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Intent vs. Outcome in Project Purchasing



Purchasing for construction projects isn’t like purchasing in our personal lives.

When we buy things in our personal lives, we go to a store or go online, find exactly what we want and buy it. Sometimes we ask someone else to get something for us. The particular among us might attach a photo of exactly what we want when we send the email or text message request for the item.

On construction projects, the architect finds out from the owner the general idea of what is required, then the architect—through the drawings and specifications—tells the general contractor exactly what to provide. OK, so this is complicated, but it still makes sense.

What happens next is where it gets weird.

The bidding general contractors solicit bids from subcontractors and vendors, each of whom is a specialist in his or her area. These are the people who read the documents and provide what the drawings and specifications require, and the general contractor coordinates all of that work. These bidders may submit bids on the specified items, or may submit substitution requests, requesting that different products be approved by the architect.

One time, I was talking with a product rep at my CSI chapter meeting about specifications for toilet partitions and lockers. The rep represents several different manufacturers. She currently has someone working with her who is new to the construction industry.

flukyfluky / Getty Images

On construction projects, the architect finds out from the owner the general idea of what is required, then the architect—through the drawings and specifications—tells the general contractor exactly what to provide.

The new person looks at specifications for all projects that have just hit the street, to see if the specs include manufacturers they represent, or products that they might be able to meet the spec for, even if their manufacturers aren’t specifically listed. If their manufacturers aren’t listed, but they can meet the spec, the product rep will prepare a substitution request and submit it to the general contractor for him to submit to the architect, to see if they can get approved, and therefore be able to provide a bid.

The new employee described this process as “the strangest way to do business.” It is very odd, from a manufacturer’s or distributor’s point of view. The building owner, through the architect, asks for something specific, or maybe says “provide one of these three,” or maybe says “provide this, or something equal.” Then, the manufacturer, distributor or subcontractor goes through a process that looks a bit like begging to be allowed to play, too.

This isn’t actually that strange when the documents are clear.

The intent and the outcome of this process are that the design team can research one, two or three products that will work on the project, indicate the important characteristics of the desired products and allow competitive bidding through the substitution request and review process. This can result in a fair price for the owner, set up clear quality requirements so that bidding is fair for contractors and allow the open competition that is usually required for government projects.

But when the specifications are poorly written, this process actually is one of the strangest, most inefficient, ridiculous ways to do business.

Sometimes subs and vendors have to play a guessing game, trying to figure out exactly what products are desired or allowed. Sometimes, bad specifications call for discontinued products, or worse, products by manufacturers who went out of business years ago. Sometimes, bad specifications are only partially edited master specification sections, with multiple options (that were intended to be deleted) indicated. (That looks something like this: with [brackets] and bold text:  Toilet-Enclosure Style: [Overhead braced] [Floor anchored] [Ceiling hung] [Floor and ceiling anchored].)

Sometimes, bad specifications indicate a mix-and-match monster of a product that isn’t available, such as when “manufacturer’s standard polymer integral hinge” is specified for steel toilet compartment doors. (A sub knows the architect doesn’t really want polymer “integral” hinges for a steel door, because there is no such animal, but has no idea if the architect wants hinges that are stainless steel, aluminum or “chrome-plated zamac.”)

Now, toilet compartments aren’t a huge percentage of construction cost for a whole building. But it’s an easy example. Imagine the confusion and wasted time when errors like this are made in the masonry spec section for a large brick building with CMU backup. For a project that’s bid by several general contractors, there could easily be three bidding subs for each of three bidding generals—so there could be nine confused subs who have gone back to their three generals, who have gone back to the architect (another confused person) who goes back to whomever wrote the spec. And the person who wrote the spec now has to do what should have been done in the first place: figure out exactly what is needed and clearly communicate that to the bidders. It’s easier for the specifier to do it right the first time, but it’s not only his or her own time that’s wasted. There could easily be more than a dozen additional people who are all trying to figure out the same thing.

That really is the strangest way to do business—trying to figure out something that lots of other people are also trying to figure out, merely in order to submit an accurate bid that would allow them to deliver what is required, at a fair price, and to make a fair profit.

Bidding for—and building—a construction project shouldn’t be a guessing game in which one tries to interpret documents that make no sense. When the documents are good and clearly indicate the requirements for a constructible building, bidding goes more smoothly because there are fewer addenda, bids are closer to each other (demonstrating that the owner is getting a fair price) and construction goes more smoothly.

Less time is wasted on the design side and on the construction side. The design team should get it all figured out in the design phases; changes made in the design phases cost much less than changes made in the construction phase. When the documents are good, both the design team and the construction team have more profit and the owner has fewer change orders to deal with and pay for.

And isn’t that what we all want?

About the Author

Liz O'Sullivan is an independent specifications consultant in Denver, at Liz O'Sullivan Architecture LLC. A licensed architect in Colorado since 2002, she's been preparing project specifications as a consultant to other architects since 2008. O'Sullivan is a member of AIA, CSI and SCIP. She is a Certified Construction Specifier (CCS), a Certified Construction Contract Administrator (CCCA), a LEED Accredited Professional (LEED AP BD+C) and is NCARB-certified. This post originally appeared on O'Sullivan's website.


Let's Fix Construction is written by a collective group of construction professionals involved in, an online impartial platform to provide forward-thinking solutions to many longstanding issues that have plagued construction. Organizers and contributors seek to better the industry by sharing knowledge, while creating open and positive communication and collaboration. Many of the posts have appeared first on and are republished on Durability + Design with permission. Author information is available at the bottom of each blog entry.



Tagged categories: Architects; Business management; Construction; Consultants; Contractors; Design; Designers; Developers; Engineers; Good Technical Practice; Specifiers; Asia Pacific; Bidding; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Latin America; North America; Purchasing; Specification

Comment from Connor Johnson, (3/18/2021, 7:15 AM)

What great insights. I wish I knew this earlier when I had to purchase materials for my popcorn ceiling removal project and installation.

Comment from laser china, (9/14/2022, 9:42 AM)

Crystal engraving machine can used for glass marking.

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