The focus of this blog is construction-related topics. The purpose is discussion, so please feel free to comment! See Specific thoughts for thoughts from the daily life of a specifier.

29 February 2016

The cost of custom

custom car imageMany products offer not only a selection of standard finishes at a standard price, but offer more options at additional cost. Some will offer those options in price groups, such as Standard, Group 1, and Group 2, where each group is more expensive than the last. Finally, some manufacturers offer to match any color.

Unfortunately, the requirements for getting a custom color often are vague, and a minimum quantity may be required or other limitations may apply.

The result? I may tell a project architect that a custom color will cost more, but because I often don’t know how much, the response usually is, “It doesn’t matter; we want custom.”

The problem, of course, is that bidders, who are trying to get the job, are forced to either comply with the specifications and risk losing the job, or bid a standard color in hopes of getting away with it - which too often is the case. I recall a project that required all exterior metal finishes and all concrete coatings to be bid as custom, to match a specific color. Had that color been something unusual or exotic, that might have made sense, but the chosen color was essentially off-white. Trying to get all those colors to match was a nice theory, but in practice, there was as much difference in appearance between adjacent panels, one in shade and the other in full sun, as there was between the colors submitted. And then there are the effects of dirt and UV exposure… Colors change, and some change more than others, so the carefully selected finishes may no longer match after only a short time. For that project, the owner probably paid the price of custom color and got a standard color for some of the finishes.

A couple of years ago we had two projects going, which just happened to have the same custom color for the metal roofing. An astute supplier was able to combine materials for both in a single order. Individually, neither project had enough material to meet the minimum for a custom color, but together they almost did, so the supplier was able to cover most of the added cost. It's always possible for the architect to insist on a custom color regardless of quantity, but that can be more than a bit embarrassing when the contractor tells the owner that the cost can be reduced by a large amount simply by changing to a slightly different color.

Some joint sealants can be produced in virtually any color, and architects are accustomed to always asking for custom colors. It’s usually not a problem for a large project, but the architect should know that the contractor might have to buy fifty gallons of sealant for a joint that's only ten feet long.

Specifying acoustic properties presents similar challenges. Many assemblies will meet a given STC or NRC rating: brick, CMU, CMU with filled cores, multiple layers of gypboard, high density gypboard and similar products, resilient channels, clips, resilient adhesives for multi-layer assemblies, etc. What do they really cost? How do they really perform? Without knowing the relative costs and properties, detailing a particular assembly may result in performance that is lower than expected, or it may cost more than another assembly that would perform just as w.

And what about dimensions? It's easy to draw a large panel in elevation, but can it be produced? Do the length or width force the fabricator to alter the orientation of panels, which can affect appearance of some finishes? Do the dimensions require greater thickness of material, thereby increasing the cost beyond what the designer expected?

These are all very real issues that big-D Designers don't think about, yet it's essential to evaluate such information early in design - before the client has been sold on the design.

Chapter program suggestion

Chapter program committees are always looking for new subjects. Something like this may have been used already, but it would make a great program if promoted to local architects. Doing it as a joint presentation with the local AIA would likely increase attendance, and get the message to those who need it the most.

A panel discussion seems to be the best way to present the information. Get several manufacturers' reps to explain the consequences of specifying custom for a variety of products and assemblies. Start with the above lists, and ask the reps for more examples. To cover everything might require two or more meetings! I love horror stories; they can be more effective than simply describing the best way to do something. If each of the reps told a horror story it would be a valuable presentation.

Promote the presentation well ahead of time in CSI and AIA newsletters, and follow up with articles in the newsletters published after the presentation (you should be doing these things already for all programs!). Don't stop there; add a collaborative page to your chapter website, listing products and manufacturers, with information about maximum and recommended dimensions, costs of custom finishes, and relative costs of acoustic products and assemblies.

Even small chapters have the people and the information to create programs like this; all that is needed is a commitment to do them.


  1. I love the idea of a joint presentation between AIA and CSI. I know that our insurance provider does a special Halloween presentation on insurance horror stories. Maybe AIA St. Paul and CSI Twin Cities could put something on in October.

    1. I don't know when program schedules are set, but it's worth a try.

  2. Great post. Architects care way more about specific colors than owners do, and owners care way more about dollars than architects do. We need to do the right thing for the owner.

  3. I agree, great topic but I would be cautious about going too far in specifying only the standard line. I have come across several situations where "standard" colors were specified and the end result was terrible. Some examples that spring to mind are metal flashings, toilet partitions, and some ceramic tile. It was only during submittals that we discovered the standard line only covers the bottom 3 or 4 options out of dozens of supposed choices. Naturally the one the architect wanted was one of the higher cost versions and we were forced to choose between a few lousy options or shelling out more cash.

    In a nutshell, I would suggest a distinction between "custom" and "chosen from manufacturer's full line" when having this discussion.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Logan. I didn't mean to imply that standard should always be specified. The point is that we have to know what "standard" means, as well as what the options are, so we can specify the proper range of options.

      Another problem is that one manufacturer of a particular product may have only a few standard colors, while a competitor has ten or twenty. In that case, "full range" doesn't really get what you want. We don't need that sort of surprise when the submittals come in!

      Some architects tend to specify "full range" all the time, even when a standard color would work, and even if the minimum quantity makes the price prohibitive. It's nice to have a lot of options, but if the bids are based on full range, the owner can needlessly pay a premium.

      As usual, the bottom line is, "Know the products, and specify what you want - no more, no less."

    2. Point taken, but how would you suggest handling an open-bid or performance based specification in regards to details like this? The closest I can think is to indicate a basis of design product choice but how would you account for differences between manufacturers when it comes to color availability?

      For instance, I had an issue recently where a substituted casework manufacturer met all the specs but their standard color choices were very limited. I'm simplifying but you get the idea.

    3. Believe me, I understand the problem! One option is to specify a basis of design finish that must be matched. No big deal for paint, but a serious problem for other products.

      Another option is to require prior approval, a process I think is underused. It adds a bit to the bidding period, but when you're done, everyone knows exactly what will be acceptable.

    4. Thanks for your insight. Now if we could only get our public-entity clients to allow a longer bid period...