Building product selection can be a tedious process. Architects and designers usually start with an online search, either using a product aggregator like Sweets MasterFormat or Material District, or visiting individual manufacturers' websites. After identifying several options, they typically contact the manufacturers to learn more about the products and get samples, at which point product representatives help facilitate delivery and provide additional information. In total, the process from search-to-samples typically takes one to two weeks, not to mention the many hours spent navigating websites and placing orders with different contacts.
What if there were a central platform for product-searching, data-gathering, and sample-ordering that would make this process more efficient and enjoyable? What if this service could aggregate products made by hundreds of manufacturers across a broad spectrum of applications? What if the resource were free and provided rapid delivery of materials?
Welcome to Material Bank, which promises to establish a new paradigm in product selection and sampling. Founded and launched in 2019 by design media company Sandow, the service claims to be “the largest material marketplace in the architecture and design industry.” What distinguishes Material Bank from other services is its compelling one-stop-shopping experience. Designers select products from over 250 participating brands and can request next-day delivery of physical samples. Claiming to “turn hours of work into minutes,” Material Bank fills a custom-designed overnight box with selected materials that designers may keep indefinitely—or return via prepaid shipping. Too good to be true? I spoke with Adam Sandow, company founder and CEO, to find out.
Thoughtfully developed over many years before its launch, Material Bank aims to end the inefficiencies and frustrations inherent in product selection. As the owner of Interior Design magazine and other design media organizations, Sandow used his knowledge of the industry to shape the platform. “The more we talked to the industry, [the more we learned] there was a massive problem where there wasn’t a central place to do searches,” he told me. “More importantly, the process of getting samples was really slow, inefficient, and wasteful.”
Sandow also designed Material Bank to help manufacturers. Just as designers benefit from the ability to browse among many aggregated brands, manufacturers gain by having their products appear in general searches. Both parties also benefit from the ultra-fast shipping of samples. In a brilliant logistical maneuver, Sandow built Material Bank’s main distribution hub adjacent to FedEx’s shipping center in Memphis, Tenn. Fully automated with robotics, Material Bank's facility ensures that sample orders completed by midnight are delivered by 10:30 the next morning. Sandow shared that 40 percent of the company's orders occur after 5 pm—so this is no small feat. “We have set the standard now,” he told me.
As you may have guessed, participating manufacturers pay for the shipping. The economics are appealing to them, however, given the rapid growth in Material Bank’s membership—now over 40,000 customers—and the way the service can make their own businesses more efficient. For example, since Material Bank operates as a kind of pre-screening tool, product representatives now waste less time chasing uncertain leads and can concentrate on more likely orders. Material Bank also offers the customer analytics that manufacturers crave, allowing them to understand “every material requested by every designer” throughout the selection process, according to Sandow. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has delivered an unanticipated boost to the service: With product showrooms closed and in-person meetings canceled, designers have relied on Material Bank to get manufacturer samples quickly and safely. (The company treats every package with disinfectant spray before it is shipped.)
What about lesser-known products offered by smaller manufacturers? Sandow is keen on including a broad spectrum of offerings: “We’re constantly trying to find artisan brands, to create a really well-rounded platform." The company’s business model—it charges small manufacturers less money to join the service than giants like Steelcase and Interface—should help to ensure that high-quality products remain accessible. “Designers want to bring in the unexpected,” Sandow told me. “If you can build the platform correctly, you can succeed in doing both [types of products].” He offers the example of a Japanese company that makes groundbreaking textiles based on centuries of expertise in crafting monks’ robes—not your average textile supplier.
A key material consideration for architects is environmental sustainability. Material Bank allows users to filter products by specific criteria: recycled content, FSC certification, GreenGuard labeling, carbon-neutral shipping, and so on. I asked about LEED certification and Architecture 2030’s carbon smart materials palette, to which Sandow responded: “Yes, those standards will be easier to search in the coming months.” He also mentioned an forthcoming geolocation feature, enabling a designer to source only local materials for a project.
Will Material Bank fundamentally change the building product marketplace? The next five years will reveal much about the company’s ability to transform the practice of material selection in the profession. Sandow’s plans include expanding product categories, including more architectural products and fixtures, as well as expanding services for manufacturers. Memberships of university architectural programs, which might order samples for material technology and studio courses, will probably grow as well. Given the platform’s rapidly increasing popularity, Material Bank’s future success will likely rely on two primary factors: the ability to expand its offerings to be sufficiently broad (making it the Amazon of building product samples), and the ability to keep those overnight deliveries coming.