What magic ingredient turns an architect into a success? The answer is talent, certainly, but also the ability to keep up with the ever-evolving world of products and materials, and to use familiar ones inventively.

Whether it's a new kind of cast glass, a lightweight but durable wall panel, or a window whose aesthetics matches its energy performance, the pursuit of an architectural palette continues apace. And attaining a firsthand knowledge of those things is a visceral process as well as an intellectual one. As Manhattan architect Deborah Berke, AIA, puts it, "You can't be particularly creative with a material until you touch it, smell it, and knock on it with your knuckles."

Architects tune into the material world wherever they find it--in design magazines, on the Internet, in catalogs, through subcontractors, or while driving by a local construction site. "We benefit enormously from being in New York and being connected to the art world, in terms of our clients, going to art museums, and my teaching at Yale," Berke says. Los Angeles architect Brian Murphy, AIA, BAM Construction and Design, finds information and inspiration on the road. "I'm a materials junkie," he says. "As I rattle around town I'm engaged in how people are building things, be it a skateboard ramp or a train trestle."

supplier demand

When it comes to tracking mainstream products and materials for the residential market, of course, most architects go to the source for regular infusions of information. Because the window and door companies are particularly competitive, their sales reps are tireless about pitching their products to architectural firms, notes Stephen Tilly, AIA, Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. "They'll come in, bring lunch, do an education session, and update our binders. They know that if we have the latest information, we're more likely to spec their products." Ned Stoll of Partners: Stoll & Stoll Architects, of New Rochelle, N.Y., agrees. "Those manufacturers, along with the finishes people, are among the most organized," he says. "It's the lighting and mechanical systems companies that we have to chase down."

Tuck Hinton Architects, Nashville, Tenn., welcomes some kind of supplier nearly every week. "It's a win-win situation," says Kem Hinton, FAIA. "As with clothing, you get certain companies you know provide great things that are built well." And although the firm members keep an open mind, they generally view promises of novelty as old-hat. "If someone walks in and says, "We've got the four new hottest things,' I say, 'Yeah, sure.' There should be some skepticism," Hinton says. "We want our clients to accept inventive solutions, but we also want to make sure we're doing something they'll be pleased with for a long time."

Rather than schedule visiting reps on a regular basis, Berke's office prefers to host show-and-tell sessions with smaller craftspeople. Those who specialize in arts such as making resin-based materials, for example, will be invited in. And "if we have a specific major project going and know we're going to use Marvin Windows, we'll call the Marvin rep to come in and show us what they're doing," she says. The weekly interoffice design panel is another in-formal, albeit consistent, way information makes the rounds. Every Wednesday the staff gathers to talk about a project under way, and often those discussions revolve around materials. "It gives everyone in the office a voice," Berke says, "and is like having 30 ears and eyes."

store of knowledge

Tilly also involves all 17 of his staff in information-gathering—or at least in organizing it. The office manager collects incoming literature and puts it in a file. Every two weeks a different staff member takes responsibility for analyzing the information, logging it into the library database, filing it, and circulating a list of the things that have come in. Literature picked up here and there finds its way into the archives, too.

"One of the most important things about practicing is being a catalog freak," Tilly says. He's fascinated by medical, technical, and industrial supply catalogs, as well as products from the theater world, such as scrims and lighting rods. "If you're interested in doing offbeat interiors, those are great things to have available," he says. The firm recently purchased adjacent retail space to house its store of knowledge. "We'd designed a library recently and decided to do one for ourselves," he says.

Keeping an architectural library current, though, is an ongoing struggle. Rather than taking a scattershot approach, Stoll devised a way to give every section of the Construction Specifications Institute equal and methodical attention. Each month the firm focuses on a different section so that during the course of a year, 12 out of CSI's 16 divisions get covered (four are not applicable to his work, he says). During windows-and-doors month, for example, the firm will pull out all the catalogs and magazine clippings and invite the company reps in to give their spiel and update the binder.

