Facilitating Competitive Bidding for Construction Products

Architects and interior designers often make carefully coordinated selections of products based solely on their appearance.  Many of the products so thoughtfully selected have no equal – nothing else has quite the same appearance, and if a different product with all the same characteristics (except for color) were used, the carefully coordinated color scheme would be ruined.

In these cases, a sole-source product is specified, and no substitutions are allowed.

Is this important?  Sometimes, yes, it’s important.  Ask this question another way:  Is this important to the Owner?  Has the Owner actually charged the Architect with creating a unique look that is decided upon early in the project, and cannot be changed?

Why does this question matter?  When only one product is specified, and no substitutions are allowed, the supplier of that product sometimes increases the price, and may decrease the level of service.  This price increase is passed on to the Owner.  A decreased level of service (due to a lack of incentive to keep people happy, since the deal is already done) may cause schedule problems during construction.  The Owner may be paying a heavy premium for the luxury of selecting colors during design.    

Sometimes only a very specific plastic laminate will be acceptable to the Owner, because of specific furniture finishes that they’ve contracted for separately.  Sometimes only specific ceramic wall tiles and solid surface countertops will be acceptable to the Owner, because of a corporate identity they must maintain.  In these cases, the direction not to allow competitive bidding has come from the Owner.

But sometimes, the Architect, for his own reasons, is trying to create a very specific look that can only be achieved with one manufacturer’s tinted glass color (although 2 others may make a similar color with the same performance characteristics).  Does the Owner care about this extremely specific appearance?  Maybe not.  Has the Owner been notified that the choice of one specific manufacturer’s color of glass may increase his construction costs, for the benefit of the Architect’s portfolio?  …  [Crickets]…  Probably not.

When the Owner doesn’t have product preferences, if we, as design professionals, are to best serve the interests of the Owner, we should encourage competitive bidding, by specifying several acceptable products.



7 thoughts on “Facilitating Competitive Bidding for Construction Products

  1. Well said, Liz! I believe even when the owner is approving of a very specific visual design, that the underlying owner imperative for cost-effective pricing does not go away. When a project prices over budget, the architect still may have obligations to redesign, or have a disappointed client with a project under financial strain. We also need to admit the difference between those items the design cannot do without, and those things we write as closed specifications just because no one took the time to research comparable products. We have a fiduciary obligation to produce a design whose components can be priced competitively by multiple parties, unless the owner specifically and knowledgeably exempts certain components from competition. We need to continually remind ourselves and our talented designer colleagues that this is the case.

  2. Thanks, Phil.

    Researching comparable products is something that I find I can never do enough of (and sometimes I haven’t done enough of). It’s an important part of encouraging competition – making sure we’re listing actual equivalant products – and it’s something I’m continually working on trying to improve in my practice.

  3. I disagree that a closed spec = higher price and lower service. We provide better service with a closed spec as we work to keep the good will that the designer gave us in writing a closed spec. When we have to take a low bid job cheap you can’t expect the same level of service as a job where I’ve told the designer that the project will cost $XX and with the closed spec I bid $XX. It is a professional arrangement with me and the spec writer and I am not going to risk my brand long term for one low bid job.

  4. Specifying equals is a constant challenge for architects designing public projects where laws dictate non-proprietary specifications. The designers’ interests in controlling aesthetics are often at odds with these requirements. Brick selection can be problematic in this regard; in one instance (or perhaps more than one) an owner has had to pay ‘extra’ to get the preferred specified brick on a project.

  5. Thanks, Liz, for raising this issue. It touches on a tension, usually beow the surface, between specifiers and designers. While assisting the Owner in getting competition and the best price for the project is part of the specifer’s mandate, so is incorporating the A/E design intent into the specs. For things like glass color, these two objectives can both be addressed by a basis-of-design spec that allows substituion requests. Interior designers, though, often present a more intractible problem, as, for them, product selection IS their design in large part. We must trust them to document pricing from their meetings with product reps and, also trust in the professionalism of the product suppliers, as Evan suggests is not so unrealistic to do. Great blog, by the way! Keep it up.

  6. Being a truly anal spec writer, I am somewhat surprised that the word “equal” still is used in dialogue amongst specifiers (yes, I AM Canadian as you can tell from my spelling). This is one word I have, through 5 years of correction almost eradicated from the vocabulary of my current office. There are many equivalent products that I specify one against the other, but in 22 years in the architectural world I don’t know if I have ever found 2 equal (in EVERY sense of the word) products. (mini-rant finished)

    But back to the original subject of specifying competitive, equivalent products, the one that truly makes me shake my head is a specific PA that I work with who has no problem asking me to specify a product that I have never heard of and we have never used before, based on a shiny brochure that a sales rep who has never before darkened our doorway dropped of at the 11th hour and now we HAVE to have it or the project will be a flop. Not only do we not have any experience with the product, but the shiny brochure has no test data to back up any of the sales pitch that was given in comparison to the other equivalent product(s) we normally specify (and neither does the website…insert shocked expression here). But of course this product has been used in Europe for decades!! (to which I say who cares? Different climate, different construction methods, different codes!) It’s funny, he doesn’t get as indignant or down right passed off at me now as he used to when I tell him I’m not specifying that product until the manufacturer can provide technical information that proves the product’s equivalency. Of course it doesn’t hurt that the CEO is a technically competent architect who has charrged me with pushing back when things don’t make sense or expose the firm to unnecessary risk, and actually supports me when i do push back if needed.

    And before i start getting hate mail from product reps that read this blog, let me clarify that i do NOT hate you all equally, or hate any of you. There are many that i deal with that are a wealth of knowledge about their products (and sometimes even more knowledge bout their competitor’s products than their competition) who become my “go-to” guys when the clock is ticking loudly. most of the time these are also the reps who are involved with CSC (insert CSI for my American friends), who are either CTR’s (CCPR’s if memory serves me correctly) or are in the process of attaining that designation. of course their are also those who have been around ge block a couple thousand times, whose experience shines through. As with the architectural profession, there are the good, the bad and the ugly. Unfortunately, the bad and the ugly ones tend to define our initial perceptions. This has a large influence on why we specifiers are a naturally sceptical and jaded bunch!

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