Substitutions: Often a Quagmire, but CSI Can Help

I think there’s a big problem with the way substitutions are often handled, at least here in Colorado.

CSI has some great solutions – for example, 2 different substitution request forms, one for use during bidding, and one for use during construction.  Arcom’s MasterSpec has what I consider to be fairly decent language regarding substitutions, in Division 01.  But these solutions are often not implemented.

I think that “what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate” on several levels:

  • G.C.’s often fail to forward Division 01 on to bidding subs, so subs don’t know the requirements for substitution request submittals.  (They don’t even know that there ARE requirements for substitution request submittals.) 
  • Then the G.C’s try to push substitution requests through to the architects without the required information, since they didn’t receive that info from their subs.
  • Project architects often fail to enforce the specifications’ requirements about the information that is to be submitted with a substitution request.  Sometimes, that’s because they aren’t familiar with the requirements in their own project specifications. 
  • So the architects waste their precious bid-period time trying to verify that the proposed substitution is comparable to the specified system or item, doing the work that the sub ought to have done.
  • Owners seem to not understand that substitutions can’t appropriately be made in the blink of an eye, since the designed system took weeks to design and took everything related into account.
  • Back to the G.C.’s – during construction, they submit on non-specified items, or they just install them, because that’s what their subs gave their bids on, even though they weren’t acceptable products.  This happens when the G.C. didn’t verify that the subs’ bids were in compliance with the construction documents during bidding, and the sub didn’t know the proper procedure for getting a substitution request approved.

As a specifier, I sometimes add some language to the “acceptable products” list in each spec section that refers to the Division 00 section “Procurement Substitution Procedures” and/or Division 01 section “Substitution Procedures,” or if I have a Basis-of-Design product by one manufacturer listed, and a list of comparable manufacturers after that, I sometimes add language in each spec section that indicates that the contractor should “Comply with the requirements of Division 01 Section ‘Product Requirements’ for comparable product requests.”

But as with everything else, the project architect still has to know what’s in the specs (and then enforce the specs), the G.C. still has to comply with the requirements of the construction documents (and make sure his subs do too), and the Owner still has to understand that proposed substitutions have to be very carefully evaluated since everything was designed around the specified product.

I think this is where our work as CSI members lies – we should try to educate the rest of our industry about the roles that all parts of a project team play in this substitution process.

This post is a reprise of a comment I made on the Denver CSI website, in response to our Chapter President’s November post.  Check it out, and join the discussion!

Architects, CSI Is Not Just About Specs

Fellow architects, solutions offered by the Construction Specifications Institute take the brain damage out of communication in many phases of design and construction.  Also, taking advantage of the educational opportunities CSI offers can help you be a better architect.

The Construction Specifications Institute is not just about specs.  CSI offers formats and processes for the project team to use for many phases of a building’s design and construction, from Preliminary Project Description through Punch List.  (You don’t have to reinvent these things for your practice.)  CSI also offers educational programs about technical topics from building envelope performance to daylighting.

It’s fun, and fulfilling, to design.  It’s a great accomplishment to listen to a client’s needs and put solutions on paper in the form of a building design.  My favorite phase of design, when I worked as an architect, was design development.  The inefficient (in my eyes) schematic design process was out of the way, and the complicated construction documents phase was yet to come.  In DD, I didn’t have to detail things, and the client’s needs had already been taken into account in schematic design.  I could just focus on the big picture of the building itself, and coordinate and refine plans, elevations, and sections.  Fun!

But the practice of architecture is not all about fun with drawings.  Fellow architects, we are part of the construction industry.  Most of us don’t design “unbuilt work” on purpose.  Most of us are designing buildings for the purpose of getting them constructed.  When we produce construction documents, the end users of those documents aren’t our clients, and they aren’t magazine readers, they’re the people who are supposed to build a building from those documents.

The technical information that the contractor needs to know (in order to build your design) doesn’t all reside in that big book called the Project Manual.  An awful lot of the technical stuff needs to be drawn, in detail, on your drawings.  Architects (not just spec writers) need to understand the technical details of construction. 

It’s great to have a good-looking rendering.  But it’s better to have a design that gets executed really, really well in construction.  A building that lasts and looks good as it ages speaks well of its architect. 

