“Or Equal”

equal symbol2“Or Equal” is the most confounding phrase in construction documents.1

It means something different to everyone. Sometimes it’s defined in the documents. Sometimes it’s not defined in the documents, which means that the documents are relying on a generally-accepted understanding of the meaning. The problem is that “Or Equal” means different things when defined on different projects so there’s really no generally-accepted understanding of the meaning.

If “Or Equal” is defined, the definition, or description of procedures, should be somewhere in Division 01 of the specifications. In addition, it’s likely to be somewhere in Division 00 of the Project Manual, usually in the “Instructions to Bidders” form.2

In Division 01, the most likely place to find the definition of “Or Equal” is Section 01 60 00 “Product Requirements.” That’s the place to start, anyway.

The major confusion that I’ve seen among people3 dealing with “Or Equal” is the question of when “equals” can be accepted.  The document that defines “Or Equal” should indicate when they can be submitted on, and how and when they can be accepted.

Recommendation for the contractor team:

If “Or Equal” is used in the construction documents, look it up in the documents for the project. Find out its definition for each project. Make no assumptions on a new project. Understand that the definition may differ from project to project. A tip: use the “find” function in the software you’re viewing the electronic documents with, and search for “or equal” in Divisions 00 and 01.4

Recommendation for architects and specifiers:

If you are going to use “Or Equal,” properly define it in the construction documents. (If the owner uses it in the procurement and contracting requirements, you need to use it.) Use the definition the owner uses. If you can’t find one in the owner’s documents, ask the owner about this. Understand that you may have to expand on the owner’s definition in order to make it clear to the contractor team. Understand that if you are working on a project with a general contractor on board prior to completion of the construction documents, such as a Construction-Manager-at-Risk/Construction-Manager-General-Contractor project, the CM may be issuing instructions to bidding subcontractors, and you should make sure that these do not conflict with the owner’s definition of “Or Equal.” This is part of the architect’s job.

Recommendation for owners:

Figure out if you want to allow “equals” or not. Figure out if you want them to be treated as substitutions or not. Figure out if you want to allow substitutions-for-contractor’s-convenience after the contract is signed or not. (Remember that substitutions-for-convenience after the contract is signed are usually not allowed on public projects, because it’s not fair to the bidders who did not win the contract.) Then communicate this to the architect, whether the architect asks for this info or not.

The way I work (this is kind of long-winded, so you can skip from here to the bottom if you want):

Except where specifically included in an owner’s requirements (either in procurement requirements, in contract documents, or in instructions to the design team) I do not use the term “Or Equal” in my project specifications.5

For unnamed products by manufacturers that I name in the specs, I use the term “Comparable Products” and specify that submittals for these products are due at the time that the submittal for a named product would come in, during construction.

For unnamed products by unnamed manufacturers, I use the term “Substitution” and, except on projects in which the owner wants substitution requests to be allowed during construction, I indicate that substitution requests must be submitted prior to the bid and will be accepted in the form of an addendum, which will be issued to all bidders.

The latest project I had on which the owner used “Or Equal” in the procurement requirements was a project at Colorado State University. CSU uses State documents. The State’s definition of “Or Equal” includes “Any material or equipment that will fully perform the duties specified will be considered ‘equal,’ provided the bid submits proof that such material or equipment is of equivalent substance and function and is approved, in writing.  Requests for the approval of ‘or equal’ shall be made in writing at least five business days prior to bid opening.  During the bidding period, all approvals shall be issued by the Architect/Engineer in the form of addenda at least two business days prior to the bid opening date.”

Since that’s exactly how I treat substitution requests, in Section 01 60 00 “Product Requirements” I indicated “Or Equal:  For products specified by name and accompanied by the term ‘or equal,’ or ‘or equivalent,’ or ‘or approved equal,’ or ‘or approved,’ comply with requirements in Division 00 Document ‘Procurement Substitution Procedures’ for submitting a substitution request to obtain approval for use of an unnamed product.  These substitution requests must be submitted at least 5 days prior to the bid date.”

