Specification: the substitution issue

  • 13 Jan 2016

Joanna Lush, business development manager at Gx Glass, discusses the impact that specifying an equivalent product can have on the aesthetics, green credentials and quality of a project and the repercussions for manufacturers who have invested time and money in order to get their products specified, only to be substituted for an inferior product…

The specification stage of any building project can be a lengthy process, sourcing and documenting the hundreds of products required and desired to make up a building. But there are times when the original intentions of the architect do not survive the complexities that arise during the course of a building’s construction and its subsequent lifecycle.

Like any other building material, certain glass products are specified for particular qualities that will contribute in various ways to the standard and efficiency of a building. Certain products have credentials that make them highly suitable for sustainable projects, for example.

The substitution issue

Specifications can be created upwards of six months, or even in some cases over 18 months, before a building is out of the ground.

Along the course of a project, procurement managers will often seek to save money or time by taking advantage of a particular phrase seen on nearly all specification documents: equal or equivalent – the definition of which can vary greatly from project to project.

This can be the point at which significant problems begin to creep into a project, given that the exact qualities for which products and materials were specified are often simply not found in alternatives.

When specified products and materials are substituted for alternatives, there is usually no opportunity for recourse from architects or manufacturers. In many cases, the complexion of a project can change quite dramatically due to such substitutions, without architects ever being informed – especially if the substitute products look identical to those specified.

So how can we, as manufacturers and contractors within the supply chain, ensure that the use of replacement products doesn’t adversely affect the quality the end client needs, reduce the efficiency of the buildings we work on and erode the crucial bonds of trust that underpin a healthy supply chain?

A cross-sector issue

The issue of substitution affects manufacturers of all building products, and while I am drawing from my own experience at Gx Glass to illustrate the following example, I regularly speak to managers working across other product areas who share my concerns.

When specifying a piece of glass, an architect might recognise, for example, that a satin finish glass can readily accumulate fingerprints. Knowing this, the architect might specify a polymeric resin coating in order to save on cleaning costs across the lifecycle of the building.

ABC&D 4However, a procurement manager might not be aware of the reason why that particular product was specified and could seek to save initial costs by choosing a cheaper, non-coated equivalent product. This would lead to increased operational and maintenance costs and worse performance across the lifecycle of the building.

In such circumstances, the carefully made decisions of architects and detailed product specification are undermined and building projects are adversely affected.

Not only that, but the hard work that goes into producing specification documents goes to waste and the suppliers of the specified products – who might have been selected on the basis of their location as well as the quality of their goods – lose out, often to suppliers from overseas, or to an alternative product that does not have the inherent attributes that led to the initial specification.

Further down the line, when the negative impact of product substitutions becomes apparent to the managers and users of a building, the reputation of the project team inevitably comes into question.

What protection is there for the architect, whose plans were altered without the opportunity to mitigate the potential negative impact on their buildings? In many cases, it is the architect’s reputation that suffers.

Protecting the supply chain

To protect and maintain the trust between manufacturers and contractors that ensures a healthy supply chain, there must be transparency and clear communication when any specification is not followed exactly.

If this is not possible and, until a time when the end-to-end BIM process is fully implemented, I would raise the question of whether specification documents should cease to offer flexibility on products, or require a more stringent product sign-off process.

It is important that specifications are always workable, to ensure the smooth running of a building project and the removal of that wriggle room could potentially cause a headache for the procurement managers that offers no real net gain in the long run.

Another option would be for manufacturers to employ a specification manager to police the specification through the line, but is that really sustainable for smaller manufacturers, or where our efforts need to ensure that products successfully make the journey from specification to site?

The observable trend of the equal or equivalent option is leading to a reduction in quality and an erosion of trust between companies who depend on each other in the current British economic climate and this trend is surely one that needs to be brought to an end.

Find out more in the January issue of ABC+D Magazine

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