Not only does the web expand the material universe, it supports the explosion of interest in sustainability. Architects can tell instantly whether a product will meet the standard they’re trying to uphold. “A handful of years ago, green-washing was rampant,” says Carey Nagle, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, project architect at BNIM Architects in Kansas City, Mo. “We’re having an easier time finding good-quality information on recycled content, regional materials, and whether materials contain ingredients that fall into the red-list categories.”
Nowadays, the spec process is more about trolling for products and materials, says Brian Phillips, AIA, LEED AP, principal of Interface Studio Architects, Philadelphia. “It often starts with finding an image of something on the Internet, tracking that back to what the product is, and finding the manufacturer,” he says. “It’s the reverse of what used to occur.”
Whether it’s Inhabitat, Remodelista, Archinect, or 100 other online outlets, design blogs play a pivotal role in elevating the dialogue about architecture. Images of new projects spread with a speed that was unthinkable a decade ago. But for some architects, formalizing those references feels a little weird. It’s one thing to admire another firm’s work, another to file it away for future reference. “There are unwritten codes of honor among architects. But the same thing happens in the music industry,” Phillips says. “There’s so much sampling going on.”
But for all the eye candy consumed on the Internet, architects note some glaring gaps. Studying blog photos of finished projects is a great way to understand a material’s scale and what you might want to achieve, but “nobody pulls the detailing for you,” Phillips says. “It seems like there should be a great website for details.” Currently on a search for the perfect wood cladding, he’s been Googling, looking at local projects, and talking to product reps.
In a global marketplace, vetting an unfamiliar company or product is as critical as ever. Does it have a track record? A few years ago, Phillips noticed a carpet manufacturer with an interesting online presence, and the rep seemed terrific on the phone. But a little digging unearthed the fact that it was launched on the back of another company at the height of the housing boom. “We had no idea what their supply chain was, and they did go out of business,” he says. “You speculate about what they are, but you don’t really know the whole story.”
For all those reasons, the architects at Toronto-based firm Superkul find themselves doing as much legwork as they used to—more, given the larger batch of options at their disposal. They’re asking reps for samples, playing detective, and often returning to products they used 20 years ago.
“When we’re considering new products, we go through the same rigorous vetting process that we used to do when we were interns at a larger firm,” says co-principal Meg Graham, MRAIC. For high-performance items such as roofing or windows, they invite the manufacturer in for a one-hour presentation. Then they evaluate the product based on what they know about building science and solicit comments from folks who’ve used it. Did the trades like it? What about durability?
The Internet’s immediacy, it seems, has spawned intolerance for poor service. “We have some very good reps who know their products extremely well and are really good at providing support for architects,” Graham adds. “If people can’t give us good data and get things to us on time, we’ll go elsewhere.”