Representing the very best

Representing the very best

Substitution Carries Responsibility

Substitutions, a reality in the construction industry, carry both actual and implied responsibilities! Seems logical, but, absent a failure of substituted materials or systems, how many companies in our industry actually take this seriously?

A recent tragedy in the newly constructed I90 Connector, part of The Infamous “Big Dig Project”, in Boston Massachusetts, has brought an unwelcome spotlight to commercial construction and particularly the commercial ceiling industry.

Many are referring to the failed system as a ceiling system, however, it is interesting to note that the panels involved in this ceiling system weigh more than 6000 pounds each, and the suspension system consists of structural steel and heavy duty structural hanging components. Regardless of these factors, it is actually just a ceiling system.

Due to the failure, local, state, national and international attention is being focused upon this important problem. What started as a local problem, for a small portion of a fourteen billion dollar project, has now spread to all projects built utilizing this system, all over the United States and around the world.

This attention is bringing attention to the commercial ceiling industry, to many who are completely unfamiliar with our industry, and, who like most people, assume that the structures they frequent are carefully designed and constructed to completely meet “plans and specifications”. Is the potential problem exposed in this situation an isolated case, is the system that enabled this to happen working as we have all assumed it would?

Most of us are involved in the construction of commercial buildings, but, some CISCA Members have and are involved in the installation of ceiling systems for both commercial buildings and transportation structures that present unique problems, both in climatic and operational conditions. Generally these projects are very carefully designed over a period of many years. The materials to be utilized are time proven, and tested for the actual use designed in the project.


Professional engineers and architects spend countless hours meeting with product manufacturers’ and representatives to assure their client and the public a carefully thought out and designed finished product. Most of these projects are public projects, where in many instances the “or equal” clause is haphazardly “thrown” into the specification, to meet the perceived need for “three or more equals”. How many products or systems actually have true equals? How many truly innovative products or systems really have an equal? Why is the public burdened with accepting the “lowest common denominator” on their projects? Why is it so common for private projects to be of higher quality for less money than public projects? Who is really responsible for substitute products that are really not equal in performance or appearance? How can this failed system be fixed?

Generally, the specified material and systems have undergone very detailed analysis, projects visited, experts consulted, is the same care given to a substitute product? Who pays for the time and effort that should be given any substitution? Who has the time to assure that all appropriate independent testing has been performed and passed? Who assures the client that the installers are well trained with the substitute product or system? What is to be gained by the substitution? What high Quality Company will actually spend the appropriate time working with the design team on a public project, at their own expense, when they are virtually assured that a substitute product will not only be proposed but actually accepted with little or no thorough review?

Substitutions should carry a heavy responsibility to those proposing the substitution. It should be standard operating procedure to include the following clause in the project specification;

“It is the responsibility of those proposing a substitution, to provide all appropriate independent testing, to assure that their product or system meets or exceeds the material or system specified.

Any additional costs incurred by any other supplier or contractor, due to the substitution of this product or system, shall be paid in full by the individual proposing and providing the substitute material or system.”

This approach does not completely assure that the project will be constructed as designed and tested, but, at least it gives the design team and their client the opportunity to have a building constructed as designed and expected.

Most of us do not build tunnels or support ceiling systems that weigh “three tons”, but we are involved in a very detailed and important industry. Isn’t it time for those who are willing to provide fully tested, fully represented, unique and cutting edge products and systems, to be protected from those who simply provide “the lowest price, me too products”. As building industry professional we have to protect our reputation and the reputation of our industry with quality buildings, products and systems!

William L. Shannon CSI, CISCA
President of Shannon Corporation
Recipient of the 2004 De Gelleke Award