Step by Step: How to Specify Materials in an Architecture Project?
Just as fashion designers use pins, needles and textiles to bring their creations to life, architects rely on materials to shape our built environment. From steel and glass to wood and concrete, these form the artistic palette that transforms blueprints into tangible structures, bridging the gap between imagination and reality. It’s as simple, yet as complex as that. But with so many materials –and countless shapes, finishes, textures and colors– available in this day and age, making the correct choices for a particular project can be quite challenging. Several questions naturally arise: How do architects navigate the endless possibilities to handpick the elements that will breathe life into their designs? What does the material specification process entail? Where does one begin?
Most architecture professionals are also the key decision-makers when specifying materials, and in order to make informed decisions, they must take a series of factors into careful consideration –costs, durability, performance, aesthetics and overall quality. Failing to do so can bring unfortunate consequences, resulting in projects with both functional and aesthetic issues. That is precisely what makes the specification stage so essential in achieving expected results.
To aid architects and designers in the process, here we provide a step-by-step guide with nine general tips to follow when specifying materials, exemplified by a series of projects, diagrams and construction details. Each point is accompanied by a ‘Pro Tip‘ that may help architects when formulating a Materials Specification Sheet –a detailed document that outlines project requirements, characteristics and guidelines, serving as a valuable reference guide for industry professionals. By adhering to this document, architects can ensure that the selected materials will meet the project’s quality, performance and safety standards (which, of course, will vary in different countries and regions).
1. Understand project requirements
A thorough understanding of a project’s specific needs and requirements –whether related to costs, durability, structural integrity, aesthetics or regulatory compliance– serves as the foundation for informed decision-making, allowing architects to select materials that align with their objectives while meeting specific constraints. In São Paulo’s Villa Matilde House, for instance, budget constraints motivated designers to build load-bearing walls using exposed concrete masonry blocks. This enabled them to quickly and efficiently assemble a high-quality, yet low-cost and low-maintenance building. Also guided by economic reasons, architects in Iran opted to clad a residential building in local travertine, arranged in a flowing, curved pattern to allow for light and ventilation.
Pro Tip: The Specification Sheet must incorporate a ‘Preparation’ or ‘Pre-Design’ section where it is clearly stated that the construction will adhere to the quality, type of materials, construction systems and stability requirements established in current local regulations, among them those specified by national institutions and specialized entities.
2. Research and collect information
After evaluating project requirements, collecting data on different materials to ensure compatibility with those needs is crucial. Research helps assess factors such as local weather conditions, building codes and regulations, as well as providing information on materials’ availability, visual qualities and functional properties. This stage was critical to the success of a home renovation project; by studying different iterations, architects were able to appropriately specify the eighty-seven black stainless steel geometric panels that encase the building, responding to structural and climatic parameters. Similarly, designers investigated the behavior of shading devices and high-performance glass, experimenting with angles and layouts, to create a climatically responsive skyscraper in Singapore.
Pro Tip: Point out that the construction company should carefully gather information and review the plans, specifications and worksite prior to commencing the construction process, raising any necessary inquiries. The architect must then address any questions that may arise concerning the interpretation of plans and specifications.
3. Evaluate material performance
Long before a building is constructed, architects can test and evaluate how certain materials will perform under particular circumstances to streamline the specification process, especially with the amount of information, technology and tools they have at their disposal. Such was the case in the Hunters Point Library –where architects developed an exterior concrete mock-up to evaluate the facade’s performance– and in this hotel remodel, where a brick prototype was built to test the feasibility of the construction method and budget, giving confidence to the client, masonry workers and designers.
Pro Tip: In the ‘Preliminary Work’ section, specify that all materials and structural elements should undergo a designated number of quality control tests, carried out by an authorized laboratory and according to the respective regional standards.
4. Consider aesthetics and design objectives
With endless colors, textures, finishes and patterns, as well as differences in how they age, respond to light and complement each other, materials (especially when left exposed) ultimately shape how spaces will look and feel. Therefore, they can be specified not only based on functional motives, but also to create engaging, visually appealing spaces that materialize architects’ creative visions. Materials may be selected for their raw texture, heaviness and opaqueness or even for their ability to oxidize over time, finding in that natural process a high aesthetic value.
