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Meeting in the middle

Product substitution is becoming increasingly prevalent and a reality of the design and construction process. As lighting rapidly develops as a technology and as a design focus in buildings, so does a rise in the number of new manufacturers and luminaires flooding the market. Although this abundance of product availability now provides increased choices in the lighting design process, it also leads to the subjective topic of product substitution in the building cycle.

Product substitution is considered for various reasons, including but not limited to; the availability of the specified product, delivery time, installation requirements, or in the time between project design and project build, newer products superseding the specified products.

Scott Meek is the Partner of Stallard Meek Architects, an architectural practice based in the heart of Norwood, South Australia. Scott is all too familiar with this element of the construction industry and believes that the process occurs when contracts ask for high-grade luminaires which can be replaced by products that appear aesthetically similar and at a lower cost.

Scott spends a great deal of time designing around particular products for specific outcomes, so when those products are replaced, his entire designs are often affected. He feels, unless considered carefully, substitution of a specified product leads to the sacrifice in quality, functionality and aesthetics of the light fitting itself, along with disrupting the design result. “Often a substitution will look the same, certainly works the same but doesn’t maintain the same level of quality,” Scott implies.

Many architects share the same concern that although the owner may initially be happy obtaining savings as a result of using a more available or affordable option, the substitution may result in inferior performance and functionality; subsequently leading to further costs during the lifetime of the building. Scott admits this is prevalent in lighting selection and remarks that product substitution has become increasingly common when selecting fittings in the last few years.

Scott’s primary concern in the substitution of luminaires is the lack of knowledge geared towards the importance of quality, compliance and functionality. “Getting the light right for a build takes effort, so when a product is substituted, it can often affect the colour, output and mood, which will often lead to an inferior finished outcome for the end user,” Scott reiterates. He emphasises that there is always a reason behind his selections which will correlate to the build and capabilities of the fitting itself. Other considerations will include colour shift and predetermining a more sustainable/long-term product, which will be a more cost-effective, long-term solution.

As product substitution is becoming increasingly commonplace, some bring a different perspective. Andrew Moss, Project Manager at Fredon, one of Australia’s providers of engineering, construction and facilities services, believes that product substitution can sometimes provide solutions to concerns with product availability and meeting budget requirements.

Andrew expresses that for him, it’s about availability, complying with the builder’s schedule and staying on budget. As a project manager, his top priority is the project schedule, so an alternative that costs more money but saves on time is favourable. “In the long run, if a schedule runs over, it will often cost us more money than the initial substitution,” he explains.

In some cases, subcontractors feel they can offer a value engineered solution that can meet the criteria of the original specified product at a lower cost. Andrew elaborates; “It’s about taking a broader view and looking at the selection of products to see if a more time and cost-effective solution exists that will achieve the same project objectives.” From Andrew’s involvement in the construction process, product substitution can sometimes solve problems and identify and eliminate costs while improving function and quality. “The aim is to match or increase the value of products while satisfying the product’s performance requirements at the lowest possible cost.”

For an architect, it is imperative to keep the communication open. “The key is transparency and open communication channels that continually lead back to the form and functional criteria set for each product,” Scott expresses. If you want a product to stay, Scott says you need to lock it down with the client, builder or contractor and be firm with your decision. “If it’s right then it should remain, if there is a better solution out there, then architects will be open to hearing it,” he comments. In some instances, the builder may discover a better solution due to dealing with the product on a day to day basis and from having excellent product knowledge.

With both sides having their priorities, influences and deadlines to consider in each project, a level of transparency is key between all parties. Understanding that product substitution is sometimes unavoidable is fundamental; however, a process should be followed which considers the effects of a substitution and ensures all parties are made aware. As there is such value placed on a clear specification strategy, there should be a rigorous process for evaluating substitutions too.

The process should commence at the beginning of a project and ensure that the contract has been checked with the owner for any possible problems. Andrew says whoever has made the changes needs to ensure the implied and implicit warranties in the relevant building legislation are not affected.

Next to consider are the environmental challenges, effects on other design features, materials and the impact on any features directly asked by the designer or building owner. “This is a big one for us – little things like making sure the light fitting will be okay by the beach or checking they are IP rated for external use are all things we consider – each selection has a purpose and role to play,” Scott indicates.

It is essential to understand that certain design choices have been made for a reason and that in some cases, substituting will alter the desired aesthetic result. “It can be as simple as specifying an external grade LED strip which emits a perfect line of light, to then be substituted by an inferior product which produces a very dotty, inefficient illumination,” Scott advises. He says the cheaper strips have a poor colour shift that changes over time and does not emit the clean line intended by architects. “The quality level is just not there, and as a result, the aesthetics are compromised.”

Other critical elements to consider when substituting are restrictions under various legislations, planning restrictions, the consequences of the product failing and what the product does in terms of performance required by the NCC, Australian Standards and relevant building laws.

Lastly, the proposed substitution should be discussed with all parties, with any changes recorded in the contract. “If building work is involved and the building consent has already been issued, the building surveyor should be contacted for approval before moving forward,” confirms Andrew. From here, the building surveyor will decide whether a change is a minor variation or whether an amendment to the building approval is needed.

There is a right way and wrong way to approach product substitution, but what comes first should always be the quality and longevity of the product. Most would agree that it is a practice that is occurring more frequently with the commoditisation of lighting within the industry, but there is a process that should be followed to ensure the best outcome for all involved. It comes down to an understanding of when a substitution is appropriate, why it has been put forward and how it is communicated to all stakeholders.