The full procedures were indicated in Document 00 26 00 “Procurement Substitution Procedures” in the project manual. That document again defined “Or Equal,” indicated that they had to be submitted prior to the bid, and also defined Procurement Substitution Requests as “Requests for ‘Or Equals,’ and other changes in products, materials, equipment, and methods of construction from those indicated in the Procurement and Contracting Documents submitted prior to receipt of bids.”

So, what does “Or Equal” mean? Whatever the contract documents say it means.

It comes down to this: Owners should define “Or Equal.” Architects and specifiers should explain it. Contractors should look it up. We just need to communicate.



  1. “Or Approved Equal” is equally confounding, and can be substituted for “Or Equal” in this post.
  2. The Colorado Office of the State Architect calls the form “Information for Bidders” instead of “Instructions to Bidders.” Sometimes these instructions aren’t included in the Project Manual, but are instead issued separately, either by the owner or by a Construction-Manager-at-Risk/Construction-Manager-General-Contractor.
  3. By “people” I mean the whole freakin’ team. Owners are confused. Architects are confused. Engineers are confused. General Contractors are confused. Subcontractors are confused. Vendors are confused.
  4. On your computer keyboard, hitting the Control key at the same time as the F key will usually bring up the Find function. It works in Microsoft Word, PDF readers such as Adobe Acrobat Reader, and web browsers.
  5. Sometimes engineers sneak “Or Equal” into the project specifications, though.

Illogical (part two)

Here are some possible solutions to the unsustainable situation outlined in part one of this post:

Colleges and universities could stop increasing the price of tuition, or even decrease it.

Parents and high schools could stop pushing all kids towards 4-year college.

  • A 2011 Harvard University study, “Pathways to Prosperity,” points out that of the 47 million new job openings projected over the decade ending in 2018, about one-third will need people with bachelor’s degrees or higher, one-third will need people with associates degrees or occupational certificates, and the last one-third will go to high school grads and lower.
  • “Pathways to Prosperity” also stated that “nearly 70 percent of high school graduates now go to college within two years of graduating. But… only about 4 in 10 Americans have obtained either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree by their mid-twenties. Roughly another 10 percent have earned a certificate… Only 56 percent of those enrolling in a four-year college attain a bachelor’s degree after six years…”
  • So, two-thirds of the jobs out there will be for people who have less education than a bachelor’s degree. Almost half of those who enroll in a four-year-college don’t finish. This tells me that not everyone should be going to college.
  • When student loans are thrown into this mix, it becomes really obvious that many kids are being guided down the wrong path.

Back to architecture: The profession of architecture could change a lot.

1.  Architects could charge higher fees, and pay employees more.

Other professionals manage to do this, but architects don’t anymore. Why can’t architecture firms charge enough to keep their employees from being crushed by their student loan debt? If I look at it as a supply-and-demand issue, I have to conclude that either architects aren’t delivering what owners expect and need (there’s not much demand), or there are too many architects (there’s too much supply).

To be able to deliver what owners expect and need, and to be able to charge fair fees for these services, architects need to get more technical.

Architects should keep technical expertise in-house or under their umbrella. I am not talking about computer software; I am not talking about Reviteers. I am talking about building code expertise. I am talking about an understanding of building technology (knowledge of the technical processes and methods of assembling buildings). I am talking about comprehension of building science. (“If architects did their job there wouldn’t be any need for building science.” – Joe Lstiburek.1) I am talking about effective construction contract administration.2

A building owner has just one financial “pie” of a certain size for each project. Everyone involved in the design and construction of the building gets a piece of the pie. Architects keep giving away profitable tasks (usually just by not doing a good enough job at them, so the owner hires someone else to do that part next time) and keep receiving a smaller piece of the pie. Owners sometimes hire code consultants, and sometimes hire building envelope consultants. Sometimes contractors hire building envelope consultants. Owners often choose Design-Build, or Construction-Manager-as-General Contractor, or IPD project delivery methods, all of which give the contractor more of the pie.

