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The Good, the Bad, and the Unique


By Bob Bailey, AIA, CCS

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“In a highly commoditized world, the name of the game is creating something unique, something that stands out,” stated Catherine Connolly, the chief executive officer and owner of Merida textiles.

Well…not always the name of the game. A paradox exists. In the U.S., we essentially have a capitalist society. The government at all levels—federal, state, and local—encourages it. Entrepreneurialism is highly regarded. Or is it?

This same government places stipulations on publicly-bid government construction such that the unique product—a company’s claim to fame—cannot be specified, because “unique” equals “proprietary” in government spec parlance, and proprietary means no competition and that is deemed unfair.

The uniqueness that was the germ of the creative idea, the uniqueness that got a product on the map in terms of sales in the first place, is, in the public bid scenario, discounted. Not only does the uniqueness mean nothing but it is looked upon with disdain.

standing out in the crowd
©iStock.com / 3D_generator

How often does your firm take risks on unique products?

And so, that product which currently outshines all others—perhaps in performance, perhaps in composition, perhaps in aesthetics—must now wait until the plodding competition catches up to in order to be specified. The product must become commoditized in order to be specified on public work. So much for “the name of the game” in that scenario.

Pros and Cons

So, what is the good in this game?

The good of being unique is at least twofold: Potential market share stemming from offering something that no one else has, as well as potential high-end use (for essentially the same reason). The best delivery method for a unique product would be a proprietary, no-substitution specification. Another method would be to specify the unique product as an alternate bid to a commodity-type product and let price decide.

However, there are also several not-so-good points of being unique—the bad. 

Equivalents can’t be bid; it is what it is. Also, the more conservative practitioners might not want to be the guinea pig for an untried product. Another point is that the product may differ from the conventional/typical product used for the said purpose, but may not be able to cover as many different types of conditions and applications as the typical product can.

For the truly unique product, it could mean that it is patent protected so that that its uniqueness remains for a defined period. A design patent lifespan, for instance, is 14 years. A truly unique product could be a technology breakthrough, and usually in the construction industry that will eventually benefit everyone.  A truly unique product could be singular in appearance, such that you can always tell whether it is really that product or another, or it could be singular in performance and stand out from the crowd in that way—the unique.

How it Plays Out

In our office we have the good fortune, I feel, of having several designer architects who are not intimidated by the prospect of using a new and different product for the first time.  And with vetting and due diligence we have taken that step a few times. 

Using such a new product or material is not without concerns.

In one case, we found that the contractor’s lack of familiarity with the product became a major issue. We considered it a lesson learned: Be certain that if a certified installer is required that that mandate is honored. Emphasize it at a pre-bid meeting and again at a pre-construction conference so that all are aware; don’t wait until construction.

Also, learn if a minimum amount of material is required in case the contractor errs in his or her takeoff. Finally, define the product/material and its extent clearly on the drawings.

Clarity in your documents can help smooth the way for a good experience with a unique product.


Bob Bailey, AIA, CCS

A full-time specifier for more than 25 years, Bob Bailey, AIA, CCS, CSI, LEED AP, is Specifications and Constructability Specialist for IKM Inc. of Pittsburgh, PA. An award-winning specifications writer, Bob is the founder of the Pittsburgh Specifiers' Roundtable and immediate past president of CSI Pittsburgh. His professional passions: continuing education and internship development. Contact Bob.



Tagged categories: Aesthetics; Architects; Architecture; Color; Design; Research and development; Specification; Specification writing

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