Pro Tip: The ‘Finishes’ section must contain precise details about the surface treatments and decorative elements applied to various architectural components, providing information about desired appearance, texture and color. Pay special attention to interior and exterior cladding, flooring, windows, doors, accessories, paint and equipment.
5. Prioritize sustainability
The construction industry is increasingly embracing sustainable practices, with materials playing a vital role. To reduce environmental impact, architects can place emphasis on materials that are either renewable, have low VOC emissions, are locally sourced or energy-efficient. For example, the Fass School located in remote Senegal is built with local bamboo and adobe bricks that, combined with passive design strategies, promote a sustainable, comfortable learning environment. Meanwhile, architects in Brazil specified rammed Earth as a home’s main building material, an eco-friendly alternative known for its high thermal mass and energy savings.
Pro Tip: It must be emphasized that efficiency should be covered in all stages and aspects of a project. Merely selecting sustainable materials is insufficient if other areas promote inefficiency (for example, relying on long-distance transportation with a substantial carbon footprint).
6. Create material schedules
From design to construction and maintenance, any architecture project relies on various stages to unfold, each involving different schedules. Project managers must identify, organize and categorize the different materials required for every step in advance, which includes specifying manufacturers, models, sizes, finishes and other relevant details. The Natural Pavilion is a prime example. Made with modules composed of a wooden framework, steel, bio-based and re-used materials, architects had to create comprehensive material schedules to guarantee timely availability of each component, minimize delays and control project costs, as well as facilitate logistics and inventory management.
Pro Tip: The Specification Document should include categorized sections with detailed guidelines and instructions, including but not limited to: site cleaning, backfill, layout and leveling, excavations and debris removal, structural work, formwork, subfloors, pavements, partitions, slabs, vertical circulation, interior and exterior finishes, rainwater management and equipment.
7. Collaborate with experts and specialists
Architecture is a team effort. Projects have become more complex and multidisciplinary, demanding a holistic approach and a diverse set of skills and expertise. Relationships between industry professionals, such as structural and mechanical engineers, contractors and sustainability consultants, are a vital source of information when specifying materials, helping designers gain insights on technical specifications, local regulations and more. In a community center in Cambodia, for instance, architects teamed up with Khmer women and engineers to successfully test and develop the construction technique. Meanwhile, architects in Burundi collaborated with a local NGO, a Belgian non-profit and university students to specify material strategies for a comfortable, energy-efficient, low-cost library.
Pro Tip: Indicate early on how frequently all the actors involved in a project must meet. At least one monthly on-site meeting is usually required between the building inspector, contractor, architect, engineer and/or construction manager. Other meetings can also include the client, when necessary.
8. Document material specifications
Thorough documentation is key when specifying materials. It provides precise information about the materials to be used, including their bits and pieces, quality standards, installation guidelines and other detailed characteristics. This clarity and consistency helps architects, contractors and suppliers understand the exact requirements, reducing the chances of misinterpretations or errors and ensuring compliance with building codes and industry standards. Of course, much of this documenting process is highly visual and hence relies mostly on accurate drawings in various scales, be it an intricate detail or a conceptual diagram.
Pro Tip: Establish that each document will be kept and made available in a file throughout the entire duration of the project. Typically overseen by the building inspector, the file should be composed of the complete set of plans, technical specifications and all necessary annexed documents that will enable effective administrative, accounting, and technical oversight.
9. Implement a monitoring and maintenance plan
Last but certainly not least, architects can implement a comprehensive monitoring and maintenance plan to ensure that materials meet the specified standards and performance criteria. This allows for early detection of any deviations or deficiencies and hence enables prompt corrective measures. For example, when specifying wood –which is prone to moisture damage, pests and rot– sealing, painting and regular inspections are essential to maintain its condition. Although relatively easier to maintain, concrete can develop cracks and discoloration over time, often requiring sealing, patching and cleaning to uphold its visual appeal and extend its lifespan. Ultimately, materials should be specified with a long-term perspective in order to preserve their quality and longevity in accordance with the design intent.
Pro Tip: Emphasize that the construction company should consistently ensure the good quality and proper execution of the work performed by their own team and subcontractors. If rework is necessary to correct poorly executed components, it shall not be treated as an additional cost for the client.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: Design Process, proudly presented by Codesign, the first purpose-built iPad app for the concept design stage of the architectural process.
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