30 March 2017

Design intent - what is it and why is it important?

If you work in the construction industry, in whatever capacity, it’s important to appreciate the design intent of a building. This simply means what is the building intended to do? Who’s it for? Why is it being built? These are all basic elements of a client’s brief to design and build a building. But even more importantly for construction professionals are the following questions:

  • What are the critical factors of the design that achieve its required vision?
  • Which products play a vital role in achieving that vision?

It is critical for manufacturers to understand design intent in order to fully support architects and contractors throughout the design and specification process. Even the smallest of components, like the fixings or hinges, can complement or compromise the system or application chosen, whether the attributes relate to the aesthetics, quality or performance of the design vision.

Any mistakes made during this process can be expensive and time-consuming to put right or repair, so the more time spent on fully understanding the design intent and writing specifications to comply with that vision the better.

NBS’s recent specification survey indicates that while most of the specification writing happens during the developed and technical design stages of a project, 64% of respondents consider specifying products (or at least the performance criteria for these components) during the concept design phase. So it’s important for manufacturers to become ‘design partners’ at an early stage, in order to provide advice on the best products to achieve the overall design vision and building performance.

It is critical for manufacturers to understand design intent in order to fully support architects and contractors throughout the design and specification process.

Product substitution

Within the specification and construction stages of a build, component products frequently get substituted, often for inferior products, and this results in the design intent being broken. Seventy-eight percent of respondents to the NBS specification survey agree that product substitution is still an issue in the industry, and 94% of respondents have experienced difficulties when producing or using specifications, with 57% of respondents attributing at least some of these difficulties to specified materials being substituted. Product substitution happens for several reasons and depends largely on the contract type, although it’s mainly due to reducing build costs and maximising profits. Decisions to substitute products are often made with a complete lack of understanding of the consequences that the substitution can have on the building’s performance and lifetime costs.

The value-for-money proposition needs to be carefully thought through, as a cheaper substituted product may reduce capital expenditure costs but may also significantly increase operational costs and/or durability over the building’s lifecycle, straying away from the original design intent of the build.

The component or system specification should always relate to the quality and performance required of the build. And fortunately, the NBS specification survey results indicate that 82% of respondents do consider the product’s performance criteria when they write their specifications, with 76% ensuring that the product conforms to standards. At SFS intec, our number one business-driver is to always specify the correct product that gives the correct application and performance for the locality of where that build is taking place.

Trend for re-using specifications

One of the challenges manufacturers face is the re-use of specification clauses: where specifiers have ‘cut and pasted’ a previous specification clause. The NBS specification survey results show that 60% of respondents re-use specifications written for other projects. Unfortunately, with regards to fasteners, the application of the product to that specific build could be very different due to a number of variables which may not be obvious to the specifier. Every project is unique. One size doesn’t fit all, especially not in the world of fasteners. At SFS intec, we realise that architects and designers can’t know absolutely everything about every component of the build, and that’s why we have specification and technical teams to understand the variables of each specific project and work closely with design teams to select the right product for the application.

The impact of incorrect specifications

At SFS intec, we have come across many situations in the past where a competitor’s carbon steel fastener has been used instead of a stainless steel fastener and the building occupiers have had to pay for expensive repairs at very early stages in the building’s lifecycle. We would not recommend a carbon steel fastener be used near to a corrosive environment such as a coastal area. The fastener will soon rust and affect the overall sustainability and performance of the building, possibly rendering the building dangerous.

In line with customers’ and architects’ higher design expectations for durability and performance, SFS intec has been at the forefront of the fastener industry to introduce better quality 304 and 316 stainless steel fasteners. There is a huge performance differential between carbon and stainless steel, and also between the various steel grades. SFS intec would always recommend that a 316 A4 austenitic stainless steel fastener is used, especially in coastal areas, due to its far superior performance and its ability to support extended system warranties of up to 40 years. Fasteners are an extremely technical component and shouldn’t ever be substituted without the appropriate technical knowledge and support given to the decision-maker.

The fastener is not a component that should be substituted to save on costs. Penny-pinching in the construction stage of a new build doesn’t always make sense when reviewing a building’s life costs, especially when fasteners tend to be such a tiny proportion of the overall build total and are linked to a warranted system that helps to achieve the original design intent. In addition to this, the application of fixings is very technical in terms of understanding what they’re fixing to. That’s why it’s important at the specification stage to truly understand the value of the component as a percentage of the project build and its relevance to the system performance. Fixings are a good example of those small value/high relevance components that make the difference to a good build.