Here’s how you get a great building, a great execution of your design:  First have good construction documents that clearly communicate to the contractor the technical details of your design intent.  Second, have excellent communication with the contractor throughout the construction phase.

CSI has solutions that help tremendously with construction documents and construction phase communication.  You don’t need to be a CSI member to take advantage of some of the things CSI offers, such as education, standards and formats, webinars, and construction industry news.  But membership opens the door to more benefits, such as networking opportunities and member discounts on the things I mentioned above.

If you’re considering joining CSI, this weekend is a good time to do so.  Right now, today through Monday, you get 20% off national membership dues.  (If you want to join your local chapter in addition, which you should to get the full benefit of CSI, that separate membership is still at the normal price.)  Here’s the scoop from CSI:

Join CSI by October 31 and pay only $192 for national dues — a 20% savings.

1.    Visit
2.    Select “Join Now”, and then click “Sign Up as a New Member”
3.    Enter Promotion Code 1220ARCH when prompted
4.    Click the “Add Discount” button

We recommend you also join a chapter, where you can attend local education sessions and networking opportunities (chapter dues are not included in this promotional offer).

Rejection of Submittals

“The rejection of a submittal for good cause is not a cause for a delay claim on the part of the contractor.  The contractor should anticipate the potential need to resubmit incomplete or rejected submittals in the submittal schedule.”

My thought of the day, from The Project Resource Manual – CSI Manual of Practice.

We all know this, right?  Let’s practice it!

In Defense of MasterFormat 2004

As Don Short pointed out in his blog post today , the most obvious upside of MasterFormat 2004 is that it makes writing specifications easier. 

In the 16 years since 1995, we in the construction industry have been introduced to many new technologies and materials.  We have outgrown MasterFormat 1995.  MasterFormat 1995 does not give architects, specifiers, and building product manufacturers enough direction about where to put the information we need to communicate to the contractor team.  MasterFormat 2004, along with its updates issued in 2010 and 2011, provides us with the framework to let us know exactly where to put our information.1    

MasterFormat 2004’s more fully developed framework, which the more compact MasterFormat 1995 did not provide, produces more consistency in construction documents across multiple construction projects, no matter who the architect and specifier are.   

Clear, concise, correct, and complete is the goal for construction communications.  MasterFormat 2004 can guide design professionals to that goal better than MasterFormat 1995 can.  When the design team’s documents are clear, concise, correct and complete, everyone, from the owner to the estimator to the constructor, benefits.  To use Don’s phrasing, “ease of writing” leads to “ease of use.” 



1.  In different projects which used MasterFormat 1995, I’ve seen the same information in different divisions – not just different sections, actually different divisions.  One example: water repellent products intended to be applied to exterior masonry assemblies.  When using MasterFormat 2004, we know where to locate the specification information for these products.  MasterFormat 2004 guides us to “07 19 00 Water Repellents” which is further broken down into different types of products.  On MasterFormat 1995 projects, I’ve seen these products specified in Division 4 (under “Masonry Assemblies”), in Division 9 (under “Paints and Coatings”) and, just as in MasterFormat 2004, in Division 7 (under “Dampproofing and Waterproofing”).  Inconsistencies from project to project lead to problems in construction.  MasterFormat 2004 is a solution to these problems.

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:

More GREAT info for construction product manufacturers can be found at the blog of Chusid Associates:

Construction Documentation Reminders from Children’s Literature

“What I mean and what I say is two different things,” the BFG announced rather grandly. 

“Meanings is not important,” said the BFG.  “I cannot be right all the time.  Quite often I is left instead of right.”

I’m reading The BFG with my 7-year-old.  It’s a 1982 children’s book by Roald Dahl.  (To give you a frame of reference, in case Dahl wasn’t one of your favorite authors when you were a kid, Roald Dahl also wrote the 1964 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.) 

The BFG (the Big Friendly Giant) is a nice vegetarian giant, who tries to communicate clearly, but frequently mixes up his words.  He knows that language is not his strong point, but he thinks that’s just fine.

The book is charming and funny, especially when you read it with a child who has nearly perfect grammer, understands that the BFG’s way of speaking isn’t grammatically correct, and finds it hilarious.  We laugh a lot when we read this book.

But some of the BFG’s pronouncements have uncomfortably reminded me of some people whose paths I’ve crossed in my professional life.

