The office of Richard Lew, a specification writer at SLCE Architects in New York City, is strewn with well-thumbed catalogs, brochures, and thick binder notebooks about building materials. Every inch of space is covered with telephone book–sized publications containing detailed information on everything from fire-retardant walls to acoustical panels and ceiling tiles. Now, Lew is trying out a new way to do his job: an online internet portal for design documentation called USG Design Studio, launched last year by the Chicago-based gypsum wallboard and drywall manufacturer. “I was schooled on catalogs, but this is a more useful tool, and it can save time,” Lew says about Design Studio.
The USG Design Studio is the latest and possibly most sophisticated example of a web-based trend that promises to transform the spec-writing process. For the moment, Lew is keeping his catalogs for back-up reference, which is important when internet service is out, as well as for the phone numbers of sales reps from building material companies. But like many designers, architects, and specifiers, he is slowly integrating online information into his work.
Design Studio, which is available free of charge at usgdesignstudio.com, works with existing design tools, such as CAD and BIM software, including Autodesk Revit. Users can find and import both 2-D details and 3-D product models into their projects and designs. And it was designed to be easy to navigate. Need a wall assembly? Plug in details about what is required—from the fire test number to sound transmission class and materials—and the software does the rest. The list of products that meet the designated criteria can be further refined by filtering for more specific needs. What's more, in a surprising move, USG lists not only its own products but those of competitors, offering a broad overview of potential suppliers. Then this information—or the 3-D file, if it's a USG product—can be imported directly into the architect's design.
Any technology that is aimed at easing the specification process is welcome, according to Markku Allison, resource architect at the AIA. “One of the most onerous tasks is digging through listings and books to figure out which product is usable,” Allison explains. “This simplifies the selection process to meet code requirements and allows you to drill down to a detailed level.” Sites like Design Studio also fit into the growing trend of embracing more advanced design-and-collaboration technology in daily practice. “We see more and more member firms going in that direction,” Allison says.
In general, Allison believes the impact of architectural high technology has been a richer collaboration between project stakeholders, including architects, clients, and contractors. “They can see more, understand more, and be more accurate and efficient,” Allison says, noting that an architect can now enter information once instead of five times and have many people share the outcome. “The use of this technology enhances project predictability and a better project outcome.”
In many ways, USG's Design Studio portal is an extension of the work carried out by the company's team of 43 architectural service reps. Over the years, their job has been to call on architects who are in the process of designing, say, walls and ceilings. Because architects typically rely on in-person meetings with sales reps, who are basically free consultants on trends and practices, to obtain specific product information, the timing of a visit is crucial. “You don't want to be a day early or a day late,” says Robert Grupe, director of architectural and technical solutions at USG. “Reps would go in and say, ‘I know you are working on this. I may have a product for you.' It was a way of keeping USG products in the front of their minds.” The web, however, enabled a transformation of that process because all the information and product specs can be available online, along with installation tips. “Instead of legwork, [Design Studio] can tell you which products fit the criteria, all at your fingertips,” Grupe says.
That doesn't mean the reps are out of work, replaced by a fast-working software tool, or that architects have nowhere to turn when an issue arises. After all, you still need reps to actually buy the materials. And the traditional role of the reps, to provide solutions and information about what products work best and how to install them, has not been replaced. “The conversation between architects and reps is still going on,” Grupe says. The only difference is that reps now tell the architect to go to Design Studio first and see what it says, instead of the architectural reference library. For example, Lew at SLCE is often in touch with the USG rep for a simple reason: Computers can't answer all questions. “You sometimes need to deal with a rep for more information,” Lew says.
Displaying information about competing products is always a difficult marketing decision for any company. At USG, it required a “pretty significant cultural shift,” says Steve Martinez, architectural services' Design Studio manager. In the end, however, USG opted for displaying rival products, adopting the so-called auto insurance approach, which provides consumers with comparative figures to best show off one's own products. That, Martinez says, “is the best method to give architects what they are asking for. This lets them make an educated decision.” What do USG's competitors think of the free advertising and product plugs? So far, Martinez jokes, “we haven't gotten any thank you cards.”
More Downloads Need something other than drywall? Many manufacturers and associations are making files of their products available online. Here are a few options …
visalighting.com: Visa Lighting's entire product line in Revit format, complete with electrical load data and lumens to really brighten up a BIM model.
woodworkinstitute.com: Models of the Woodwork Institute's casework standards, in Revit, DWG, and DXF formats.
hermanmiller.com: Herman Miller's collection as 3-D models using Autodesk's i-Drop or as downloads in 3-D Studio Max or DWG formats.
kohler.com: Kohler's 2-D and 3-D catalog of fixtures as DWG and DXF files.
turbosquid.com: Digital artists sell their 3-D models complete with textures through Turbo Squid, which hosts over 200,000 files for 3-D Studio Max, Maya, and FormZ.