Guide Specifications

A View from the Back of the Bus

Michael D. Chambers FCSI CCS
Contributing Editor

In my perspective from the back of the bus, I wonder why we as product representatives do not use specifications and particularly guide specifications more in their design professional marketing calls and continuing education presentations. An excellently crafted, CSI-formatted guide specification is the most effective way of marketing design professionals available to manufacturers and product reps.

It appears self-evident to this writer, that if you wish to have your product specified and the specification held by the design professional, the ability to work with specifications is paramount. Interestingly enough, I have found that very few product reps are comfortable working with specifications and design professionals. One response always seems to be “well, I'm not a specifier, that’s the design professional’s job...” In my opinion, it is impossible to be an effective product rep without basic specification knowledge and skills.

Typically, design professionals are not interested or particularly facile with specifications. This creates a very recognizable vacuum in the industry that needs to be serviced. Most design professionals I know, greatly appreciate product reps that can provide effective specification support. Many reps talk about specifications and try diligently to get specified but only a few can actually edit a guide spec or office master. Especially to the point that a design professional would be comfortable putting it out to bid. I found my specification skills were a significant factor in getting my products specified in an industry standard specifications that was relatively substitution resistant. I believe that it is not being able to write specifications as much as being able to work side-by-side with design professionals on developing industry standard project specifications.

There is another critical specification service that is often offered but rarely effectively or successfully. The ability to take an office master specification and review it for the design professional is one of the easiest and absolutely the most effective way to get specified and make sure the specification can be held. I have handed out dozens, many hundreds of office masters and basically gotten two responses. Typically the first response is no response. The second response is the rep reviews that specification to ensure that their product info is
correct and ignores the rest of the competitors and specification provisions. If a design professional gives you an office master to review you must review the entire specification to ascertain the following information. Are the competitors the correct ones, do they make equivalent products, and does the specification advantage or disadvantage any of the competitors? Proprietary specifications or ones with hidden advantages are always the easiest to break. A truly competitive spec with the appropriate competitors and products can and will be held by the design professional against non-competitive substitutions.

Finally, use guide specifications as your primary marketing tool, not brochures or binders. Walking the design professional through a well written and annotated guide spec will educate them more effectively about your industry knowledge and expertise that any brochure. Use the brochures and catalogues to illustrate and demonstrate the significant specification issues contained in the guide specs. Even designers appreciate knowing the specification basics for the materials and assemblies they are incorporating into their designs.

Learn about specification organization and editing basics and key your approach to the design professionals along the lines of products and specifications. Good specs promote good products, which in turn promote good design. Good design means the design professional got the products they wanted and the product representative was able to bid competitive specifications without substitutions.

That’s my view from the back of the bus, welcome aboard; come on back! Let me hear from you.
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From Michael D. Chambers FAIA FCSI CCS principal of MCA Specifications and can be reached at Used with permission of author.