Spec Busting

What it is and Why It Should be Avoided at All Costs

“Spec busting” or “breaking specs” can be fatal. Not only to the businesses that are caught indulging in this risky race-to-the-bottom practice but also for the occupants of the buildings where it occurs. Spec busting is the unscrupulous practice of substituting inferior products to save time, money, or both. In the hollow metal door sector, this is especially risky where fire resistance ratings, building security, and safe access and egress factors are involved with each door specification. The consequences can easily wipe out any short-term profits when cutting corners on safety or quality.

A Spec Breaking Wake-up Call

The 2017 Grenfell Tower fire tragedy in the UK was a poignant reminder about the lethal hazards of spec busting in the construction industry. When a fire broke out in the 24-story apartment building, it caused 72 deaths and 70 injuries, and “the common practice” of breaking specs was to blame, according to an informative report at the East Anglian Daily Times. 

Spec busting in the Grenfell Tower tragedy resulted in the installation of inferior apartment doors which failed to limit the spread of fire from individual units to the rest of the building for at least 30 minutes as specified by the architects. Somewhere along the supply chain from manufacturing to testing/certification to contractor installation, the 30-minute fire resistance specification was broken. A follow-up investigation and report concluded that:

“Indifference and ignorance led to a “race to the bottom” in building safety practices, with cost prioritized over safety.”

We’ve seen how spec-busting can take a human toll in a worst-case scenario like the Grenfell Tower tragedy, but the dubious practice can also have severe consequences for building owners, distributors, and contractors. 

Here’s a more common spec-busting scenario, based on a true story from an SDI Certified Manufacturer.

Pay Now or Pay More Later: Why Spec Busting is Risky Business

Spec busting occurs because the temptations are out there. In the construction industry, distributors need to deliver on time and make a profit. Contractors need to hit benchmarks and if “on time and on-budget” is good then “on time and under-budget” is even better. Until the consequences of spec-busting make themselves apparent, that is. 

In one recent case, it took only 6 months for spec-busting to raise its ugly head on a 60-door project. The specifier placed an order with the SDI certified manufacturer for sixty A40 galvannealed doors. These zinc-coated doors are often specified for the “paint lock” characteristic that gives them superior paint adhesion for excellent second-layer protection against rust and corrosion.

So imagine the manufacturer’s surprise when the building owner calls 6 months later saying, “Remember those 60 doors you made? Some of them are already starting to rust. We have a major problem!” The concerned manufacturer flew to the site for an inspection only to discover that the installed doors were not theirs. The spec-buster was busted.

In this case, an unscrupulous distributor was the culprit and they were quickly called to task by the manufacturer to make things right with the building owner. In order to increase the profit margin, the distributor delivered non-primed, cold-rolled doors.  In addition to the financial issues this caused, their reputation has also taken a huge hit.

Replacing 60 doors is not cheap.

Tally up the total costs of the discarded cold-rolled doors, the doubled installation costs for replacement with the authentic specified doors, and possibly lawyers, and the “profit” gained by the spec-busting shortcut clearly makes it a bad bet for any business.

Nevertheless, spec busting still occurs and steel door specifiers, owners, distributors, and contractors all need to be vigilant throughout the entire supply chain from manufacturer to distributor to contractor.

Examples of Spec Breaking with Commercial Steel Doors

Substituting an approved equal does not constitute spec busting. Breaking specs occurs when quality is sacrificed to save on cost and/or lead time. It most frequently occurs at the distributor level, but unscrupulous manufacturers and contractors may also be involved. 

Here are some common examples of breaking specifications in the hollow metal door sector.

  • Performance Levels – This spec is busted when Level 1 steel doors are substituted after Level 2 doors have been specified in accordance with ANSI/SDI  A250.8. Level 1 doors are 20 gauge and tested to 250k cycles, as opposed to Level 2 doors at 18 gauge / 500k cycles. The Level 1 doors have only been tested for half of the longevity that was specified.

  • Cold-Rolled Steel Substituted for A40 Galvannealed Doors – As we’ve seen above, this spec buster can reveal itself in a few short months after exposure to the elements. A40 galvannealed doors provide superior weather resistance by providing an extra layer of protection against rust and corrosion. Lacking that critical zinc coating, cold-rolled steel doors are vulnerable to rusting when raw steel is exposed.

  • Temperature Rise Doors –  Temperature rise doors prevent the door from hitting 250°F, 450°F, or 650°F for at least 30 minutes when exposed to fire. When non-temperature rise steel doors are substituted, people evacuating a fire may be scalded by piping hot steel doors that inhibit their ability to escape.

SDI Certification for Protection Against Spec Busting

Specifying SDI Certified is one way to help protect against spec busting. 

Non-SDI Certified manufacturers often claim to meet SDI’s standards – and they very well may – but how can their claims be validated? Were they validated to SDI standards recently? Or was it 10 years ago?  

SDI Certified manufacturers undergo an annual audit to ensure they meet our manufacturing, performance and quality standards. Design professionals can be sure that the manufacturers of all specified steel doors and frames will meet the highest standards of the industry simply by specifying and enforcing SDI Certified. 

You can get more tips for steel door specifications and frames at our Specification Resources page.