In commercial architecture, specification can often be a complicated process involving multiple stakeholders, each with a different motivating factor for what's included in the details.

Architects and designers most often make specification decisions based on visual beauty and/or engineered performance. General contractors want quality craftsmanship out of their installers and dependable building products that help them construct the best structure they can. And property owners seek buildings that are constructed to last over the long haul while providing occupants with the best possible experience that budget will allow.

However, challenges can arise when ideas conflict on how to best achieve these various goals. In this two part series, we'll examine specification, what steps contractors and subcontractors can take to address specification challenges and ultimately how that can impact their business growth.

Why Contractor & Subcontractor Voices Matter

Depending on the specification, the leeway GCs and subcontractors have with materials, products, and installation methods will fluctuate between projects or parts of projects. In the rare encounter with a proprietary spec, products and processes will already be dictated, and there’s little allowance for GCs and subs to deviate. In most cases, the same goes for prescriptive specs. But with performance specs, there’s a fair amount of liberty to be had, even in cases where branded products have been written into the spec.

When creating specs, most architects will turn to manufacturers with whom they have existing relationships or are directly familiar, even if the products being specified are unfamiliar territory. The problem with this approach is that while a given manufacturer might enjoy significant market share, high brand recognition, or widely recognized reliability, the product being specified may not be the best solution for the space or application.

Like other specialized subcontractors in the building industry, ceiling contractors often are seasoned experts in their niche. Typically, a dedicated ceiling installer may have more experience with the innovations from certain manufacturers than any other party possessing a stake in the specification process.

As an example, certain ceiling products may offer easier field cutting, accessories that make an individual installer’s work faster, or higher durability for less product waste from damages incurred during installation. Some manufacturers may offer better field support to help speed up the installation process or address unforeseen challenges.

And in some cases, a spec change from the products of one manufacturer to comparable options from another  can lead to solutions that are more efficient—and can pay huge dividends during installation and, ultimately, affect both the project timeline and budget in a positive manner.

Spec Changes Can Yield Real Bottom Line Value

A case in point: On a recent corporate office build in the Mid-Atlantic, the project timeline was set at an aggressive pace, with 12 weeks allotted for the fit-out of a space that would typically require 15 to 17 weeks, given the size. To make things more challenging, the design involved multiple spaces that required different ceiling solutions in order to address different acoustical needs. This included the use of 4-feet-by-4-feet free-hanging acoustical clouds in open-plan areas. These clouds were suspended at varying angles, making front and back surfaces visible to building occupants.

The original architectural spec called for clouds from a well-known and respected ceiling manufacturer. However, Blasz Construction, the subcontractor responsible for the ceiling installation, recognized significant flaws inherent to these products that would cause problems on this particular project.

“The original clouds specified weren’t finished on the back,” says Jeremy Kramer, estimator and project manager for Blasz Construction. “There would have been an upcharge to finish them, and this also would’ve meant a longer lead time to get them.”

With the clouds being suspended in ways that made the front and back surfaces visible, they required a clean finish on all six surfaces (front/back/four-sides). The project was already on a compressed timeframe and sticking with the original product specification would have required additional lead time to finish the back side, which would’ve exceeded the deadline, not to mention the budget with the upcharge.

Kramer worked with Sherrie Stewart, acoustical sales manager for building materials distributor, Builders FirstSource, to identify comparable products from another well-respected manufacturer whose standard cloud elements were readily available at a nearby distribution location, which significantly reduced the product order’s lead time.

With that, Kramer had all the information he needed to justify the push for a spec change, which he took to the GC and architectural team. The change was approved, and the new clouds were written into the spec—along with products from the alternate manufacturer for every ceiling throughout the entire project. It was a fortuitous turn: The simple change of manufacturer enabled the installation to be completed within budget and ahead of the project deadline, even with its compressed schedule.

Joe Carroll, an experienced ceiling installer, handled this particular office project for Blasz. While a spec change to an unfamiliar product often can mean a slight learning curve for installers, Carroll was pleased with both the ease and speed of installation that the new ceiling products brought.

“One guy could do the whole installation,” Carroll observes. “Typically you’d need two guys, and it’s always easier to have helpers, but one guy could do it with these products.”

He also appreciated the quality and consistency that went into the manufacturing. “With the pace of the job, what happens with ceiling panels is that at least 15 percent get damaged through the construction process,” says Carroll, noting that compressed timeline demands mean more rushing and subsequently more product damage.

The Takeaway

Sometimes a simple spec change can mean the difference between a project that’s completed on time while saving thousands of valuable budget dollars and one that suffers delays and/or places stress upon timelines and the bottom line.

But what’s more: When the subcontractor is the source driving the change for a net positive effect, it can pay huge dividends to that subcontractor’s reputation. In the construction industry, reputation and relationships mean everything. And word travels fast when a construction partner goes above and beyond to add value to a project.

While some subs may shy away from getting involved in specification issues for fear of overstepping responsibilities and jeopardizing an industry relationship, pushing for a spec change should never be doubted if there’s a clear value to it. As industry specialists, it’s up to ceiling contractors to know when a product or process warrants it. And stepping up to help make a project run smoother or more efficiently—even if that’s not the subcontractor’s intended role—can elevate that sub’s brand as a reliable, go-to building partner, which may ultimately win them more work.