Why are owners making these choices? Architects haven’t been delivering. Architects’ piece of the pie gets smaller, because they’re doing less of the essential work; they’re doing less of the technical work. That work still has to get done. If architects take back the technical work, and do it properly, architects’ piece of the pie can get bigger.

2.  States could bring back the apprenticeship path to licensure.

Tuition at NAAB-accredited architecture schools often costs a lot of money. But only a small percentage of what accredited schools teach actually contributes to students’ knowledge of the instruments of service that building departments and owner-architect agreements require. Accredited schools generally place most of their focus on design and theory, and barely touch on building codes, construction documentation, and construction contract administration. They don’t teach much building technology or building science.

Tuition at technical schools  and community colleges is much more affordable. Their curricula usually focus on drafting, modeling, construction detailing, building materials, and construction techniques. Basically, they focus on production, documentation, and building technology. Many firms looking for new employees are looking for production people. Building departments are looking for clear documents that include code-required details. Owners are looking for buildings that won’t leak or get moldy (we prevent these things with an understanding of building technology).

So why does an increasing number of firms refuse to hire people without professional degrees? The focus in schools offering professional degrees is design (the work that firm owners and current employees want to keep to themselves). Why not hire some people with associate’s degrees, who are trained and ready to do production, and probably understand how to draw roof and wall details much better than newly-minted BArch’s and MArch’s?

Colorado is one of a handful of states that still have the apprenticeship path to licensure (in Colorado, you don’t need any college degree – you just work for 10 years under the supervision of a licensed architect, and then you’re eligible to sit for your licensing exams). I think this is a good alternative to the professional degree path.

If a professional degree from an accredited school isn’t required for licensure, architect-hopefuls wouldn’t have to borrow huge sums of money for school. They could go to technical schools or community colleges, and then get work experience, and then get licensed.

3.  NCARB could make its alternative route to certification less expensive.

NCARB requires each certification candidate to have a professional degree from an accredited school. There’s an alternate route to NCARB certification, through the Broadly Experienced Architect Program. However, a dossier review fee could be as high as $5,000 if an architect who is licensed in an NCARB member state, but who didn’t go to an accredited school, wishes to pursue NCARB certification. This makes it tough for many people who wish to get licensed in additional states.

4. The AIA could Reposition in a different direction.  

The AIA launched its “Repositioning the AIA” initiative earlier this year. The goal of the initiative is to “determine how the Institute should reposition architecture, architects, and how to reflect current client and public perceptions.”

From the strategic marketing firm working on the repositioning: “One of the great kind of a-ha moments for us was understanding that architects are no longer those who specialize in the built environment… a lot of people who now call themselves, and are trained as, architects are not building physical things anymore, you’re building design solutions that address societal problems. It’s not bricks and mortar; it’s systems, it’s constructs, but in all these things that you’re building, you’re creating something that matters.”3

If architects are “no longer those who specialize in the built environment,” who is? If we no longer specialize in the built environment, what, exactly, do we do? Why would we want our work to differ so extremely from the way our states legally define the work of an architect? Why would the AIA wish to reposition its members in such a way that not only do we no longer do the work that the states license us to do, but we do something else, something that is not regulated, and does not require licensure, and which, therefore, legally, anyone could do?

Architects should be focusing on getting better at what we are licensed to do. Once we’ve perfected that, we can add other services to our portfolios. We should not be throwing away what we are licensed to do, doing something else instead, and still trying to call ourselves architects.

Some owners who wish to build buildings think of architects as just a necessary evil. I suspect that government requirements for licensed architects to stamp and sign construction documents are the only reason that most architects who were employed during the Great Recession kept their jobs.

Design is not regulated. Architecture is not only Design. And if we start treating architecture as if it is just Design, but is the design of anything we desire (and can sell to someone), the profession will be lost, fees will go even lower, and those young architecture grads will never get out of debt.



