University of Texas School of Architecture Co-Op Materials Lab

The proliferation of product information online is forcing architecture firms to be judicious about which samples and catalogs to keep on the shelves and which to store digitally, while managing the differing information needs among designers and teams. Here, in-house resource librarians and external consultants share advice on keeping your office up to date with the latest architectural materials.

Create a Functional Footprint
Despite the availability of information online, firm libraries still house physical samples—but shelf space is limited. “Vendors know that if they’re bringing in five new carpet binders, they’re picking up five old ones,” says Jacque Suozzi, materials coordinator at HOK’s New York office. For multidisciplinary practices, such as Dallas-based HKS, the confluence of storage needs can pose a challenge. How does a single resource library service multiple in-house studios covering diverse market sectors? “The answer could be that you don’t,” says HKS sustainable materials specialist Nancy Hulsey.

Even if space is ample, making it work for everyone requires planning. When HOK doubled the size of its New York office library to 1,800 square feet to meet the needs of newly merged hospitality group BBG-BBGM, the firm organized the space to reflect how each market specifies products, sorting hospitality materials by color and corporate and healthcare items by performance and CSI MasterFormat.

Minimize Clutter
The diversity of sample types requires a host of storage solutions. At HOK, these include heavy-duty drawers for glass and stone; bins, flat file drawers, and pegs for fabrics and carpets; a mobile shelving unit; and a tray system to store project materials when they’re not in use.

Peter Carey, founder of Streamline Material Resourcing, which manages project and product information for design firms in New York, uses shallow drawers to hold textiles, carpets, and other 2D materials that users can thumb through as they would albums in a record store. And at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture’s Materials Lab, which houses more than 27,000 samples, the clear stackable and dividable Lewis-brand bins used to store materials get regular inquiries from firms looking for better ways to organize their own samples, says lab director and curator Jennifer Wong.

Cleaning house of outdated materials is critical. As an alternative to the wastebasket or to sending reps home with old catalogs and samples, nonprofits like Scrap, in San Francisco, will accept the items as donations and distribute them to design schools.

Rethink the Librarian’s Role
With product information at designers’ fingertips online, firms and resource librarians must focus on the big picture. “It’s less about curating what’s in the library than managing relationships and opportunities to see new product,” Hulsey says. In addition to scouring for product specs, librarians arrange vendor meetings to introduce designers to new products, and they can research and recommend materials that might have been overlooked for project use.

Maintaining a current database of local reps is another increasingly important part of the job, says Michelle Howard, a consultant with Librarians by Design, in Albany, Calif., who works with several firms in San Francisco, including Perkins Eastman and ASD|Sky. She uses Designer Pages Pro’s vendor directory to track rep turnover.

Firms without a full-time librarian can manage their materials with the help of consultants, like Carey and Howard, who have access to a range of products and their makers. “Instead of trying to figure out who to call at, say, 10 firms, the reps contact me,” Howard says. She’s confident that resource libraries will never completely disappear. Designers will always need to touch and feel their materials, she says, and “websites just aren’t going to do it for them.”