There was the electrical engineering consultant I worked with a long time ago, when I was practicing as an architect.  His drawings were a mess.  I told him his AutoCAD grid snap settings were turned off, so none of the 2 by 4 light fixtures in his ceiling plans were actually on the ceiling grids.  He proudly told me, about the snaps, “I don’t use ‘em.”  Aaarrrgghh! 

There was the owner’s project manager who, when I commented that a provision in the owner-generated general conditions didn’t match the rest of the documents, said “This is illegal verbiage; I would not worry about it.”  (The owner had no intention of clarifying this provision in our documents, and had no intention of correcting this “illegal verbiage” for future projects.)

There are owners and architects both, on CM/GC projects, who have had an awfully relaxed attitude towards documentation before and during construction, who have dismissively said things such as, “Oh, we talked about that with the contractor.  He knows what we want there.”  They didn’t intend to clarify our documents, and were therefore relying on the contractor to provide something based only on a discussion.

In all three of these examples above, the professionals knew that communications were not clear, and they were quite sure that that was just fine.  IT’S NOT OK!

Now, since this is the first time I’ve re-read The BFG since I was little, and we’re only halfway through, I don’t remember if the BFG’s communication shortcomings cause any mishaps.  I am sure the giant’s miscommunications do not cause any change orders, lawsuits, or unhappy clients.

On the other hand, unclear and incomplete construction documents can cause misery for owners, architects, and contractors.  They often lead to change orders, and they can lead to lawsuits, and unhappy clients.

CSI (The Construction Specifications Institute) always reminds us that our contract documents must be clear, concise, complete, and correct.  If you can’t accomplish that yourself, the right thing to do is to hire someone who can accomplish it for you.  Owners, you should have qualified people prepare (and regularly update) your procurement and contracting requirements.  If you are a public entity, you absolutely owe that to the taxpayers.  Design professionals, if you haven’t mastered new must-have technologies, you should hire, or outsource to, people who have.  Owners and design professionals, you should properly staff projects so that the required documentation gets done in a timely manner to prevent misunderstandings.  (Design professionals – this needs to be a factor when you negotiate your fees.) 

Contracts are based on what’s written and drawn.  They are not based on what we meant to write or draw.

“I know exactly what words I am wanting to say, but somehow or other they is always getting squiff-squiddled around.”  (The BFG)

We can do better.

Can You Say “Addendum”?

Yeah, “addendum” is a fancy word, derived from Latin. The Latin background is the reason the plural is “addenda.”  But really, what’s important is that it means something that’s added.  In construction, it’s something added to or deleted from the contract, or something that revises the contract.  Remember, the contract includes the contract documents – the drawings, the specifications, the agreements, etc.

The Project Resource Manual – CSI Manual of Practice, published by the Construction Specifications Institute, says that addenda are “written or graphic instruments issued to clarify, revise, add to, or delete information in the procurement documents or in previous addenda.”  It goes on to say that “it is imperative that participants to the construction process properly account for these changes by posting or documenting the appropriate addenda information in the affected areas of the drawings and specifications.” 

So, what is the proper procedure for design professionals when issuing addenda?

Remember that you are MODIFYING THE CONTRACT DOCUMENTS.  The easiest way to think about this is to put yourself in the shoes of the people building the project.  They are going to take your addendum, cut out the additions from the paper document of the addendum, and tape them over the things in the originally-issued documents that changed.  They will strike through the things that your addendum deletes.  When you, the design professional, issue addendum changes (or ANY modifications to the contract documents, actually) you NEED to actually MODIFY THE DOCUMENTS.  If an Addendum item changes something about the contract documents, you have to actually modify the documents.  You can’t just answer bidder questions without actually modifying your documents, the contract documents, to back up the answer to your question.

If you can’t put yourself in the shoes of the contractor, put yourself in your own future shoes.  How does it feel when a question comes up late in the project, and you think that you may have changed something a while ago, but now you can’t remember what changed, and there is no official documentation of that modification?  Feels bad.  Looks bad to your client.

Do yourself, and your clients, and the contractor, a favor.  Issue proper and complete addendum modifications.  Change the actual documents, and, even if you don’t issue a whole drawing, document exactly what the change is, so that the intent is unambiguously communicated to all the participants in a construction project.  You’ll probably thank yourself later!