“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.)

6 thoughts on ““The Strangest Way To Do Business”

  1. Liz: I agree with you 100% and can relate to the toilet partition example provided. It is actually a fairly simple thought process…partition style, partition material and partition hardware. Most experienced specification consultants utilize specification development software where the editing is done through deletion. This requires a little more knowledge on the front end. Perhaps those less experienced should be advised to use software that builds through selection. I believe this method allows them to go further along in the process. Either way poorly written specifications do not benefit anyone. One more reason to support and promote SCIP members across the country who are undoubtedly the best at what they do.

  2. Good post Liz. I like your “simple” example of what could go wrong with a single product in a single spec section. Now multiply that by the 100+ sections for any one project and the multiple products in most sections. What a potential impact!

    I estimate that each question posed by a contractor to the design team during bidding and construction takes on average 8 hours time to answer. Receive it, log it, distribute it, research it, discuss it, compile internal responses, update documents if needed, and return formal response. And I probably missed some steps.

    Getting the construction documents (drawings and specs) right the first time is essential to eliminate all the inefficiency of answering questions that should never have been needed to be asked. The industry, in general, has been lulled into believing that issuing incomplete documents to start construction early is more efficient and allows for an earlier project completion.

    A small investment by the design team to thoroughly check and coordinate documents before issuing for bid and for construction, will save countless hours during construction administration and may do more to speed the construction process than starting with incomplete documents.

    Just a thought…

  3. Liz, this is a really good description of the process (much better than the practice manual). I think all of us are in agreement that the documents and specifications should be complete (maybe not perfect but complete to 95+%) before they are sent out for bidding. The simple fact is that incomplete specs and drawings are not only common to fast-track or design-build projects. An important question that doesn’t get asked is what are the current circumstances in the design firm itself that leads to incomplete drawings and specs. David is very right to suggest that many, many hours are wasted during bidding and construction dealing with the incomplete instruments of service provided as a deliverable to the owner. How does this happen? And more importantly why is this allowed to happen even in the most “sophisticated” design firms?

    Whether the specifiers are in independent practice or not, the burden on the owner of additional costs, schedule and risk increases associated with poor specs should not be tolerated by any design firm that actually wants to service its client and fulfill its contractual obligations.

  4. As a major USA manufacturer of toilet partitions, our staff, along with the staff of our local sales agents and distributors are often “in the dark” regarding how to interpret specifications.
    Unfortunately most Division 10 Specialties do not get the respect of other high end division products.
    Hopefully this excellent blog post can be an “eye opener” for more design firms to listen to the good local mfr sales reps and then write their construction documents correctly, the first time !
    Liz, this movement can definitely save countless hours of extra time and significant unnecessary grief…Thanks !

  5. Pingback: Substitutions in the Construction Industry: A Panel Discussion, on January 13 | Comments From a Spec Writer

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