Volume 37, Issue 5, May 2002

The Art of Substitutes

Save Money and Hassle on Your Next Railing Project
by Erik Meehan and Greg Towndrow
There is a certain stigma surrounding the word “substitute.” From substitute teachers to sugar substitutes, we often think of the word in negative terms.
As glass- and metal-railing systems increase in popularity and more suppliers enter the market, contractors often choose to partner with a company with whom they are familiar and on whom they can rely. Making a substitution to a specification can be advantageous for the company who is willing to take the proper steps.

Eastside Glass in Bellevue, Wash., recently substituted a glass-rail job at a Seattle Target store. “We choose to work with a select group of vendors based on their timely deliveries, locations and expertise. We are usually able to get the products for a better price and a higher quality,” said Mike Boydstun, project manager.

Why Substitute?
There are many reasons why a company may choose to substitute the specified product. The three most common reasons are the relative cost of materials and/or freight, relative lead times and past business dealings (both good and bad).
As competition increases for glass-railing jobs, margins become tighter. Any dollar saved is worth dollars earned. Reducing the cost of materials and cutting the transportation costs are of primary importance.

With the advent of the Internet, shopping for glass-rail suppliers across the country is as easy as looking for a restaurant in the phonebook. Many companies have the majority of their glass- and hand-railing systems online to assist customers with layout and to answer basic railing questions. Freight costs can also tip the scales in favor of one company or another. Shipping cross-country costs more than local delivery, especially if the local delivery is free.
While it is important to save money, really cheap components aren’t a bargain if substandard material must be replaced or repaired. If components aren’t compatible for the job, time and money are wasted due to a “mix-and-match” experiment gone awry.
When time is a factor, contractors may choose to not work with a company if the lead times are too long. Hand-railing systems are one of the last structures installed in a building. Due to delays in other parts of a construction project, sometimes the luxury of standard lead times is not possible. Depending on the type of materials required or the size of the job, some railing companies are unable to meet the time demands placed upon them by their customers. As a rule of thumb, the more custom the material or intricate the run (as in custom corners), the longer the lead time will be.
The accuracy of lead times is another concern. We’ve all experienced both good and bad customer service. As a result, we have our favorite car dealers, restaurants and airlines. A contractor might want to work with a company whom they have built a relationship and has had good experiences. By the same token, a company may have earned a reputation as either aloof or hard to deal with. In these cases, installers may prefer working with another company.

Substituting is both an art and a science. The science is in knowledge, both of the products and of the steps necessary to substitute products successfully. The art is in how to persuade the architect or specifier that the substitutes are not just in your best interest, but his best interest as well. When planning to substitute glass railing, consider the following six points.

Baluster or Infill System
After identifying glass railing on a project, determine what type of system it is. Infill systems are common and can be cost effective. Specifying a baluster in place of an infill system can be more expensive and ultimately would lead to the architect having to redesign the system. In most cases the substitution would be denied.

System Comparability
Is the specified system comparable with the one you would like to substitute? In many cases, the drawings/ details will read differently from what is specified. For example, if the drawings illustrate a glass-baluster system but the specified company typically provides infill systems, there is a conflict. In these cases, you should consult the architect to have him clarify exactly for what he is looking.

Building Codes
Building codes are an important issue in glass-railing projects. If the designs do not meet the code, contact the architect to review your recommendations.
For example, some architects like to design a glass balustrade system without a top rail. Depending on the application, this may not be acceptable. It is then necessary to educate the architect regarding the UBC and the need for a top rail or secondary rail. This shows the architect that you are committed to providing an acceptable substitution and heading off potential problems. 

Project Detail Clarity
Architects are not experts on glass railing, as it is a relatively new phenomenon. Review the details closely to be sure the architect has included all of the pertinent information and that you are both on the same page. If there is a communication problem, it can cause considerable problems during the construction and installation process. 

Supporting Information
Project references, photos and product data are critical to getting your substitution approved by the architect. Project references are most effective in convincing the architect that the substituted company is credible. Accurate literature including product details, load-testing data and any other pertinent information also helps make this decision an easy one.

Possible Resistance
Some architects and general contractors are resolute on no substitutes whatsoever, while others are very open to new suppliers. If the project specifies no substitutions, then it’s probably best to either quote from the specified companies, or politely decline the job. Compared to the uphill (if not impossible) battle you might be facing, the smart money may be on quoting as specified.
Your railing system vendor should provide most of the supporting materials. Some companies, like ours, work to help you make the substitution an easy process. Through careful vendor selection, you can ensure your project is completed on time and under budget. 


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