Something is not right about the manner in which the construction industry and bidding process works, specifically for natural stone. There is a lot of time and effort spent on the front end by architects, designers and owners in selecting products to achieve a certain look for their project. Then, when it comes time to get the job done, the age-old (and antiquated) bid process takes over. Ultimately, that job is awarded to an installer, and the whole design intent goes down the tubes. The “lowest bidder” becomes the stone expert, and in some instances they will offer substitutes or waste time to prove the product is not available -- and the original design goes out of the window. Owners, developers, architects and designers are all frustrated through the whole process, and have to battle to get what they want. Who does this bid process serve?

There is no process for the stone suppliers, and the current process in place borders on “unfair business practice,” in my opinion.

Specification of stone

Architects and designers spend weeks and months (sometimes years) in selecting natural stone for facades or paving for their projects. They look to stone suppliers or distributors to find material that would enhance the look and embody the design intent of their project. Sometimes, the owners or developers are involved in the process and have very specific requirements. There is often an elaborate process of material and color selection, sampling, mock-ups and even expensive testing of material to establish suitability of the stone.

None of this is paid for either by the owners or architects, and the only “promise” to the supplier is the hope of being able to supply the material for the project. The problem with this is, that the supplier never really gets to bid the job. The supplier, having been involved in the process of material selection, will provide price and information to the installer, who in turn bids the job and will be awarded the contract.

Due to the nature of the stone business and the industry structure, specification of stone is mostly “generic,” with the name of the material either being the generic name (White Carrara marble or Absolute Black granite), or a contrived name to conceal the actual name or material. Unlike many branded products, there are no specific brand names in the stone business. This makes specification more difficult.

Knowledge and information

In order to get the right material for a project, there is a very tedious process of selecting a material that will meet the structural requirements as well as provide the proper strength and durability. There are also the issues dealing with value engineering and installation methods that will allow the use of stone. Where does all of this information come from? Who provides the architects the information and technical specifications to ensure proper material selection?

Most architects depend on a knowledgeable source to provide them with information, samples and specifications. These distributors will work tediously to get them samples - some times at short notice and at times at great cost - so the “right” product can be specified on the project.

Then the project goes to bid, and the general contractor will look for a stone or tile installer who can give an “installed price for the specified material.” At this stage, everyone wants to get samples and prices from the specified source or supplier. It is an information gathering process, and the samples and prices given by the specified supplier are often ultimately used against them.

Ironically, as in some government projects, the subcontractors are listed, but not the stone supplier. So often with little or no effort (or investment), the installer is now in the driver's seat. They have the job; they have a price and sample from the specified source; and they now buy this from anyone in any location. In essence, the installer now becomes a stone supplier.

In many cases, the installer or subcontractor will not care if the material comes from the specified source. The specified material is now in effect a commodity item. In my experience, I have seen installers that will come to me after they are awarded the job to get samples and prices for what they need. They even ask for the material at a “price they used” to bid the project. When asked how they arrived at that figure, these installers will say that they had to use that number to get the job, or that they received a price from a stone supplier who may have priced low, knowing that was the only way for them to supply the project.

In some cases, an installer may try and give a lower grade material as a substitute for what he has bid. One argument made in this case is that since stone is a natural product, it is logical to expect the variation that they have presented. But often, price is the bottom line as opposed to quality. Some brokers and agents also deal strictly on the basis of cost, with a primary objective of getting a 1 to 5% commission and bringing business to their principals.

Due to the irregularities of the bid process, owners, architects and designers may simply end up with the materials the general contractor or installer want to offer, or can supply at the “low” price that was used to bid the job. In some instances, this may mean the client is forced to compromise on quality or color; in other instances, this has led to change of materials; and in several instances, it becomes a process of selecting stones all over again.

The process effectively opens the doors for “anyone” to supply stone. There is nothing that makes it necessary to buy from the source, or the specified supplier.

Protecting the specifications

A significant responsibility on ensuring quality and reliability lies on the architect and designer. At the time they start to select materials, they rely on a source for product and information, based on past experience and reputation of the supplier. It is very important that they establish some norms for the specification and buying process:

One option is pre-qualification of the stone supplier. The architect or designer should require that suppliers be pre-qualified by them and the installer must use only a pre-qualified supplier. Pre-qualification should be based on the quality, color range and availability of the material they presented for use on the project; the ability of the supplier to supply the material in a timely manner; and their past history and track record in working on projects of the same size and magnitude. This will eliminate the risk of getting low prices from brokers or agents who have no involvement in the project.

A second option is for the owner or the general contractor to buy directly from the source suppliers, rather than rely on the installer. In some large projects, the owners or general contractors get involved in the material selection process, and they will go to the quarry or factory and buy the material directly from the source. This has largely been a successful practice, and this is also something that can be done for smaller projects.