  1. Read the whole Inhabitat interview with Joe Lstiburek of Building Science Corporation.
  2. CSI, the Construction Specifications Institute, can help with building technology education and with effective construction contract administration. CSI is working on a Building Technology Education Program, and has a well-established education track for Construction Contract Administration in its CCCA certification.
  3. Watch the whole Repositioning (the AIA) at Grassroots: 3/21 General Session video.

Illogical (part one)

I don’t know what to call this besides illogical:

  • The cost of a college education has been increasing more each year than the cost of living has.
  • Wages, particularly in the last few years, have not been keeping up with the increasing cost of living.
  • Therefore wages are falling way behind tuition inflation.
  • A college degree is becoming more essential to employment every decade, but the process of earning it seems to be teaching graduates less and less applicable knowledge.
  • A rule of thumb generally preached to prospective college students who need student loans is that they should borrow a total of no more than their annual starting salary after graduation.
  • So many college freshmen don’t actually know what they’ll be doing after graduation. But architecture students do.
  • So many college students have no idea how much they’ll be making after graduation. But architecture students can find this out pretty easily.
  • The 2013 AIA Compensation Report came out last month. Click here for an article about it, that includes some of the data.

What do entry-level architecture graduates make? I’m going to spell out some of that data from the report.

  • Nationwide, mean (average) compensation for an “Intern 1” position is $40,000. (“Intern 1” is a person who has graduated from architecture school, works full-time in an architecture firm, and is on the path towards licensure.)
  • Compensation for these new grads a little higher in some places. (In the Mid Atlantic Region it’s $41,800.)
  • And it’s a lot lower in some places. (In the East South Central Region, it’s $34,800.)
  • Remember – these numbers are just averages.
  • According to the rule of thumb, architecture students should borrow a total of no more than $40,000 in student loans, since they’re likely to make no more than $40,000 in their first year after school.

So, as I wrote on a forum recently, if you have to borrow money to go to school, keep these things in mind:

  • To get a professional degree (a BArch or an MArch) in architecture, school takes 5 or 6 years.
  • My alma mater’s current tuition is over $44,000 per year, not including room and board. My alma mater has a 5-year professional degree (a BArch).
  • Tuition alone for the state university in my state is over $10,000 per year, and you’d have to go for a total of 6 years to get a professional degree (4-year degree plus a 2-year MArch).
  • In most states, you need a professional degree if you want to be able to pursue licensure.
  • A growing number of architecture firms won’t even hire you unless you have a professional degree. (According to the AIA report referenced above, 20 percent of firms do not hire employees without a professional degree in architecture, up from 15 percent in 2011.)
  • You might need to borrow money for room and board, or for living expenses, in addition to tuition. If, while in school, you have a job, or live with parents or a spouse who supports you and pays for living expenses, and you get in-state tuition in my state, you’ll likely borrow something like $60,000.
  • If you go to my alma mater, don’t have a job, live on campus, and borrow money for tuition, room and board, you might need something like $285,000, unless you get “gift aid” from the university, in which case you might be borrowing “only” $142,000.
  • You’d never make $142,000 in your field as an architecture grad in the first few years after school.
  • In fact, that figure is close to the mean of what architects top out at right now.
  • The mean salary for CEOs of architecture firms in New England (the highest-paid region in the country for architecture CEOs) is $151,500. That is the highest number on the whole survey.
  • And nobody gets to that compensation level very fast – the mean compensation for “Intern 3” is $49,200. (“Intern 3” is a person who has graduated from architecture school, has three to six years experience, works full-time in an architecture firm, and is working towards licensure.)

If you have to borrow money to go to architecture school, the math just doesn’t work out.

  • Check it out for yourself – figure out how much tuition and room and board and fees and books and supplies cost at the schools you’re looking at. Then figure out what you might make in each of your first few years in an architecture firm in the city you want to be in. (To do this, go to the local AIA office and ask to look at the latest compensation survey results for that city. Do not search online for “architect salary;” the internet thinks you mean “software architect,” or some other IT field, and they make more. ) Then use an online calculator to see if it’ll work. Here’s one.

Something’s gotta give. So what can be changed? I have some thoughts that will be in part two, later this week.