The Architect Consumer

This is an encore of an article Michael Chusid wrote over twenty years ago. It has stood the test of time and is still relevant today.

When it comes to building products, many architects have only a vague awareness of the effort required to produce, market, and distribute the bricks, carpet, windows, and thousands of other products they consume. Architects shop in a supermarket of product advertisements and sales representatives, specify from a menu of manufacturer catalogs, and have a feast spread before them at their construction sites-but they seldom enter the kitchen. A better understanding of the organization, activities, and concerns of the building product industry would enable architects to design with and specify building materials more astutely and effectively, and would strengthen their ability to lead the design and construction process.

Architects frequently identify three principal members of the design and construction team-owners, architects, and contractors- but overlook the building product industry. While building product manufacturers may not be prime contractors on typical architectural projects, they still play a vital role in the building process and have a significant relationship with all three principals of the owner/architect/contractor triad.

Producers have a direct and contractual relationship with contractors, selling them materials and products and providing them with training, credit, and other types of support. Producers can also have contractual relationships with building owners, especially on projects involving maintenance or rebuilding. But even in architecturally specified work, producers may still have direct relationships with owners. Many developers now list preferred building material vendors as part of their corporate building standards or procurement programs, often the result of manufacturers having established relationships with owners. And since many of the building product manufacturers' warranty obligations pass directly to the building owners, producers can also have relationships with owners that survive the final punch lists.

Architects and Products
The relationship of the building product industry to the architectural profession is more complex. Just as a painter can be known for the palette of colors with which he creates his art, so too is an architect dependent on the palette of building materials available to him. The range of materials available today is larger than it has ever been. This is primarily the result of manufacturers, driven by competition, having to continually create and exploit new technology, respond to and stimulate market demand, and develop and promote new products and markets.

Where once an architect was limited to locally available materials, today the palette of building materials comes from manufacturers around the world. Instead of building with raw or semi-finished materials, we assemble buildings from components that are shop fabricated and finished. Master builders with a personal knowledge of all building materials and methods are an endangered species; designers and builders must now rely on manufacturers' product data sheets, shop drawings, installation instructions, field training and supervision, and off-site fabrication. Many building products require such specialized experience or knowledge that they can only be detailed or installed by the manufacturer. The building product industry today is more than just a material supplier; it plays an integral role in detailing, engineering, and constructing systems, sub-assemblies, and entire buildings.

After developing new technology and products, the building product industry must then introduce it to the rest of the construction industry. Through advertising, promotion, sales, and service, manufacturers must inform and educate designers and builders and provide technical assistance and support to users. The front line in that effort is the legion of building product salesmen and manufacturer's representatives, who act as consultants to architects.

The building product industry also influences architectural style and taste through advertising and marketing. Which came first, for example, th e current design trend towards stone-veneer curtain walls or the development of new types of curtain wall systems and the technology to cut thin stone?

In a profession that turns out more graduates each year than can be routinely absorbed, architecturally trained students are finding that the building product industry is a major source of satisfying career opportunities. Positions in building product sales, product development, contract administration, and management await talented individuals who can speak the language of architecture.

There is not a standard way by which we can accurately measure the output of the building product industry. But it is clear that more than construction jobs are at stake when economic indicators point to an increase or decrease in construction. From the forests and mines where raw materials are extracted, and the refineries and mills where basic materials are produced, to the factories and shops where products and systems are fabricated, the building product industry is responsible for a significant part of the gross national product.

By becoming more familiar with the building product industry, architects can become better informed consumers and more effective practitioners, able to call upon-and utilize the resources of the building product industry.

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By Michael Chusid. Originally published in Progressive Architecture, ©1988 (or there-about)