Working together: architects and manufacturers

David Bain of NBS unpicks the specifier-manufacturer relationship and how it will need to adapt to the challenges - and technologies - of the future

Specification writing is often rushed, with much of it being done in RIBA Plan of Work Stage 4 (Technical Design), before the project goes out to tender. We hear of specifications being done in the last week or finished on the Friday night before the deadline. In our What Specifiers Want 2017 report, 59 per cent of respondents told us they often rush the specification writing process. Resourcing is further pressured by a shortage of expertise: over half agreed that not enough people in their practice know how to write specifications. It is very rarely taught at university - people tend to learn specification writing on the job. This means that it’s often the more experienced, senior architects that know how to write specs.

However, many architects recognise the benefits of starting specifications early and some do: 40 per cent told us they write or modify specifications as the design concept is coming together in Stage 2. A few even start work on specifications in Stages 0 and 1, perhaps as part of the briefing process.

As the design and specification develops, architects will be thinking about the components that will help them realise design intent. Indeed, our report shows that more architects consider products at early stages than write specifications. So, 35 per cent consider or select products at the briefing stage (Stage 1) and 64 per cent at concept design (Stage 2).

Often there are components that will be very significant in realising design intent. We have heard examples from both architects and manufacturers where the facade was a critical element of the design. In one case the colour had to match the brand of the client organisation. In these cases, it was important to the architect that the manufacturer was involved very early on - to sit down and discuss how best to meet the brief.

What do architects want from manufacturers?

Architects tend to be visual people, so they will be drawn in by attractive websites that display the product clearly and in situ. This will help to inspire them to find out more. They will then want quick access to structured technical data - specifications, BIM objects, product data sheets. This needs to be just a few clicks away from the home page. It is important to get these basics right or architects may just go somewhere else.

They will want to spend a bit of time online, doing their research, but once they start getting into the detail they will often want to speak in person. We live in a digital age but there is still much value associated with talking to a technical expert or meeting them in person. In recent discussions that we have had with specifiers, they told us how much they value building a relationship with manufacturers and how some see a collaborative future, with manufacturers contributing directly to the spec, providing models and helping to develop the design itself. Some of this happens now and manufacturers, particularly of complex products and systems, are valued for their knowledge and expertise. Our What Specifiers Want 2017 report shows that 80 per cent of respondents agreed that better communication is needed between consultants, contractors and manufacturers and 70 per cent agree that the process works best when manufacturers are involved at an early stage. Sixty-nine per cent already relied on manufacturers for help and support.

We hear the importance of the specifier-manufacturer relationship echoed in our research and conversations with construction professionals. Organisations with similar or complementary cultures work well together. People still work with people. For some architects the ways that manufacturers work and their internal systems and values will also inform product selection. They might want to visit the factory and see the product being made. Being able to hold samples or see a physical mock-up of the component is often valued. As well as understanding the environmental performance of their products, they might also want to know how sustainable manufacturers’ processes are.

Looking ahead

So, what will affect how architects and manufacturers work together in the future? We know that sustainability is close to many architects’ hearts, but there is likely to be increased emphasis on this in the future. On the global stage there is growing pressure on governments. The most recent IPCC report on climate change calls for an urgent reduction in greenhouse gas and fossil fuel emissions, particularly in cities that are home to an increasing proportion of the global population. The UN Sustainability Development Goals include a specific goal for cities and communities. These goals offer a ‘blueprint to a better and more sustainable future’ with targets to be achieved by 2030 and met by regional and local organisations within countries.

BIM and new digital platforms are enabling more collaborative working by using specification and modelling platforms that intelligently link to each other. This is a good thing and can help to break down historic barriers that have long existed in construction. Different specifications and models created by the architect, the services engineer and the acoustic consultant can be more easily federated. Indeed we are moving to a time where, in theory, everyone could be working in the same model and the same specification - each person contributing to it in the cloud. This could include manufacturers providing specifications and models and the contractor feeding into and amending them. In the Digital Transformation report we produced for RIBA and Microsoft, we found that 66 per cent were using digital collaboration tools and 59 per cent cloud computing. Adoption of these is set to increase.

Another development likely to encourage closer working between architects and manufacturers is the UK government’s support for offsite construction: 'The Department for Transport, the Department of Health, the Department for Education, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Defence will adopt a presumption in favour of offsite construction by 2019 across suitable capital programmes, where it represents best value for money,' said chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond in his autumn 2017 budget.

There are some exciting possibilities in a single source of project information that everyone is referring to and that is up to date. However, this also means that an audit trail of decision making is essential. Who is responsible for what? Who has changed what, when and why? This need for more transparency and better information recording extends to products.

In our conversations with specifiers we hear continued reference to the Dame Judith Hackitt’s ‘golden thread’ of information - the ability to track what has been specified from the earliest stages of the project, through design, construction and throughout its life. Knowing what has been installed in a building is more important than ever and anything manufacturers can do to help architects record what they have specified and why will be useful. Providing easy links to supporting information such as compliance with standards and regulations will also be valued.

David Bain is research manager at NBS

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