Long before it was a trendy and hip thing to do, architect John Senhauser, FAIA, speced professional ranges and commercial glass-door refrigerators in his residential projects. Nowadays, of course, commercial-style appliances are no longer exotic fare--they're a standard dish. Nontraditional products and materials continue to be a rich vein, and more architects are experimenting with imaginative applications. All it takes is a little thinking outside the residential box. "What we are really trying to question is the suitability of forms, materials, and habits," says Senhauser, principal of John Senhauser Architects in Cincinnati. "When you lay everyday habits open to scrutiny, you begin to see new models and different possibilities."

commercial appeal

Almost any product is a candidate for this type of scrutiny. Recently, Senhauser speced a freight elevator and a 6-foot vertical-pivot entry door, but he uses other, less intense products, too. Some of his regulars are industrial fixtures from Christiansburg, Va. based Hubbell Lighting, perforated industrial metal panels, and store-front glazing. These products, he says, have a certain honesty and appeal. In an effort to go beyond the conventional, Kenneth Miller is ever on the lookout for a clever spec. "We don't want to do what everybody else does," says the principal of Kenneth Miller Architects in Jupiter, Fla. The architect's own home provided a perfect laboratory for new applications. For his combination living room/dining room, Miller designed a clerestory using a translucent industrial material fastened on both sides of a truss. Manufactured by Janesville, Wis. based Polygal USA, the panels are lightweight and energy-efficient glazing sheets. The material is both harder and cheaper than glass. He also speced unfinished guatambu paneling from Home Depot for kitchen cabinets, greenhouse corrugated plastic sheets for shower panels, store-front glazing for the entry door's side lights, and Lexan plastic sheets above room dividers. Instead of standard rectangular air-conditioning supply registers, he opted for round commercial versions by Pasadena, Calif. based Seiho International. And, last but not least, he installed landscape lighting fixtures in the wet areas of the house.

Even standard residential building products gain pizzazz when taken out of context. For instance, architect Bruce Norelius, of Elliott & Elliott in Blue Hill, Maine, clad one side of a house in Galvalume metal roofing. Architect Matthew Schoenherr, AIA, of Z:Architecture in Westport, Conn., went even further by bringing corrugated metal roofing inside, as wall paneling. And architect Scott A. Lindenau, of Studio B Architects in Aspen, Colo., has speced fiber-cement siding for interior walls and ceilings. He's also made walls out of corrugated Plexiglas, raw or sealed MDF plywood, Lumasite resin-fiberglass material, and Homasote sound insulation (on wall surfaces). Like Norelius, Jon Anderson, AIA, clads exteriors in metal roofing, but instead of using the more popular Galvalume, he prefers galvanized corrugated steel for the gray patina it develops over time. "Galvalume probably is a better spec for longevity," says the principal of Jon Anderson Architects in Albuquerque, N.M., "but the finish stays a bright silver-white color forever." Anderson's other favorite specs from the commercial world are industrial paints, store-front framing systems and doors by Norcross, Ga. based Kawneer, and the Vaportite industrial light fixture from Hubbell. This rugged light, which consists of a glass bulb covered with a cast-aluminum cage, is manufactured for use in harsh and hazardous environments, but Anderson uses it on exterior walls and ceilings. Topping off his list are exposed concrete floors and commercial, unglazed porcelain tiles. Before you explore these offbeat products, however, ask yourself a few questions: Will their cost affect the budget? Will they hold up when taken out of their conventional context? And, most important, will your clients appreciate the aesthetic these products create?

cost concerns

If you think industrial or unconventional specs will save money on the project, you may be in for a few surprises. Senhauser's custom vertical-pivot door from Maplewood, N.J. based Megawood Industries is a top-dollar item at about $7,000; on the other hand, the perforated grating he likes to use from Tampa, Fla. based McNichols costs only $40 for a 3-by-6-foot sheet. Even if your spec is super cheap, though, beware of hidden costs, such as custom fabrication. If price really is an object, go with stock sizes and patterns, and big-box suppliers like Home Depot. Most architects agree that careful specing of commercial products can help trim the fat off a corpulent budget. Anderson says Hubbell's Vaportite fixture costs about $18 to $30, versus about $250 for similar styles from high-end manufacturers. Designing poured and stained concrete floors saves a bundle over wood, and he buys his galvanized corrugated steel panels for 75 cents a square foot from Houston-based MBCI. Miller pinched enough pennies with his own house to afford some splurges. The Polygal sheets cost $1.90 to $2.60 per square foot; guatambu 4-foot-by- 8-foot panels sell for about $11 apiece; Lexan polycarbonate panels were $4.50 per square foot; and the greenhouse corrugated plastic cost $24 for a 26-inch-by-12-foot sheet. The budget buster? Those Seiho round registers, which tipped the scale at $150 each.

tough enough, pretty enough?

Anderson says these unconventional products first caught his interest because of their low cost and nifty aesthetics, but it's their toughness that keeps him coming back. "Commercial and industrial products are stronger than those destined for residential," he explains. "That's true of the unglazed porcelain and true of the fixtures." Kawneer doors, he adds, are designed around a frequency-of-use 1,000 times greater than that of most residential applications. It's up to you to make sure the approach is right and the material is suitable for the purpose. So do your homework. It's important to know the characteristics and the potential of the nontraditional application you wish to spec. Ask the advice of people who know how the material will react under the conditions it's likely to encounter--talk to commercial architects, builders, and the manufacturers' product managers. And don't forget to check whether the application meets building-code requirements. Remember, as well, that unless it's the driving aesthetic of the design, a little industrial goes a long way in residential. That's especially true of unrefined products. Ultimately, you and your client will determine if the product is appropriate and the price is right. And if you make your case well, your client may be more receptive than you had ever imagined. Says Miller, "If you are creative and find unique uses for materials that might be very ordinary, your choices will be celebrated."