1.Transition from catalogs to samples.

“With the product library, everything used to come in big binders,” says Chris Macneal, who manages the library at KieranTimberlake Associates in Philadephia. “Now, it's increasingly found online. Binders can be helpful, but the manufacturers are making their websites quite useful. Each year they get better. In terms of physical collections at the office, we're seeing the biggest growth in material samples.”

Bill Van Erp, who has managed Gensler's library at the firm's San Francisco headquarters for 25 years, agrees. “Catalogs used to have all the power, and we'd do all of our research in print magazines and newspapers. Now, catalogs are out, and it's all about the samples.”

Chris Macneal manages the product library at KieranTimberlake in Philadelphia. "In a sense, the logic is based on a shopping model, where we want to provide both storage and display," he says. Bill Van Erp, who runs the product library at Gensler's San Francisco office, agrees: "In some ways, I feel like I'm running the frozen foods section at the grocery store."

Chris Macneal manages the product library at KieranTimberlake in Philadelphia. "In a sense, the logic is based on a shopping model, where we want to provide both storage and display," he says. Bill Van Erp, who runs the product library at Gensler's San Francisco office, agrees: "In some ways, I feel like I'm running the frozen foods section at the grocery store."

Credit: Matt Greenslade

2.Define your needs.

So how does one store a growing collection of samples? Naturally, some firms have resources to support large, full-service libraries. Gensler, for instance, has eight full-time librarians in its company. “Arthur [Gensler] has always been very supportive of the libraries, so we have thousands upon thousands of samples,” says Van Erp, who has a master's degree in library science. For firms who may not have the resources of the world's largest architecture office, he suggests streamlining to fit the design's focus. “Many firms have a certain vocabulary, which should eliminate a lot of products. Regional practices will obviously only use certain, local products.”

3.Keep it simple.

Macneal manages the library at KieranTimberlake, but, like most librarians at small- and medium-sized firms, he spends only a fraction of his time with the library itself. (As an associate architect, he also does technical review on design projects.) “Everyone is involved with different projects, so we need a system that is as simple to maintain as possible. We're starting to put barcodes on samples. This will bring up information, like who made it, where it comes from, its properties, and contact information.” But, Macneal cautions, “We want to keep any labels to a minimum, so they don't get in the way of the material itself.”

4.Prepare to Excel.

Maintaining a successful library is not for the organizationally faint of heart, and it usually takes someone who relishes the idea of opening a spreadsheet. Naree Phinyawatana, who developed an interest in materials while she was pursuing her doctorate at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, initiated a library project when she arrived in 2006 at Atelier Ten in New York. “I've made a spreadsheet with properties and contact information and information about sustainability. We keep track of recycled content and where things are sourced. I have also included LEED points, which helps a lot during the LEED certification process.” Another useful tool, according to Macneal, is CES Selector software (grantadesign.com), which helps compare products.

Actual samples are replacing catalogs in product libraries as manufacturers put more product information online. At KierenTimberlake, Chris Macneal looks at new materials being used in other industries. "There's a lot of development with fibers, fabrics, and nanotechnology in the apparel industry, which has interesting promise in expanding the functional repertoire of materials in architecture."

Actual samples are replacing catalogs in product libraries as manufacturers put more product information online. At KierenTimberlake, Chris Macneal looks at new materials being used in other industries. "There's a lot of development with fibers, fabrics, and nanotechnology in the apparel industry, which has interesting promise in expanding the functional repertoire of materials in architecture."

Credit: Matt Greenslade

5.Green starts here.

Libraries support sustainability. For Van Erp, it comes down to a simple concept: “Keep the library free of the nasty stuff.” At KieranTimberlake, Macneal says, “There are different ways of looking at materials and products, such as embodied energy and carbon footprints,” he explains. “It's important to remember how the products are made, how they're used, and what becomes of them in their afterlife. For architectural firms,” he says, “it comes down to setting some relative values and allowing that to guide the way we evaluate and choose materials.”

6.Stay current.

Without a steady flow of new samples, libraries grow stagnant. Macneal recommends subscribing to the online materials database at Material Connexion (materialconnexion.com). He also watches innovations in other fields: “The automotive industry is doing a lot of work with composite materials. So as building moves away from heavier metal-based construction, these can be quite useful.”

At Atelier Ten, Phinyawatana pays close attention to sustainable products. “We have about 1,200 products in our database and over 100 samples in the office, including tiles made with compressed recycled paper and recycled denim insulation.” For new products, “one of the best resources is feedback from construction managers and suggestions from the manufacturers themselves,” she says.

7.Manufacturers are your friends.

“We have to be involved with the producers of materials and products,” says Macneal, pointing out that “by doing this, we can look at the design issue, define certain parameters, and then work with the producers and their material scientists in a productive, collaborative way.” Gensler's Van Erp agrees that manufacturers can be allies. “These people have been around a lot, and they know their stuff. At Gensler, we maintain a big database to keep track of who's who at these other companies. Make sure you keep track of personal contacts at the manufacturers. You wind up getting much better attention that way.”

  • Products from KieranTimberlake's library pictured: terra cotta rainscreen components by Argeton.

    Credit: Matt Greenslade

    Products from KieranTimberlake's library pictured: terra cotta rainscreen components by Argeton.

  • Product from KieranTimberlake's library pictured: wood decking and flooring samples.

    Credit: Matt Greenslade

    Product from KieranTimberlake's library pictured: wood decking and flooring samples.

  • Product from KieranTimberlake's library pictured: copper and zinc shingles and other formed sheet-metal components.

    Credit: Matt Greenslade

    Product from KieranTimberlake's library pictured: copper and zinc shingles and other formed sheet-metal components.

  • Products from KieranTimberlake's library pictured: carpet samples by Bentley, Interface, and Mohawk.

    Credit: Matt Greenslade

    Products from KieranTimberlake's library pictured: carpet samples by Bentley, Interface, and Mohawk.