“The Strangest Way To Do Business”

Purchasing for construction projects isn’t like purchasing in our personal lives.

When we buy things in our personal lives, we go to a store, or go online, find exactly what we want, and buy it. Sometimes we ask someone else to get something for us. The very particular among us might attach a photo of exactly what we want when we send the email or text message request for the item. (To end up with the right container of anchovies, I might need to send my husband a photo of the jar.)

On construction projects, the architect finds out from the owner the general idea of what is required, then the architect, through the drawings and specifications, tells the general contractor exactly what to provide. OK, so this is complicated, but it still makes sense.

What happens next is where it gets weird…

The bidding general contractors solicit bids from subcontractors and vendors, each of whom is a specialist in his or her area. These are the people who read the documents and actually provide what the drawings and specifications require, and the general contractor who is awarded the project coordinates all of that work. These bidders may submit bids on the specified items, or may submit substitution requests, requesting that different products be approved by the architect.

Last week I was talking with a product rep at my CSI Chapter meeting about specifications for toilet partitions and lockers. The rep represents several different manufacturers. She currently has someone working with her who is new to the construction industry.

The new person looks at specifications for all projects that have just hit the street, to see if the specs include manufacturers they represent, or products that they might be able to meet the spec for, even if their manufacturers aren’t specifically listed. If their manufacturers aren’t listed, but they can meet the spec, the product rep will prepare a substitution request and submit it to the general contractor for him to submit to the architect, to see if they can get approved, and therefore be able to provide a bid.

The new employee described this process as “the strangest way to do business.” It is very odd, from a manufacturer’s or distributor’s point of view. The building owner, through the architect, asks for something specific, or maybe says “provide one of these 3” or maybe says “provide this, or something equal.” Then the manufacturer, distributor, or subcontractor goes through a process which looks a bit like begging to be allowed to play, too.

This isn’t actually that strange when the documents are clear.

The intent, and the outcome, of this process is that the design team can research one, two, or three products that will work on the project, indicate the important characteristics of the desired products, and allow competitive bidding through the substitution request and review process. This can result in a fair price for the owner, set up clear quality requirements so that bidding is fair for contractors, and allow the open competition that is usually required for government projects.1

But when the specifications are poorly written, this process actually IS one of the strangest, most inefficient, ridiculous ways to do business.

Sometimes subs and vendors have to play a guessing game, trying to figure out exactly what products are desired or allowed. Sometimes, bad specifications call for discontinued products, or worse, products by manufacturers who went out of business years ago. Sometimes, bad specifications are uncompleted master specification sections, with multiple options (that were intended to be deleted) indicated. (That looks something like this, with brackets and bold text:  Toilet-Enclosure Style: [Overhead braced] [Floor anchored] [Ceiling hung] [Floor and ceiling anchored].) Sometimes, bad specifications indicate a mix-and-match monster of a product that isn’t available, such as when “manufacturer’s standard polymer integral hinge” is specified for steel toilet compartment doors. (A sub knows the architect doesn’t really want polymer “integral” hinges for a steel door, because there is no such animal, but has no idea if the architect wants hinges that are stainless steel, aluminum, or “chrome-plated zamac.”)

Now, toilet compartments aren’t a huge percentage of construction cost for a whole building. But it’s an easy example. Imagine the confusion and wasted time when errors like this are made in the masonry spec section for a large brick building with CMU backup. For a project that’s bid by several general contractors, there could easily be 3 bidding subs for each of 3 bidding generals – so there could be 9 confused subs who have gone back to their 3 generals, who have gone back to the architect (another confused person) who goes back to whomever wrote the spec. And the person who wrote the spec now has to do what should have been done in the first place – figure out exactly what is needed, and clearly communicate that to the bidders. It’s easier for the specifier to do it right the first time, but it’s not only his or her own time that’s wasted – there could easily be more than a dozen additional people who are all trying to figure out the same thing.

That really is the strangest way to do business – trying to figure out something that lots of other people are also trying to figure out, merely in order to submit an accurate bid that would allow them to deliver what is required, at a fair price, and to make a fair profit.

Bidding for, and building, a construction project shouldn’t be a guessing game in which one tries to interpret documents that make no sense. When the documents are good, and clearly indicate the requirements for a constructible building, bidding goes more smoothly because there are fewer addenda, bids are closer to each other (demonstrating that the owner is getting a fair price), and construction goes more smoothly. Less time is wasted on the design team side and on the construction team side. The design team should get it all figured out in the design phases; changes made in the design phases cost much less than changes made in the construction phase. When the documents are good, both the design team and the construction team have more profit, and the owner has fewer change orders to deal with and pay for.

Isn’t this what we all want?



  1. For further reading on the substitution process, check out this great article by Ron Geren, “Substitutions: Flexibility within Limits” http://www.specsandcodes.com/Articles/Keynotes%20No.%208%20-%20Substitutions.pdf and the article he cites, “Prior Approval, A Specification System,” by H. Maynard Blumer https://lizosullivanaia.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/prior-approval-a-specification-system2.pdf  As Ron Geren points out, the Prior Approval System was the first formalized substitution procedure. (Yes, we’ve had a formal substitution procedure for decades now. I know, this is news to many.)