Specifiers: An Overlooked Audience in the AEC Industry for Manufacturers and Suppliers

Posted on 1/7/2015 12:41:06 PM By Ujjval Vyas

All adhesive and sealant companies that produce products for the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry want to find the right way to get their products selected.  This is especially true given the rapid and constant technological innovation that characterizes a highly competitive and often commoditized sector like adhesives and sealants.  The owner may be the initial party to give the go-ahead for a project, but the architect, engineer, contractor, or subcontractor could be the true decision maker regarding what product to use.  Specifiers are often the most important group of decision makers and influencers—even more than these other parties.  Manufacturers and suppliers that overlook specifiers are missing an opportunity to reach an audience that could play a more significant role in a successful sales and marketing strategy.

Before the 1950s, architects defined the specifications (and chose from a limited array of materials and products in well-defined systems and assemblies) as part of the expected services delivered to the owner.  But after World War II, the complexity of specifications, as well as the systemic disinterest of a profession more attuned to design than to the specifics of materials, products, assemblies, and systems led to a sub-specialization for specifiers. Specifiers control the underlying non-visual information that allows the building to be built; properly prepared specifications can reduce problems associated with cost, schedule, and overall risks of litigation and claims for the owner.

Unfortunately, these specialists have remained essentially unknown and unseen. This is explained partly by the fact that specifiers were and still are low prestige employees in architectural firms, especially in firms that focus on design with a capital “D.”  In fact, other than a highly qualified and experienced specifier, few personnel in architectural firms understand the intricacies required to deliver the proper documents itemizing, coordinating, and communicating the non-visual attributes of a project.  This is especially true for components like adhesives and sealants, below-grade waterproofing, and roofing systems, among others. 

It is natural that as the required information for the delivery of a built project has increased, designers have concentrated on what they do best and prefer to do—drawings and visualizing.  Drawings and visualizations are not an adequate basis for product choices.  In my experience, manufacturers and product suppliers have continued to privilege the architect as the basis for their sales strategy and have developed long-standing relationships with those who are primarily motivated by aesthetic choice-making. Manufacturers and suppliers mirror this by positioning their products to service aesthetic needs, but sacrifices comparative advantages for non-aesthetic attributes.  This problem has become increasingly acute as technological development cycles shorten and the complexity of the science escalates beyond the comprehension of most in the architectural profession.  The widening gap in comprehension between architects and manufacturers and suppliers is one of the main reasons that manufacturers and suppliers often face animosity from designer firms and designer organizations based on misinformed views about product risk, safety of scientific advances, manufacturing realities, and compliance costs.

Specifiers are the only ones who can productively fulfill both the aesthetic and non-aesthetic elements of the project design.  This is because they must—in the end—select the materials, finishes, fit, code compliance, testing, etc. by which the project will be bid and demonstrate eventual contractual performance by the constructors.  Specifiers now act, if allowed to do so in the firm culture and given adequate time, as a primary source of quality assurance in coordinating both the visual and nonvisual deliverables that will be the backbone of the whole project.  As such, they provide a great service to the owner, even if he may currently not know that such a thing as a specifier exists.  To the degree that manufacturers and suppliers ultimately also service the owner’s needs, it is natural for the two parties to make common cause for fulfilling the project goals.

Specifiers have slowly begun to escape from the shadow of architecture and to realize the possibility of a new and more satisfying service to the AEC industry.  Some are even moving out of architectural firms and are offering their services independently, to the betterment of the building delivery process thirsting for thoroughly completed project documents and correct information inputs.

Adhesives and sealants are not productively targeted at architects given the fact that they know little about the many chemistries or technical attributes appropriate to the vast number of assemblies and systems that depend on them.  On the other hand, specifiers are keen to understand the granular details and to engage with them on a continuous basis.  (Here is an example related to exterior sealant joints.)

Adhesive and sealant manufacturers and suppliers would do well, in my estimation, to consider specifiers, especially independent specifying firms, as an important and valuable audience in the AEC industry—maybe even the primary audience. The strong growth of design delegation and design assist by manufacturers and contractors only adds greater weight to such a view.

Finding the right ways to begin the conversation with those capable of providing proper advisory knowledge within the AEC industry is important.  The old strategies slow the spread of real innovation in the industry and continue to validate a process much in need of reform.  While positioning products to address customers’ aesthetic biases may be an adequate approach, informing specifiers about an adhesive or sealant’s aesthetic and technical advantages on a consistent basis may help that product to get selected more often.

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