The Architect Specification Journey: Understanding the Role of Building Product Manufacturers Today & Tomorrow
Illustration: Michael Kirkham

Have you ever wondered why certain materials are used in buildings and homes more than others? Or why you always seem to see a specific manufacturer’s brand of insulation, drywall, or exterior skin as you drive by a new development?

There’s a reason, of course. It’s called “specification.” Whoever the architect is on that particular project is the one who has specified that particular material. But how or why an architect chooses a certain brand of product has always been a bit of a mystery, not only to the world outside of architecture but within the profession itself.

Now a major American Institute of Architects study sheds some surprising light on the issue. According to this research, what materials get specified for a project depends primarily on one factor: who you know.

The value of known commodities

That’s one of the major takeaways from “The Architect Specification Journey: Understanding the Role of Building Product Manufacturers Today & Tomorrow,” conducted by B2B International, an international market research firm based in White Plains, N.Y., in conjunction with the AIA, and published in November.

Relationships count big-time when it comes to the particular materials used in new construction, the AIA study found. Architects rely primarily on the existing relationships they have established over the years with building product manufacturers (BPMs).

“The majority of architects across the board will already know most of the time who they will specify, without doing any further research,” says Nik Werk, manager of research for B2B. “That is huge news for BPMs. It speaks to the overall finding of this research, which is that it’s an extremely relationship-driven market. There are some materials suppliers who know exactly how to do it and how to work it because they have those relationships and are pressed for time, so they often prefer to go with something tried and tested instead of spending time looking for new materials and products.”

The AIA survey of 330 architect practitioners found that almost 60 percent of the time an architect already knows which materials manufacturer he or she is going to use. More than seven in 10 architects go with suppliers with whom they have an existing relationship.

“In other words, if you’re a new supplier or a supplier looking to gain market share, you’re going to have a really hard time getting in there with these specifiers,” Werk notes.

Why is that? After all, one might naturally assume that if a building material or technology truly represents an advance, architects will flock to it like so many early adopters flock to the latest iPhone. Not necessarily so. That’s because of, as the AIA/ B2B research points out, a salient but often misunderstood fact: Most architects are professionally conservative.

Architects of all shapes and sizes

The survey groups responders into three categories based on what the survey learned about the behavior and specification habits of architects as a group.

Forty-one percent are classified as “professionally conservative.” They work at a non-core firm (any firm whose primary business is not just architecture— an architecture department within an engineering firm, for example) and are likely to be in an older age group (over 55). They are both male and female but less likely to specify products that are new to the market. They are less likely to be involved in “green” or LEED projects and more likely to be based in the Northeast and Midwest Census regions of the United States.

Thirty-three percent of those surveyed are termed “dynamists.” They are significantly more male-dominated, younger, and more likely to work for a firm with an outspoken corporate culture.

Twenty-six percent of those surveyed are identified as “risk-takers.” They work in firms with significantly more women. They have a mixed age demographic and are more likely to work for a multidisciplinary firm. And they are at firms with an environmental, outspoken, and experimental culture. They’re also more likely to be based on the West Coast and work on up to four projects a year.

The more conservative-minded architects will likely never rely on environmental factors when specifying materials (preferring to rely on past experience). Architects who are greater risk-takers also value past experience, but they value environmental factors in a significantly higher way than their conservative counterparts. However, price matters deeply to all three groups.

Great product? Find the innovators

What, then, is a manufacturer of a great building material product—but no existing relationships—to do? One answer, according to Werk, is to focus on the dynamists and risk-takers who together make up almost 60 percent of architect professionals.

The 40 percent of professionally conservative architects are more preoccupied with getting a project done on time and do not want to risk missing deadlines—“the process-driven, streamlined section of the market,” as Werk puts it.

“The BPMs without the existing relationships should be targeting the risk-takers, and AIA findings allow those people to make those choices,” he says.

There are still more obstacles facing innovative but unknown products and manufacturers seeking to penetrate an architect’s consciousness. One is the very necessary (but sometimes considered boring) process that architects use to write specifications for projects. The survey found that only 26 percent write specs totally from scratch, while 57 percent copy and paste from previous specs. Because of time pressure, 16 percent reuse previous specs in their entirety.

The best advice Werk has for how to break into an architect’s specification field of vision? Be an important source of information.

“BPMs are the second most important resource for learning about products and materials—after architects themselves— however, their influence varies,” says Werk.

“Successful BPMs provide easy access to information, run good lunch-and-learns, and often help with spec writing. Others are passive, with cumbersome websites and poorly maintained product information.”The successful building product manufacturers are those who rank second in importance to the architect on any project, the survey shows. They often take part in writing the specs.

“If you take the architects, project managers, and designers, they make up three-quarters of everyone who’ll ever be involved in a project,” Werk says. “Architects are very open to the idea of BPMs being more of a partner, to providing trusted advice, and becoming more involved in the specification journey.”

The AIA does not sponsor or endorse any enterprise, whether public or private, operated for profit. Further, no AIA officer, director, committee member, or employee, or any of its component organizations in his or her official capacity, is permitted to approve, sponsor, endorse, or do anything that may be deemed or construed to be an approval, sponsorship, or endorsement of any material of construction or any method or manner of handling, using, distributing, or dealing in any material or product.