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Architecture and Design: Materials and Specifications 101


In this edition of our series on understanding the role of an architect, we take a look at what is included in specifying materials. If you missed the past few articles, be sure to start with the first installment to get the best understanding of the whole design process. This article series aims to explain all the steps of the design process in order to understand how architects add value to projects.

Materials and Specifications – The Basics

For clients, one of the often overlooked and misunderstood steps in the design process is materials and specifications. This step in design gives the appearance of simplicity, when in actuality it is one of the most complex and research intensive portions of the project. Next to choosing the right designer and the right contractor, materials and specifications is one of the most important aspects of ensuring a project’s success. The main premise of this phase of design is that all materials that will be used in the project are included in the set of documents given to a contractor – spelled out to include everything from size, color and the manufacturer’s name and product numbers. This list of materials – known as specifications – is important for two reasons: quality and cost. First, it is used to tell the contractor what level of quality is expected throughout the project. A contractor can quickly see that a project is high end by noticing top-notch manufacturer names in the list. Second, in the same way it sets the bar for quality, it also points to the intended project cost by listing actual products, appliances and fixtures to be installed. Contractors use the specifications to determine the price of the project and establish their bid for the work. Those who select products must be knowledgeable of the current technologies, building methods and available products to be effective in their role.

Materials and Specifications – Digging Deeper

At face value, materials and specifications seems simple: choose a product, list the critical components for the contractor to locate and purchase it and call it a day. Unfortunately, this misconception can lead to tension in a project if the client does not expect their designer or architect to spend an appropriate amount of time researching the products that end up on the specifications list. As an example, the appliances that go into a new home must be properly evaluated and vetted. If the client wants a water heater, the process for selection would involve researching and locating multiple water heater manufacturers or suppliers, reviewing the capabilities of the water heater, meeting with local sales representatives to see the item in person (if necessary), and finally deciding on a particular model that meets the client’s needs and budget.

Locating manufacturers is much easier with online research and most architectural and design offices stock product literature from all types of product suppliers. However, if the project requires an unusual material, it can often take much more time to locate an appropriate product supplier. Manufacturers and suppliers are often evaluated for their commitment to the environment, their solvency, and their customer service; no one wants to contribute to harming the environment and when problems occur, it is good to know their sales team will be there to answer questions or solve problems. After manufacturers have been identified, individual products are assessed according to a set of criteria (usually established during previous phases of design). Qualifications such as durability, cost, environmental impact, aesthetics and warranty are considered. The manufacturer’s reputation or customer service may sway the choice when two products are seemingly alike, or an in depth look at the product in person may act as tie-breaker. Samples of products are usually ordered throughout the design development stage for initial selection by the client, but some materials that are not ‘client facing’ may come up at a later stage. Many seasoned architects and designers will have a number of ‘go-to’ materials that they prefer to use on a large number of projects. This can be great for speeding up the process, but care should be given to ensure that each project is treated as an individual design response to a given problem. A potential issue with repeating specifications on multiple projects is that some materials or equipment may be discontinued. For this reason, specifications often begin during the design development stage and are added to as the client makes selections and as the project progresses. Starting specifications early allows time for finding alternates or weighing choices more carefully when required.

By now, it should be apparent that it is important for the person selecting the materials to have a broad understanding of what they are specifying. In addition to understanding individual products or materials, the specifier needs to understand the implications of how each material reacts with other materials and how they are joined together to ensure structural integrity, connections that won’t leak and excellent indoor air quality. No material can be considered independently of the those it comes in contact with. Finally, a specifier will have a knowledge of the sequencing of construction to ensure that the materials they select have appropriate lead times to arrive at the job site in proper sequence. Selecting materials that have long lead times, either due to manufacturing or shipping slow downs, can cause the entire project timeline to break down and result in costly delays.

The intricacies of selecting the appropriate materials for a construction project are best left to the capable hands of a designer or architect with experience in specifications. One can quickly see the benefit of allowing appropriate time for product evaluation, as it will ensure a successful project both during construction and well after occupancy.

Next month we will take a look at the bidding process and how it affects a design project. Always remember to ask lots of questions when working with a design professional. No question is out of bounds when your goal is success.

Brinn Miracle is an architectural intern, journalist and residential designer. She writes about architecture and design topics at her blog,

November 27, 2012


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    May 3, 2013 at 4:49 am #

    Heya superb website! Does running a blog similar to this
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    • Brinn Miracle
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      Blogs can take as much or as little time as you want to commit. You can use free services that are basic in style and function, or you can do custom coded sites. Regular backups and maintenance can be scheduled through plugins and other tools, but a base knowledge is helpful. Look into the free services offered by WordPress, Blogger and similar sites to see which one is right for you.

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    July 31, 2013 at 1:41 pm #

    Good post. I will be facing a few of these issues
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