By Ann Marie Smith
February 2, 2018

Often as a designer, we are asked to review substitutions to previously selected and approved materials.  There are numerous reasons why a substitution might be presented at a later date, but that is a topic for another day.  The purpose of this article is to provide some insight into ways a client can handle these substitutions.

Let’s start with some basic definitions in designer terminology:

Products (also called” Materials”) = Carpet, Tile, Rugs, Wall Covering, Paint, Doors, Light Fixtures, etc.

Substitutions = The replacement of one product for another.

Now let’s look at the three driving factors in Product Selection and Substitutions.  You as the consumer get to choose two of these three.  Having all three is a rare luxury in today’s fast-paced building market.

1. Time
2. Cost
3. Quality

Consider the three driving factors above as you continue reading the following scenario.

After a year of planning and saving your family vacation is underway – a ski trip to the mountains!  After consulting a recommended travel agent and advising that you need a quality vacation and your bonus will sufficiently cover the costs, you head out – driving of course!  Sure, it takes more time, but what an adventure it will be! After 8 long hours, perched at the bottom of the mountain, you reach a fork in the road.  The travel agent recommended taking the road to the right, the longer route. It provides a safe ride and one in which the agent was sure would be satisfactory.  This route is a double lane, newly paved road with a generous shoulder, painted reflective lanes and has an easy incline.  You consult your smart phone and see that the road to the left is a single lane, gravel road on a steep incline with lots of turns, pot holes and no guard rails.  It is however, a shorter route.  Thinking it over, you opt for the shortest route…some things have changed over the course of the drive – the kids are exhausted, YOU are exhausted, there is still plenty of daylight to maneuver around the curves and the weather has been perfect – still no ice!

After a week of great skiing (yes it snowed!), it is time to head home.  Taking the shortest route back seems like a great idea! After all, it was just fine on the way up.  You start down the mountain.  Things look a little dicier. There is black ice and it has snowed. Everyone is tense as you ease the car down the steep slope.  Bump! Thud!  A tire starts leaking air, requiring a quick stop to change it. What if the tire had blown and you had lost control of the car?  By the time you make it down, it is clear your car could use a new tune up, a few new tires, a good cleaning, and maybe has aged a few years (and you have a few new gray hairs!).  Was it worth the shorter route’s risk?  Maybe. Would it have been more prudent to have taken the longer route?  Maybe.

This scenario is a good analogy for understanding Product Selection and how it can end up being substituted.  Think of the travel agent as your Designer.  You seek them out for their advice. They assist in mapping out a desirable route to reach your end goal, be it a vacation spot or a new office space. The travel agent could present 50 possible hotel options, but most of the time, the top 3 are all you need to consider. Remember the “Time” factor? Likewise, your Designer presents you the top product options for consideration, basing these on your input regarding Time, Cost and Quality. Is it the longest route you are seeking or the shortest?  Will a short-term gain cost you in the long run?  What outcome are you expecting?  This might change over the course of the trip or the job as it did for the family above.

At your trips’ outset, the shorter road turned out to be a good option.  One that was hard to predict – it required perfect conditions.  Would it have been too risky for the travel agent to assume this?  Would you fault them for recommending the longer route on the way up when everything went smoothly on the shorter one? Of course not, it was a calculated recommendation you hired them to make.  How about on the way down, are you wishing you had taken the longer route?

During bidding or construction, you might be presented with a fork in the road.  Perhaps the contractor has a few products that they would like you to consider in lieu of the original selections.  Perhaps you have even found a few that you now want to consider.  How do these substituted products play into the Time, Cost, Quality equation now?  Have these factors changed?  Ask yourself again, what outcome am I expecting at this point?  What route would my travel agent recommend?  It is up to you to decide. Weigh the cost of consulting your designer for their additional expertise in analyzing the options.  You may be comfortable making the decision yourself, as the driver was when he approached his fork in the road, or you may not.

Will the less expensive, substituted floor stand the test of time or will it need a few tire changes along the way?  Maybe you plan on staying there for 10 years and that floor needs to last, or maybe you only have a short-term lease and a few tire changes is just fine.  There is no right answer.  Only options.

Ultimately, Product Substitutions are really just that – more options.  Options that may or may not be worth revisiting as the three factors play out on the road to your destination.

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