Getting the right thing on your job:  Substitutions



Most products and performance standards in the drawings of architects and engineers are specified. This is primarily done to ensure quality control. Frequently,  contractors will propose to substitute products or performance standards in the drawings or specifications. Let’s take a quick review of the related factors.

Acceptable Reasons

Many times there are valid reasons for substitution: the product is no longer available, the lead time is too long, the manufacturer has them on back order, the product specified has been changed and may be incompatible, or certain characteristics of the product may not be available, etc. Or there is a viable equivalent that should be considered.


While we want the project to commence quickly and be straight-forward to build, we cannot jeopardize the quality of the work  by letting inferior products be used.  So it falls on the contractor to prove that the substitution is as good as or better that what was specified.  When that occurs, we’re delighted- since we can benefit from that knowledge too.


We are cost-sensitive to the costs born by our customers and try to strike a value point where cost, benefit, utility, appearance, endurance all meet. But the contractors are out there on a daily basis buying materials,  and know the market better than most architects and engineers. – so we listen closely for their input for when we go “over the top” and are happy to explore alternatives.

Yet….it can work another way, where the contractor substitutes another , cheaper product or less than skilled tradesman and pockets the difference. No good. We have the obligation to have that work redone to match the specifications. We use reliable contractor to help minimize the likelihood of this happening but it occasionally happens- and the friction ensues.


Construction is highly dependent on schedule and sequence. Accordingly having materials on hand in a timely manner is critical. So the ability to gauge the correct “lead time” of ordering materials or products that take long to obtain is crucial. This is a common mistake for the newer contractors. However, sometimes, a product simply cannot be fabricated or delivered on time to meet the construction schedule (i.e certain windows) and a substitute can be suggested to meet the schedule. If there is no loss of quality, appearance and performance let’s consider it-so long as there is no “rush” up-charge.


Yes, there can be some less-than-transparent things going on. Commissions, kickbacks and favors are disturbingly common from vendors who seek to by-pass the normal substitution process.  This can create a lot of distrust in a short period of time and can have critical consequences. So we watch and monitor as best we can.

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We try to source local products- partly for logistics , partly for “green” practices (where it takes less energy to transport items to the site) and also because of local builder-vendor relationships.  But we recently had to order certain open web composite joists that were fabricated in Ohio. Not that far from NY, but not that close to NY. Our client figured if he was paying the freight for those joists, why not load up more of the truck with other building components that were substantially cheaper (but of the same quality) than locally available.


This factor sounds straight forward. It is a “shades of grey” noun. Do you mean it is not “available” in the time period needed because it was ordered too late? or the spec’d color was discontinued? We have to have all the information before we can choose an “equal” to the item specified.

Characteristics & Analysis

Sometimes it becomes a judgment call. The radiator grill we recently specified was no longer being made in the thickness we are accustomed to using,but with additional reinforcing and framing the thinner alternate was found to be an “equal” and the contractor was allowed to use this. The degree to which the substitution conforms to the specified product is naturally a major factor and can be subject to negotiation.


Agreement & Documentation

When a substitution is accepted or rejected, the decision has to be recorded in writing and distributed to prevent the “my recollection is different” conversation.

Phew that kind of substitution seems understandable… what happens when the new building code is substituted for the old one? or a new architect or builder substitutes or takes over for the previous party that was fired, fell sick or quit?…..


Give me a call to review your situation- Steve 914 980 5532