Avoiding product substitution

At SFS intec, we believe in getting involved in the design and estimating stages as early as possible. We aim to understand the purpose, the usage, the application and the aesthetic characteristics of the build, as well as the warranty and life cycle that the design is trying to achieve. From this, we can ask many questions about the substrate build-up, the application build-up and the location, and then determine the correct fixings for that particular build. This should then provide true value-for-money in terms of durability, cost and performance, and should also relate back to the overall design intent. We find that most customers in the public sector and speculative property investors are very aware of their build investments and want to ensure their buildings provide good rental returns, are low cost to maintain, and are energy-efficient and durable.

The role of aesthetics in the specification process

The design intent of a build doesn’t only focus on the functionality of the building but also the aesthetics, and therefore aesthetics play a very important part in the specification process. Even fasteners and hinges need to be discreet and blend into the design background. SFS intec has invested heavily over the last few years in precision powder-coated screw heads for exterior cladding environments that can be matched to all OEM panel colours. As well as performing against rigorous fire and heavy door load capacity tests, our hinges, with their concealed mechanisms, are also available in a variety of colours to suit the door slabs. We pride ourselves on specifying fasteners and hinges for any job and application, whether it’s a standard flat-roof ‘shed’; a fashionable, high-spec zinc façade; a hinge for a local residential estate; or a high-end commercial office space.

How do manufacturers help improve the specification process?

Manufacturers need to support architects, designers and other specifiers more. The NBS specification survey results indicate that 94% of specifiers experience difficulties when writing or using specifications and 57% of them turn to manufacturers for help, collecting information from them to include within the specification. Fifty-five percent of respondents believe they don’t have enough people in their offices who know how to write a specification. Providing support to designers is not a problem for SFS intec: we’re happy to help.

From our perspective, we believe that a continual cycle of education for designers will help to improve the specification process. We offer a number of RIBA-accredited CPD seminars. But it’s also about how we continue to promote the relevance of specification clauses through NBS, ensuring the accuracy of those clauses and specifications, and how we evolve and embrace the development of Building Information Modelling (BIM). BIM will help support a more robust specification that will make it more difficult to substitute products, given the cycle of stages to achieve a federated model. It will help us to embed the specification, and therefore decision-makers will have to carefully consider the arguments for and the consequences of a product substitution. Subsequently, the value of cost savings on such a small percentage of the build value versus the risk of liability won’t make commercial sense.

SFS intec want to be seen as specialists within our field and as ‘design partners’ in the initial stages of the design. It’s interesting to note in the NBS specification survey results that 70% of respondents agree that the process works best when manufacturers are involved at an early stage. We are keen to support the architect’s BIM journey, support their education and support designing out their liability in terms of performance and application. As a manufacturer, we have the global depth and breadth of technical knowledge to understand the unique variables that may not be obvious to the specifier, so why not use those advantages to mutual benefit?

The NBS specification survey report shows that 69% of respondents do rely on manufacturers for help and support when selecting products and 57% collect information from manufacturers. Through closer links with architects, that figure will increase. At SFS intec, we are designing a new Academy where we hope to bring less experienced architects and specifiers together to aid their continuous professional development on a range of themes. We hope to work more closely with Building Colleges and Universities so that new starters can learn about all aspects of the construction industry, from component manufacturing to specifications and site construction.

Communication across the whole construction chain is absolutely vital to achieve the design intent of the build and satisfy the client’s requirements.

What other advantages can manufacturers bring to the specification process? 

It’s important for specifiers to know that manufacturers’ support shouldn’t begin and end at the design or technical development project stages, or even once the product is selected and ordered. SFS intec continues to provide support throughout the construction phase too, supporting builders with the ordering process and installation. We are known for developing bespoke products for particular applications and working closely with OEMs. All of our products are tested to ensure compliance with standards, and through our various tools we can help understand the cost savings that field fastening installation and other techniques can bring. Our technical team can provide technical documentation, warranties, pull-out tests, wind load calculations, training and site visits.

The NBS specification survey results indicate that 80% of respondents agree that better communication is needed between consultants, contractors and manufacturers to ensure effective product selection processes. I agree that communication across the whole construction chain is absolutely vital to achieve the design intent of the build and satisfy the client’s requirements. Involving manufacturers at an early stage in the specification process can only aid that journey.

This article is taken from What Specifiers Want 2017. Find out more and download the full free report including comprehensive analysis of our survey results.