Written by William G. Handlos, P.E.
Specifying Engineers and Architects work tirelessly to build plans and specifications that capture the essence of their vision as they work to write the guiding documents for their project. They make decisions about product types, grades, and take great pains to build into their documents citations of certifications and standards to assure only quality materials are allowed on the site. Yet, when challenged to accept “or equal” substitutions, it seems that all the standards of care can sometimes be lost and substandard materials seem to too easily find their way onto the site.
The reason for this lapse is often a result of the timing of the hand-off between the design team and the project management team occurring just as the contractor award occurs. Contractors are concerned about leaving too much money on the table (the difference in value between the winning and the second bid). Just moments after the bid opening or notice of award, bid shopping commences. Bid shopping on publicly-funded projects is disallowed by legislation in some localities, but even when formally disallowed, informally it occurs widely.
With the economic power of the project award and with the pressure of the potential to lose work, suppliers and subcontractors are often asked to re-quote materials. This is also the point of “specification slide”- when substituted, knock-off material providers join the game with inferior products that do not exactly meet the specification, but are promoted as equals. A busy professional may not have intimate knowledge of the factors to know the difference, doesn’t have the time to do due diligence, or feels pressured to accept the substitution or alternatives.
Close enough may be acceptable for some sites, but when you consider complex and critical civil works projects, the differences in design strength and performance could be the difference between success and failure. There may also be components of the complete “system” solution (e.g. connectors, load transfer devices or customized accessories) that contribute significantly to the design strength and speed of installation that all providers cannot provide. These providers simply jury rig together their version or ignore appurtenances altogether yet still offer the cobbled together system as an equal. The problem with this approach is that either the contractor finds out at the site that assembly was not considered or worse yet that the “or equal” product or system’s weakness does not get revealed until put into service. When the project fails to perform, when the slope erodes, when the pavement fails, or when the channel fails………who pays the price? The contractor pays as he is drawn into extra days and rework. The specifying engineer or the project manager gets hurt by reputation. Most of all, the owner loses, as he gets less value for his money and has the consequences of a failure on his hands.
You put thought and hard work into your P,S&E….Holding your spec is the right thing to do for everybody.
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