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How to Get Started on Institutional Design Standards, Part 1: The Good, The Bad, and Why You Should Do It Anyway


By Esteban Reichberg, AIA

Manage FF&E specification, procurement, and product data at scale. Take on bigger projects with confidence and grow your firm with  FohlioSchedule a demo or book a consultation with one of our account managers to explore these features today.

My experience providing architectural services for NYC institutional projects has included schools, universities, firehouses, hospitals, ambulance stations, health centers, supportive and affordable housing, public housing, shelters, courthouses, corporations, and more. This article aims to contribute to a growing understanding of, and interest in, how design and specification standards expedite and/or delay, augment and/or constrain, institutional project design and documentation.

But first:

What are Institutional Design Standards?

Institutional design and specification standards vary in their format, approach, and objectives. They are also enforced to varying degrees, and for different purposes. The easiest way to categorize them is by author:

1. Proprietary Standards: Created by the agency that administers them. 

Example: While contributing to the NYC Department of Homeless Services (DHS) “Conscious Shelter Design Guidelines” in 2018, our team authored ‘best practices’ for shelter renovation – under the guidance of DHS – after touring several DHS facilities and analyzing relevant case-studies.

Learn more: Create Effective Design Standards With These 5 Templates and Catalogues

2. Third-Party Standards: Created by an agency contracted by the property/asset owner.

Example: While working on several FDNY projects in 2016, the engineering firm that served as the project Prime (the architects were Subs) authored design standards to improve specification consistency across FDNY facilities.

3. Adopted Standards: Authored by an entity that is neither the project owner nor a contractor of the project owner. These standards may have been designed for another project/owner, or for several different projects/owners who share similar objectives.

Example: While working on affordable and supportive housing projects in 2014, I helped Enterprise Community Partners update their “Enterprise Green Communities Criteria”. This sustainable design standard for multi-family housing is increasingly used by Low-Income Housing Tax Credit projects in NY and beyond (i.e. Adopted Standards may be optional or mandatory).

Learn more: 5 Ways to Keep Affordable Housing Both Affordable and Great to Live In

How Do “Design Standards” Differ From “Specifications”?

Not to be confused with project specifications, institutional standards share certain characteristics with specifications, but differ on several fronts, namely:

1. U.S. Project Specifications are of three types: 

a. Proprietary: These call for a particular manufacturer, model or system which can either be substituted by an approved alternative (open spec) or must be adhered to without replacement (closed spec). Publicly funded U.S. projects with proprietary specs are typically open specs, in order to bolster competitive bids, unless there is a valid rationale for using a closed spec (e.g. only one system or product satisfies particularly demanding project needs or conditions).

Learn more: How to Adapt Your Spec Sheets and Design Standards to Government Construction Projects

b. Performance: These specs describe the requirements that an assembled component or system must meet after it is installed. In other words, they describe how the finished product must perform under given conditions. These specs allow the contractor/builder some flexibility in achieving the required performance since they typically do not specify exactly how this performance is achieved.

c. Prescriptive: These specs prescribe the specific materials which must be used, the required method(s) for installing these materials, and the testing standards (laboratories and/or institutes) which must be met by each assembly. Prescriptive specs allow less construction flexibility than performance specs, as they can also contain reference specifications, which refer to other standards for minimum requirements, and descriptive specifications, which outline or describe functions per assembly.

2. Specifications are therefore specific to a built work or project, whereas Design Standards are specific to an institution or project owner.

3. Specifications are static in nature, since they do not change after a project is completed. Design Standards, on the other hand, are dynamic in nature since they must be perpetually updated and adapted as each owner’s assets age, grow, or change over time. This is the singular most challenging element of Design Standards: their upkeep.

Learn more: Update Products and Navigate Faster

Who Benefits From Institutional Design Standards, and How?

1. Property Owners: The bigger their asset portfolio, the greater the benefits.


a. Consistency across locations boosts brand recognition. Most important for private clients who value reliability to attract new customers or retain repeat customers (e.g. bank branches, pharmacies, hotels, food franchises, etc)

b. Consistency simplifies maintenance and operation needs. Equally important for public and private clients who need to repair or replace their FFE across many individual/independent sites (e.g. universities, houses of worship, first responder facilities, corporations, etc)

c. Consistency streamlines procurement. Most important for public clients since vetting new suppliers/vendors is a regulated process that requires more time and paperwork than private sector procurement (government buildings, public housing authorities, public schools, etc)


a. Requires constant updates. Outdated standards consume time and energy. Hours are spent correcting out-of-date information, hopefully before that information is acted upon.

b. Can limit design innovation. If standards are mandatory (and even when they are optional), standards can reduce designer’s explorations of alternative solutions and/or materials/products.

c. Standards often live with individuals, not within documents. “Institutional Memory” is used to describe long-standing employees who recall the evolution of agency systems, including why certain products, materials or assemblies have been substituted for new ones. High turnover can produce deficiencies in Institutional Memory.

