How to Take Your Firm to The Next Level With a Digital Materials Library: 9 Ways
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What is it that turns a medium-sized firm into a large, multinational one? And what makes that large, multinational firm even larger? More importantly, what keeps them profitable and sustainable for generations to come?
One answer is this: powerful operational systems.
Where there are effective systems in place, there is profitability. Systems create repeatable actions that in turn create repeatable outcomes — in the case of design and architecture firms: great design and profitable projects from repeat clients.
Just as important: systematic approaches like design standards means less time spent on manual work, more time on actual design, and less time fixing errors.
Let’s take design documentation as an example. How many times have you started a project by spending hours combing through folders and subfolders of older projects, trying to find specific products that your client prefers?
That’s not design, that’s clerical work — which we’re not knocking, but that’s not why you’re working in a design firm, is it?
Your Materials Library Can Do So. Much. More.
Any design or architecture firm that has managed to stay in business for a few years will have its own physical materials library. But if you want to take your company to the next level, that materials library needs to start working harder.
Here are nine ways a digital materials library will change the way you design and build:
1. A digital materials library can speed up materials and FF&E specification.
While good design can’t be rushed, manual work like materials and FF&E specification certainly don’t need to take as long as it traditionally does. Having existing data available at your fingertips means cutting out the repetitive process of collecting products and the information associated with it.
As an architect, your familiarity with materials builds up over time. You know what you want, and you know exactly which supplier to get it from.
But did you notice that specifying the same product over and over is only marginally faster each time?
With a firm-wide, centralized digital materials library, every step of the process is documented and preserved. You can:
- Easily find details from a project you worked on 10 years ago because your database is searchable.
- Quickly re-specify materials you’ve previously used, without having to duplicate work.
- Build on top of existing data instead of starting from scratch every time.
2. Manage your design and construction budget efficiently, in real time.
A digital materials library with built-in budgeting capabilities could solve a lot of funding issues:
- See whether you’re over budget before spending anything.
- Prioritize spending in the areas that matter most.
- Be very specific with how you allocate your funds amongst cost divisions and areas.
The faster you can also put together a costing document, the sooner your project can get started, and the better your chances of delivering on time (which means better chances of leaving a happy client, and so on).
3. Upgrade your physical materials library.
Look, we’re not saying to chuck your product library completely. There is a colossal difference between viewing a picture of a fabric online versus holding it in your hands.
However, one severe limitation of a physical materials library is that it’s too easy to run out of space.
You also can’t be walking over to your products all the time and jotting down the details attached to them, either. And as for searching for the exact product you need? It’s definitely much faster doing that on a computer.
Physical samples also get discontinued and outdated all the time, and getting new ones delivered isn’t always the best for the environment.
And then there’s the matter of design teams forgetting to return samples, and so they get left on people’s desks, where they become clutter. It’s bad for focus and creative work, and Mari Kondo would not approve.
4. Cut down on clerical work — and increase your designers’ happiness.
As a design professional, you want to design, not copy and paste the minute details of the materials you’re using. Automating the specification process allows you to spend more time doing the work that feeds your soul.
One reason the industry has such high attrition rates among the younger professionals is directly linked to this. Think back to when you first started working for a firm: You probably spent more than your fair share of collecting, archiving, and standardizing existing data. And while it only seems fair that the young ‘uns pay their dues, doesn’t it seem like a waste of everyone’s time?
Your data librarian is probably wasting a lot of hours right now cleaning up and enriching the information associated with products. Ideally, everyone in the firm will be able to add information to specific items every time they use it, and your librarian can spend their time building mastery of the products and staying up to date on new developments in the market.
If you’re in upper management, it should also make you happier knowing your designers are, well, designing, instead of copying and pasting. By training them and teaching them the firm’s culture at a younger age, you’re ensuring their loyalty (and decreasing the chances of having to hire more experience, and therefore more expensive, designers).
5. A digital materials library can standardize data across geography, language, and even vendors.
One advantage of having satellite offices across different time zones is having 24-hour, round-the-clock staff. This means completing submittals in a fraction of the time it takes your competitors, or completing projects on time even with a compressed timeline.
The only way this would work, however, is,
- if everyone in your team has access to your library (which doesn’t work if they’re halfway across the world)
- if everyone, no matter the language they speak, is able to fully understand the data
Thing is, you don’t even have to be a huge firm to have this problem. You could be looking at the same product with one model number at one supplier and a different SKU number at another supplier.
Being able to standardize your data also allows you to:
- Save time by avoiding errors and reducing the need to cross-check data.
- Create product selection catalogues.
- Set up project templates that you can reuse over and over.
6. Make change orders less time-consuming.
Let’s say you’re designing satellite buildings for a hospital, elderly care facility, hotel, or school. You know which materials have worked for you in the past, but what if they’re not available or do not meet standards in the new locations?
Having easily accessible details like prescriptive specifications or performance specifications makes it much easier to find replacement products.
7. Make it easier to adhere to design standards.
Speaking of hospitality franchises and healthcare facilities: These clients usually have very specific design guidelines they want you to follow.
For one thing, staying on brand across several different sites is crucial.
For another, it’s much more cost-effective to reuse proven products over and over, especially if you have a good relationship with your supplier.
With a digital materials library, setting up templates is a more feasible solution. From there, you can make modifications to every project if necessary, and easily keep track of all the projects’ similarities and differences across time and geography.
8. Utilize performance analytics.
Decades from now, you’ll want to revisit your projects in order to see how certain materials have held up over time. It will inform your decision as to whether you should reuse the same product in future projects.
This is the very definition of a database that grows smarter with each project, and will likely be the factor that makes you stand out from other firms.
Are you using it for the first time, but seeing that a different team has used it previously? With proper design documentation and a robust digital product library, you can see exactly how it performed for that other team. Designers can even add actual pictures of the product as it’s installed, in addition to the manufacturer’s supplied photos.
Need more insight? Having those notes and images in the archive will help jog their memory when you talk to them about it.
Another way this helps build your reputation is by publishing industry reviews on the specific products you used, which will help inform other firms and project owners. Think of it like a doctor publishing research in a medical journal.
9. Utilize historical data for forecasting and strategic planning.
Just as you can specify and budget faster the more projects you work on, you should also be able to deliver more efficiently. Having information on problems you encountered in the past, whether with a certain product, geographical code, or local teams will go a long way in avoiding it in the future.
You’ll also want to keep track of how many times a product has been used in the past, and which projects. This helps with building relationships with suppliers.
Notes on which products work well for hospitality projects and which ones don’t, for example, make the selection process more efficient.
Over time, you’ll also be able to perform better cost analysis because you’re keeping track of pricing trends.
10. Bonus: Use your digital materials library to increase any project’s value.
As someone who purchases a building or pays for one to be constructed, an owner will always want to know exactly what they’re getting. That’s why construction documents are always part of the closeout package.
To stand out from the crowd, however, you need to go farther. Consider a carefully curated and managed library of product lifecycle data. That means easily accessible information that can help building administrators figure out whether HVAC systems are serviced as often as they need to be. It means being able to quickly replace a panic bar and not have to worry that the maintenance guy now has to carry more than one key to open all the existing panic bars in the building. And for you, it means a reputation of closely understanding and serving your clients’ needs.
Explore these features and more by consulting with one of our account managers.
Featured image by Joanna Nowak.