"When we focus on one area at a time, we can compare why we like this type of window more than the one we saw the week before, or talk about specific applications the various products are good for," Stoll says. "A lot of the investigations we do are product-driven," the architect adds. "We'll need something and go out and investigate it. But we did find that's kind of hit-or-miss. We really like having our library up-to-date. Because when we need to make a search, we're already in a rush."

web wise

The quest for speed and precision is driving a lot of architects to the Internet for product and materials research. In particular, firms whose design ethic involves a specific vocabulary turn to the Internet as an expeditious alternative to paging through a Sweet's catalog. "A lot of times we have to match new products with Michael Graves' language, which is always expanding," says architect Bob Miller, of Michael Graves & Associates' Manhattan office. "It's a matter of taking something we have and adapting it with a new product. We get a lot of requests from clients for unique products, such as a concrete countertop embedded with glass. You can type in different buzzwords, like custom decorative countertops, and the search engine will suddenly give you a list of different companies that can fabricate them."

On the other side of the coin, George Beylerian established Material ConneXion (www.materialconnexion.com) four years ago in anticipation of designers' demand for unique materials. It's a Web-based resource center that links architects and designers with manufacturers of new materials around the world.

"The key word is innovation," says Carina Beylerian, director of communication and exhibitions for the New York City firm. The constantly growing library includes samples that are judged monthly by a rotating jury of a dozen architects and designers. The criteria varies, but usually includes some noteworthy technological or environmental aspect—"that it's 100 percent recyclable, changes color, or makes a certain kind of sound," Beylerian says.

Once the material is accepted, the information—which includes an image of the material, technical data, and contact information—is logged into a virtual library. Web membership is purchased on a per-hour basis. "We're simply making the connections between the manufacturers of the materials and the end users," she says. Meanwhile, to gain the competitive edge, name-brand manufacturers are marketing Web-based services directly to architects. Two years ago Andersen Windows developed Window Studio, free software that allows architects to create combinations of window units for use in construction drawings. The package can be downloaded from the Web site or ordered on CD-ROM.

There's also Window Symbols, containing individual details architects can download in seconds. Will the company's Web-based enterprises make its print media less of a priority? Not exactly, according to Andersen's Rod Radosevich. "Just as radio didn't die when television became available to the general public in the late 1950s, information just takes a new form on the Web," he says. "Our intent in offering all of these tools is to make our products accessible to the architects in whatever form they prefer."

off beat generation

Much as building icons can be transferred directly to architects' drawings from manufacturer software, Brian Murphy likes to cut and paste from across industries and disciplines. For example, he's used automotive hardware for plumbing. "There's an aesthetic dimension to the beautiful stainless-steel piping used for gas lines, and it's really practical," Murphy says. "And marine hardware will do a myriad of things, because it morphs easily."

Recently Murphy designed a reception desk for an advertising agency out of square-shaped water bottles. "When the natural light hits a bottle full of water, the effect is similar to fiber optics in the way it telegraphs light," he says. "And you've got a back storage of water when there's a big earthquake." Another favorite treasure trove is his local aerospace junkyards, which yield pieces of 30-gauge aluminum; the materials are recycled in Mexico and brought back to Southern California to sell. Murphy observes that people with little money often show the most invention in solving building problems. "Those people have much more dynamic solutions because they're less stifled by convention and the fashion dimension," he says. "From an afternoon's scouring, they've built a fence."

Not all resources need to come from the dump, but recycling has become fashionable. "Everyone in Mission Viejo has a ranchburger mini-estate, and you're sitting there in a glorified chicken coop," Murphy says. "It shakes up the status quo." Architects agree, however, that it's not a good idea to use new materials or products just for the sake of being different. As Berke comments, "I'm more interested in taking generic stuff—even if what is generic is continually changing—and applying it in unexpected ways, than I am in taking materials and testing their physical limits as feats of engineering in my work." Murphy concurs, adding: "If a product or material advances the craft of shelter-building, that gives it a lot more credibility."

trading places

No one knows the building craft better than tradespeople and subcontractors. That's why Jarvis Architects, Oakland, Calif., occasionally sends a staff member to a seminar given by a roofing or HVAC association, and the emissary reports back to the office.

