For many years there has been discussion about the increasing influence of the contractor and if it is worth bothering with specification selling. In his paper ‘Low Carbon Construction’, Paul Morrell identified an integrated approach to construction as a means of bringing down cost, a concept which is being enthusiastically adopted by the Government. This clearly requires the contractor to provide advice and expertise at the start of a project and many main and specialist contractors have much they can contribute at this stage. Alistair Shaw, a Director at Stanhope said “Early involvement of contractors needs to happen more in retail. I’d love to see a contractor at the table much earlier – before the planning. Our door is open to get that ethos into retail from the office sector. We will save money that way.” (Construction News 2/12/10)

From construction’s point of view this is good news, the more we can eliminate the silo mentality the more efficient construction can become. But does it mean the role of the architect has diminished, or the death of specification selling? I don’t think so.

Ever since the adoption of Design & Build as a means of constructing buildings the influence of the architect has changed. In this situation, and also with PFI, he is designing with the needs of the contractor in mind as opposed to an exclusive focus on the needs of the client. This means that his selection of products might be different, or that he will create more open specifications leaving the sub-contractor to make the final product selection. Inevitable there are less nominated products, but the architect is still making the decision about the type of product and ensuring that what is used is fit for purpose.

To assume that the contractor is insisting on using the cheapest product available is far from the reality. There are many influences on product choice. Firstly, the contractor wants to provide a project his client is happy with. They want to build a long term relationship with their clients and a reputation for delivering good value buildings. Then there are the various engineers; they are less likely to nominate a product, but they still have a strong influence on product selection. We also have the increasing influence of the planners, they have final approval on the selection of an increasing number of product. Yet another influence is sustainability and before long responsible sourcing of products. It is the architect that will be reviewing these options, with the contractor looking over his shoulder. On top of all of this is the architect’s responsibility to design a building which functions correctly.

When I was first involved with specification selling, in the early 1980’s, you built a relationship with an architect, persuaded him of the benefits of your product, then he put its name on the drawing and in the fullness of time you got an order. Job done! (OK it was a bit more complicated than that). Today it is a much more complex selling process, the specification salesman needs to understand the wide range of drivers behind the requirement of a product and present relevant benefits. His proposed product must also offer benefits that the main and specialist contractor will be happy with and he must ensure they know about these.

The role of the architect is still important, unlike the old days when he passed down edicts which the contractor fulfilled, he now acts as the node between the client, main contractor, specialist contractor and many others to ensure the right products are selected and installed correctly. Very often he is the starting point in the process of specification selling, but unlike the 1980s, he is now just one of many that the specification salesman must build a relationship with and sell to.

Further Reading:

Specification Selection – A Team Decision

The Changing Face of Specification

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