Taking Ownership of the Building Materials Industry

Sep 07, 2017 No Comments by

Published recently in Asset Magazine, Brendan Lowen takes a look at “taking back” control of the building materials industry.

It has been well documented that the building materials industry in South Africa and indeed many other countries, is driven by specification. Specifications, however, are only as strong as those empowered to ensure that the “instruction” ultimately takes place on site. Quite often, such instruction is changed or manipulated to suite certain beneficiaries, often at the expense of the designer and ultimately the client.

This activity may happen for legitimate reasons, such as the non-availability of specified materials or specialist required to apply such materials, but more often than not, as a result of a cheaper alternative that is able to save the contractor from his initial project cost.

The purpose here is not to highlight what we already know exists in many building material industries but to highlight an area that is often neglected. Having chatted too many professionals, students (and lecturers) I have observed an area that is often the cause of material manipulation between the professional’s instruction and final application on site. Too often we have inherited specifications from past projects where it is far easier to duplicate the design for convenience, than to challenge the status quo.

In conjunction to inheriting past specifications, so too do we inherit past materials costs that form part of pre-determined budgets. The merits here allow for the quantity surveyor to provide indicative costing on a project, so as to determine a budget framework for the professional team to work within. This is also conveyed to the client to ensure that costs attributed to the projected are adhered to. The client may be an individual or an organisation which answers to share-holders, so working within budgets are critical for a successful delivery of the project.

In conflict with this, is the opportunity to explore new materials or methods of construction that do not enjoy visibility when compared with mainstream costing estimates? This has the potential to limit a project from achieving a high performance rating as envisaged by the professional team.

I have often witnessed, after much deliberation, how an architect is subjected to change their material selection on a project, as its cost structure does not relate or conform to the initial budget allowances. The architect would do well here to work with the quantity surveyor to create a weighting of material selection. In other words, the architect can compromise with the budget, so as to allow certain high performing materials, which may cost more than the budget allowances, with lesser performing materials that may be more freely available (commodity) and economical on price.

A rigid budgetary outlook should be scrutinised as to the intent of costs allowed versus the expected performance outcome of the project.

Inherited specifications, often as a result of deadlines for projects to be completed, may also arise due to limited interaction at tertiary level, where students require further encouragement to challenge their design or task accordingly. Having recently asked various tertiary institutions which areas they find challenging for the architectural students, their response has more often than not been “the students lack of taking ownership of a project”. This could also translate to not having a thorough understanding of the performance or attributes of building materials, rather utilizing similar materials on various projects.

The limiting factor here is that the student leaves the institution without the confidence of utilizing a variety of materials that are “fit for purpose” for the application or project at hand. Without this ability, the opportunity for generic materials to be substituted on site exists, quite often for a more cost effective or lesser quality material than what was specified?

It is at this point that the challenge goes out to those entrusted in moulding the young minds of the designer, to challenge their design intent and to demand more introspection from the student in their material selection process. Such a challenge would promote a far closer inspection of materials at hand, analysis as to why such materials are used and for what purpose or intent is their anticipated outcome?

This challenge is also extended to the material manufacturers, who are often guilty of promoting a product rather than collaborating with the designer in determining what the best “solution” for the project would be?

This comment is reinforced when trying to obtain impartial information on building materials, however most of the content that is provided is created by the manufacturers themselves. This unfortunately creates a biased outcome when determining what material would best satisfy the needs of a particular project.

Impartial content does exist if one has the time to search, provided one knows what one is searching for. It is also important to ask contractors, engineers and others that may have used a particular material for their experience. This may assist in the selection of a less commonly used material or indeed a material that has inherited much exposure through lack of scrutiny.

The common disconnect between the material manufacturer and the materials industry is therefore revisited, however a different outcome to the benefit and integrity of the project now becomes the focal point.

Taking control as a designer includes partnering with others in the selection process. What is imperative though is the criteria used for material selection and the reasons this is to be adhered to. Budgets are a guideline, not set in stone, but to allow the professional team to work within a framework that satisfies the projects objectives. There should always be room for both scrutiny and endorsement as to why a material should be selected or not. If this debate is allowed the air-time it deserves, the sanctity of the projects deliverables will always be protected.

It is high time that closer inspection into material selection for projects is emphasized, not simply by considering products, but by how such materials will provide solutions and value to the design.

Taking ownership of this process as much as reinforcing that the materials are indeed installed at construction stage, will ensure for far more quality-built structures, if not legacy projects for the designer.

Identify individuals & companies that subscribe to this attitude of a “solutions based approach”, where such a relationship would ultimately not be built on a specific project, but on multiple projects in the future as well.

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About the author

Brendan Lowen is a qualified Senior Architectural Technologist and Head of Business Development for a nationally renown building materials manufacturer and supplier. Local and Global materials are constantly scrutinised for their fit-for-purpose offering in South Africa, whilst undergoing a route-to-market analysis. He often acts as an intermediary when engaging with the professional, manufacturing and retail sectors and most notably, when a disconnect becomes present within this chain. He contributes media content to the architectural community, through established industry platforms as well as the Advanced-Building website as its Thought Leader.
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