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.
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 of course 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 (and stay there), you have to think of this database in terms of all the aspects that it can be beneficial to your work.
Here are nine ways the lack of a digital materials library is holding back your firm:
1. Materials and FF&E specification is excruciatingly slow.
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?
Every time you’re handed design guidelines is the start of a scavenger hunt: Where were those Excel sheets your team used two months ago? Oh, they deleted them? You’re outta luck, buddy.
With a firm-wide, centralized digital materials library, however, every step of the process is documented. This means, even if you only vaguely remember a product you used on a project five years ago, you’ll still be able to find it.
2. Project budgeting is also glacial.
The faster you can 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).
Knowing how much the product cost last time helps. Knowing its associated costs from the last time you used it is even better. For example: Back-costing labor, shipping, etc. can save so much time when calculating expenses for a current project.
The ability to look back at your past pricing structure will also speed up the process, because you’re not having to figure out from scratch every single time.
3. A physical materials library is just not enough.
Look, we’re not saying to chuck your product library completely. There is a colossal difference between seeing a fabric online and 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. Your designers are doing too much clerical work instead of designing.
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. There’s no uniformity of data across geography and language (and even vendors).
One advantage of having satellite offices across different time zones is having 24-hour, round-the-clock labor. This means the possibility of delivering 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. Confusion! Numerous instances of cross-checking to confirm that it’s the correct item!
And if it’s not? Back to the warehouse it goes, and down the drain your money goes.
6. Change orders are more 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. Sticking to design guidelines is a massive pain.
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.
Having to generate design documents for every single site is a waste of time, especially if your firm doesn’t have a strict rule for archiving documentation for future use.
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. You don’t have 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. You can’t do forecasting and strategic planning because there’s no historical data.
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.
Next week, we’ll teach you how to build your digital materials library.
Featured image by Joanna Nowak.