Yet while the best manufacturers provide expert tech help to architects who use their products, on the most complex projects, technical manuals aren't enough. Faced with the design and construction of a 14,000-square-foot house with a tricky roof system of copper-clad intersecting domes and barrel vaults, Jarvis Architects turned to Dallas Mitchell, a 30-year veteran of metal roof installation. "You put as many standard details as you can on paper, but the best thing is to go talk to someone who does the installations," says project architect Jason Kaldis, AIA. "Dallas worked out the details of when we would rely on folding, interlocking, sealants, or mechanical attachments and soldering. Those things had to be taken up in the field; you couldn't preview all those complex conditions on paper or even a computer model."

As the only licensed architect in her firm, Georgie Kajer, AIA, Kajer Architects, Pasadena, Calif., relies a lot on her general contractors for up-to-the-minute information on products and materials. "Fortunately I'm in the position of working with the same contractors over and over again," she says. "There's an eagerness to share nifty things that become available to keep clients happy, such as a different kind of ventilation system for a bath, or a special hinge for a cabinet." In fact, the expertise and availability of trusted tradespeople is a significant factor in the products an architect ultimately chooses.

Although they enjoy reading the European design journals, most architects say they stick to imported products that have a domestic presence. "The time line for getting parts and materials from overseas tends to be longer than our schedules allow," Kaldis says. "And the familiarity of the trades with those products isn't quite as good." Like creativity itself, the pursuit of products and materials is a lifelong endeavor. And in the end, some of the credit for an architect's inventiveness goes to a third party--the client. "We learn how to use products from one job to the next and try to work with the best people," Kaldis says. "But the will and financial means of the client makes a lot of that learning possible."

Cheryl Weber is a contributing writer in Severna Park, Md.


best addresses

If we left it to the technical reps of the manufacturing companies to keep us up to date, we'd be in the Dark Ages," says Chris Schmitt, FAIA, Schmitt Sampson Walker Architects, Charleston, S.C. So the firm turns to that great equal-opportunity source, the Web. Partner Scott Sampson, AIA, who's in charge of the office's specs, frequently uses the following Web sites for product searches.

www.bricsnet.com
A site aimed at architects, engineers, and contractors, it offers a forum for both building and technical information, including rooms for chatting about products and materials and how well they perform. A search for concrete countertops, for example, yields links to Web sites of companies that make them.

www.4specs.com
This Web site also lists products by category. According to the home page, there are links to more than 4,000 manufacturer sites and 450 construction-related associations.

www.c-z.com
Filled with industry news, tech tips, and product trends, this address favors commercial applications but offers some residential products. A user-friendly info page guides you in your search.

www.homeportfolio.com
"Almost everyone in our office has this one on the favorites list in their computers," Sampson says. Focusing on interior design, it includes a "best products" list and links to products and materials, interior designers, art, and furnishings.

www.lightinguniverse.com
Sampson looks here when he needs to find out quickly which manufacturers supply a certain type of light, such as an undercabinet fixture for the kitchen. Separate sections are devoted to trade and retail customers.

www.baths.com
Geared toward kitchens and baths, this site has a fairly comprehensive list of products, including an ADA category and specialized bathroom heating. It covers about 70 percent of the kitchen and bath manufacturers, Sampson says.

www.doors-windows.com
Although this address favors consumers rather than design professionals, it includes useful information on terminology and how to select doors and windows, as well as links to other sites. "When I'm searching for a particular window or door that I'm not familiar with, this is a good starting place," Sampson says.

www.sweets.com and www.csi.com
These sites are both standard sources for building products, but they lean more heavily toward the commercial marketplace. residential architect's sister company, ebuild (www.ebuild.com), has just launched a comprehensive, interactive guide to building products, with more than 215,000 building products already online and 300 more added daily.