Help architects with costs to stay in the specs

Are architects interested in what products cost? It seems most architects pay little attention to price in their designs. Twice this week I lost jobs on which my product was specified because the project went over budget and the contractor persuaded the owner to accept a cheaper substitute. What can I do about it?—A.J., manufacturer’s rep

I hear this gripe frequently from building product sales reps. There is a great deal of truth in the stereotype that architects do not maintain tight control of costs. Substitutions are often made to get costs back in line—and the specified manufacturer suddenly loses the sale. To prevent that from happening, sales reps must understand why architects do not have a good feel for construction costs.

Architects do not purchase materials, so they do not have daily contact with market pricing. Typically, only project managers or principals of firms negotiate with contractors. That means that designers and specifiers don’t get adequate feedback on the cost consequences of their product selections. Furthermore, standard architectural compensation methods scarcely allow time to research product performance, let alone encourage comparative shopping. Instead, architects often rely on previous projects for cost guidance.

Some architects feel that spending too much time weighing lineitem prices can distract them from the “big picture.” Design decisions that produce more efficient buildings or better use of space can have more impact on a project’s budget than do nickel-and-dime differences in building products.

Architects must consider hundreds of products in a typical building, and few are fluent in the pricing of all those products. While the sale is vital to you, it may represent only a tiny fraction of the total project. Sales reps often become so focused on their own products that they assume architects share their degree of interest. Instead, make the effort to become familiar with the whole project and understand how your product fits in. Then you can act as a cost consultant to the architect.

To do that, think of construction costs as part of an equation in which the other factors are project size and quality. If any two of those factors are fixed, they will determine the third. For example, if the size of the project is known (a school for 400 children) and the budget is fixed (bond money available), those criteria will generally establish the quality of the materials used (such as whether carpet can be afforded instead of resilient tile).

Ask architects about the trade-offs they must make among size, cost, and quality. Be prepared to discuss the costs of installation and of complete building systems, not just your piece of the action. Shift the focus from cost to value by emphasizing life-cycle economies. Provide price lists or pricing guidelines in your technical manuals. Offer designers product options at several price points and help them understand what they can get for their money. If you see the project is over budget, suggest your own substitution. Your willingness to share your product cost knowledge will increase your influence with your customers.

While it is unlikely that architects will change their outlook on costs, their tools will change. Databases of construction costs and product specs are being linked to computer-aided drawing systems. The new hybrids will semi-automatically take off material quantities and calculate cost estimates. As these systems are refined, they may enable architects to become more cost conscious without really trying.

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By Michael Chusid
Originally published in Construction Marketing Today, Copyright © 1992