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Changes are about communication. As much as possible, you should have solid reasons for the decisions that were made relative to the design and specification. When a change is requested, I see it as our responsibility to discuss the pros and cons of the request. If an owner makes a decision contrary to your advice, it is their prerogative to do so. The only thing that you can do is to document the decision process and to do your best to obtain a written release acknowledging that there are specific hazards associated with the Owner's decision. Most often I find that the Owner and/or Contractor are not willing to make a decision that places more liability on themselves. At the point of signing the release, they opt to proceed per spec.
Daniel L Edgell AIA, NCARB
1162 Rolling Oaks Ave
Tarpon Springs, FL 34689
727 308 1773
There are two different issues here.
Regarding "design changes," one would expect that you already have successfully executed the Client's original design objectives, and that you have developed an understanding with your client about how you respond to requests for design changes. The first thing to do is establish that responding to the Client's request is an additional service. Next, you might respond with an objective evaluation of the pros and cons, accompanied by your summary recommendation as the project architect. Be sure to remind the client of the design objectives that you received originally on the specific issue, so that they understand their responsibility. In the end, the Client has to provide you with written direction. Hence, if the Client's direction goes against your recommendation, you have it documented.
Regarding "different products," this should be treated as a Substitution Request, and you should be compensated for reviewing and responding. If you use an AIA contract, you have provisions for this. We see more and more practice by GCs, disguising substitutions as RFIs-Beware! Return them not-reviewed and request a Substitution Request per the terms of your contract. This requires that you understand the Owner-Contractor Agreement in addition to your own.