In bizarro world, all of your clients are surgeons, hedge fund managers, or high-net-worth individuals with the resources to afford anything they want. If they want custom hardware from The Nanz Co., they can have it. Salvaged vintage stone tile from Paris Ceramics? Sure. Teak windows from Zeluck? Why not?

You design homes in the real world, however, and your clients have budgets—sometimes small ones. “Everybody's tight on money,” says Bill Feeney, principal of William L. Feeney Architect, Washington, D.C. “It's so much easier when you create [custom] architectural elements from scratch, but in most of the work, everybody has a budget.” With that reality will come some concessions, but that doesn't mean the design has to suffer. Deals can be found—if you know where to look.

spec and spec alike

For San Diego-based Kevin deFreitas, AIA, who acts as architect/developer on many of his own projects, a tight budget is a necessary way of life. As a result, no resource is off limits when he needs to find the right product for the right price. Trade magazines are among his favorites. “There are so many American and international journals,” he says, that architects now have an unprecedented “ability to source what architects all over the world are using. I look at what I like,” he adds, “and try to fit [those products] into my work.”

Architectural publications give architects the ability to see what their global counterparts are using, and the Internet allows them to get it in (relatively) short order. Says deFreitas: “The Web has forever changed the way architects research materials.”

  • Architect Kevin deFreitas believes even houses on tight budgets can pull off inspiring design with well-chosen materials. His entry-level row houses in Escondido, Calif., include such high-value items as solid-core doors, Bosch appliances, and upgraded cabinets.

    Credit: Kevin deFreitas Architects, AIA

    Architect Kevin deFreitas believes even houses on tight budgets can pull off inspiring design with well-chosen materials. His entry-level row houses in Escondido, Calif., include such high-value items as solid-core doors, Bosch appliances, and upgraded cabinets.

Without question, the Web has created opportunities that didn't exist 20 years ago, giving architects previously unheard-of access to inexpensive products from multiple suppliers. If you want to find a good price on faucets or other plumbing products, for example, you can shop www.designerplumbing.com,www.plumbingstore.com, www.faucetdirect.com, or store.irawoodinc.com, among other retailers. Lighting showrooms are snazzy, to be sure, but your computer allows you to search sites such as www.destinationlighting.com, www.ccl-light.com, or www.lightinguniverse.com in your pajamas and place orders on the spot.

One favorite among architects is McMaster-Carr Supply Co. (www.mcmaster.com), an online retailer with five U.S. offices and access to seemingly everything—from hard-to-find hardware and electrical products to plumbing supplies and raw materials. The bricks-and-clicks company claims to carry more than 450,000 products and says 98 percent of ordered products are shipped from stock. What's more, it says most orders can be delivered either the same day or within one business day—at standard ground rates, to boot.

Of course, online research can generate plenty of dead ends, and it's easy to blow three hours looking for the right product. Because online stores carry familiar brands, it's a good idea to make sure your virtual store is an authorized dealer for your favorites. Online stores also fall short in one aspect of specing architects love—actually handling the merchandise. For this reason, the virtual store is a perfect complement to another great resource for products: the big-box retail outlet.

Big-box retail stores are handy for architects who need products immediately and for those who feel guilty about ordering via the Web and using fossil fuels to ship the products. The “big box” is already a source for architects seeking budget-minded products, but some design pros say architects don't mine them nearly enough. With stock products priced at a fraction of the cost of custom pieces and inexpensive (but limited) fixtures and lighting, the big-box outlet certainly can be a good friend to have. “A lot of times, they have assembled products and kits” that are easy to spec, deFreitas says. The challenge, he adds, “is finding ways to use their [products] in atypical ways.”