2. Design Professionals: The larger the firm, the greater the benefits.


a. Maintaining a material and detail library that enumerates client design standards (for repeat institutional clients) allows for rapid internal re-use and/or adaptation, particularly for new projects with similar needs.

b. Maintaining a well-classified material/detail library of project standards allows employees to learn from each other, facilitating a ‘cross-project pollination’ where lessons learned from one project or client can impact decisions on new projects or clients.

b. A well-kept material/detail library can allow firms to create Design Standards for repeat clients. Firms with longstanding institutional clients have accumulated valuable data which could help their clients improve property management and maintenance. Since categorizing and updating this information takes time, creating Design Standards or agency guidelines should be offered as a separate service when possible.


a. Limited employee resources can lead to disorganized, or uncategorized, libraries. These firm libraries too often exist only physically, whereas a cloud-based library allows firms to ‘crowd-source’ organization efforts from all employees, thereby relieving the burden of library maintenance from one person.

b. Material/detail libraries can lead to auto-pilot specification that prioritizes saving time over solving problems. Resisting the seduction of repeat-use of familiar products/materials is difficult, particularly in cases where new ones might be better suited for the project, but might require more due diligence.

c. Internal firm libraries can sideline vendors. Allowing vendors to play a more active role in contributing to library upkeep can produce desirable results. Keeping product reps abreast of upcoming projects promotes competitive bids, in addition to increasing the frequency of library upkeep.

3. Facility Management: Maintenance personnel are critical to the smooth operation of agency buildings and grounds. 


a. Up-to-date design standards not only inform all trades about which systems and components were originally used – for when repairs are needed – but these standards can also inform workers about time-sensitive information, like inventory quantities and/or lead-times.

b. Standards implemented can also include time-sensitive information about product/system Warranties and other Expiration dates. Product manuals, model numbers, and installer guarantees can also be integrated into ‘living’ agency standards as well.

c. Design Standards boost agency-wide awareness. For institutions juggling numerous property assets, maintaining a library of evolving standards allows individual departments to get on the same page. It also allows employees who are out/unavailable, to be covered by colleagues with access to shared information.


a. Requires a minimum proficiency with software platforms among a profession that often leans analogue, rather than digital. This can produce delays in adoption of new cloud-based information management systems.

b. Short-staffed. Facility managers are often fulfilling short-term requests or responding to urgent user needs, finding the need to sacrifice time otherwise spent on sustaining/updating long-term information management systems.

c. Perhaps the most challenging feat to maintaining institutional design and specification standards; ensuring equal access to required information among all parties. Even if a facility manager successfully accesses or maintains this data, it does not ensure that all trades who do the work, or design professionals who coordinate the effort, also have equal access to it as well (or are even aware the information exists).

Institutional Design Standards: Implementation vs. Aspiration

Institutional design standards take many forms, occasionally as a well-curated ‘best-practices’ manual, but more often than not, as a collection of disparate documents (sometimes scattered across individual departments) which have been accumulated over time. Institutional clients without formal Design Standards often provide drawings from previous projects as examples of desired outcomes, or provide specifications from similar work that exemplifies certain requirements. Design firms similarly mine their own reservoir of details or specs from comparable projects in order to expedite documentation and avoid reinventing the wheel each time.

The pros and cons listed above skim the surface of a broader dialogue about how to strike an optimal balance between a ‘uniform approach’ and a ‘case-by-case basis’. Recognizing that the ideal strategy would know when established standards fall short, or break-down, as well as when they are critical, and must be adhered to. Furthermore, an entirely separate article could be written about the struggles involved in unifying the databases of each user-type listed above, databases or libraries which can exist independent of one another: 1. established client guidelines, 2. design professionals libraries, 3. facility managers’ knowledge.

Manage FF&E specification, procurement, and product data at scale. Take on bigger projects with confidence and grow your firm with  FohlioSchedule a demo or book a consultation with one of our account managers to explore these features today.

Featured image: Federal Center South Building, ZGF Architects. Photo by Benjamin Benschneider

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Published Apr 4, 2021