Substitutions vs Specifications

Earlier this week I had a disagreement with a contractor about my specifications and fixture schedule.  The client, who had never been involved in a construction project of this type, didn’t know which one of us to believe.  It went like this:  We are coming up on the end of construction and the contractor is slightly over budget.  In order to save money he wants to start to substitute less expensive products for those that have not yet been purchased which, in this case, includes the lighting fixtures and control system.  His problem is that my specification and fixture schedule are so clear and precise (also referred to as “tight”) that he is having a hard time finding acceptable alternates.  He told that owner that my tight specification is unfair because of this, and that I’ve essentially “given” the project to certain manufacturers “regardless of price.”  I explained that a tight specification protects the integrity of the design, and thus protects the owner, by guaranteeing that the expected design is the one that is installed.   Who is a client to believe?  Let’s go through this.

As a lighting designer I have one source of income – my fee.  I don’t get a royalty or commission from manufacturers that I specify*, I don’t sell fixtures to the project, and I don’t set pricing for fixtures.  As a result, my only incentive to specify one manufacturer over another is appropriateness for the project.  I talk to the owner about their needs and desires, budget, and timeline. I evaluate fixtures based on performance, options, accessories, quality, and price.  I run calculations to make sure that the appropriate amount of light is being delivered and that the lighting system’s power consumption is within code limits.  In some cases I’m contractually required to identify three equal fixtures for each type.  That’s a lot of work and I want to make sure that it isn’t lost or undermined, so I write a tight specification.

After all of that work, though, most projects don’t require the contractor to provide only those items that the designers have specified.  The rationale is that this gives contractors more flexibility in getting the best price, especially for public projects being paid for with tax dollars.  In practice, however, this is often not the case.  The contractor wasn’t present during the design process and doesn’t understand the criteria that went into selecting each fixture.  He (or she) is primarily concerned with price, not performance.  It’s common for the first round of substitutions offered by the contractor contain a large number of fixtures that are inappropriate for one reason or another.  If a substitute fixture will do the job I usually accept it, but I won’t accept a fixture just because it’s offered.  A tight specification sets the requirements for the fixtures and provides the basis for rejecting inappropriate substitutions.  Yes, this can constrain the contractor’s choice of substitutions but for a good reason.  There are huge variations in fixture performance, even when fixtures look the same.  I’ve had contractors (and architects) say that a downlight is a downlight is a downlight.  Take a look at the photometrics and it quickly becomes obvious that this just isn’t so.

From a designer’s perspective we protect the client by protecting the design, accepting substitutions that work but rejecting those that don’t.  A tight specification can limit the amount of back and forth with substitutions by setting strict criteria that substitutions must meet.  That’s part of the professional expertise we bring to the project.

*I admit I do sometimes get a nice box of chocolates during the holidays.

2 thoughts on “Substitutions vs Specifications

  1. You have thoroughly described the perennial problem with design versus construction in this country. If as the hired designer for the project, you meet the client’s request for aesthetics and budget then it should not matter to the contractor what is provided when they know ahead of time what the budget is as well. Contractors are not designers, but they do have a fiduciary interest in lowering their costs on a project. This too often gets in the way and the unfortunate result is the design gets compromised. Now if the design is way out of budget that should have been recognized well before the job gets underway. The rush to complete also places a burden on a project which can result in a poor design, poor engineering, poor construction which ultimately costs the owner. What surprises me is how this pattern is repeated over and over again and people just “settle”. Either settling on a look they don’t want or performance they don’t like. All lighting is not the same. If it were, we would just have troffers and down lights everywhere. I think we have swung a little too far to the side of utilitarianism and have wound up with buildings that very few would want to show off. This country is not in short supply of talented architects, engineers, designers, and contractors. Perhaps it boils down to making a decision to spend a little more to obtain something that all concerned can be proud to have been affiliated with rather than saving xxx dollars. The budget is the budget, and if those involved are more up front and honest about what things could and should cost then we may find an increase in well designed spaces here.

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