Left to right: Tobias Honey, Leila M Asl and Benjamin Piper
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Left to right: Tobias Honey, Leila M Asl and Benjamin Piper

Roundtable: Dubai-based architects gather to discuss specifying for projects

At a recent roundtable held by Middle East Architect, Dubai-based architects came together to discuss the nature of specifying products, such as surface materials and glass, for their projects in the region.

Those who attended included Benjamin Piper, partner and design principal at Killa Design; Tobias Honey, associate design director at VX Studio and Leila M Asl, founder and director of bma studio. The three agreed that general challenges in specifying for projects include developers often opting to work with suppliers they have a past with, which affects the end quality of buildings, as well as a lack of proper communication from suppliers. The architects further noted that increased communication from suppliers would help diversify and distinguish architectural work in the GCC.



“One of the recent trends that we have been experiencing is that clients are more interested in performance-based classification,” started Piper. “So, let’s say in the past, it was traditional to mention specific products or perhaps a range of products that were pre-approved by the architectural designer.

The concern there for some of the clients was that they’re not getting the best possible prices, or the widest range of potential products… On the one hand, it could be seen as the opening up of wider possibilities for products to be used within a specific project, but often times, it’s the consultant that has a real, professional experience of those products, and for them to give the best possible advice, it often involves being quite specific in what products are specified, because they have insider knowledge of how those products perform over time.”

Piper added that this often creates a trade-off between being very specific in one specification, which protects the quality and gives the architect the responsibility of that choice, and being more generic in the specification, allowing the free market to compete and effectively allow the client to find the best price.

“What tends to happen is that you might be specific about a particular product or specify a system, which is most appropriate for the job, but the clients have their own relationships already established with some suppliers,” added Honey. “This sort of cuts the designer out in some ways, and you might actually disagree with the products that have been specified because they compromise the design.”

The architects added that clients in the GCC are more involved in projects than clients elsewhere, who tend to look at the overall package value supplied by the architects and determine whether or not it’s acceptable. In the GCC, clients are far more hands-on and detail oriented.

“In 90 percent of my projects in the GCC, clients tend to be involved in every detail,” said Asl. “And regardless of their technical knowledge, they ask to see everything and various samples from different suppliers. I think trust plays a big part in it.”

“There’s more of a clearly defined legal framework in other developed markets,” added Piper. “From the client’s point of view, the consultant bears a somewhat ambiguous responsibility, so they may pay a bit of a premium to allow the architect to specify, and if something goes wrong, it’s pretty clear who’s responsible. In this market, it’s blurry in terms of how that decision-making takes place.”

“Sometimes you hit this wall where you don’t want to recommend something you don’t believe in, but the client wants you to because they feel uncomfortable taking the responsibility, and in the end, the project manager will often take some kind of executive role, and that’s somewhat unusual,” he added.

The architects noted that such decisions often negatively affect the resulting quality of the building, from constant leaks in walls and ceilings due to cheap product materials to high electricity and water costs for the operator.

“People here see what’s done in the US or Australia, or even China, and they think ‘wow, that is fantastic,’ but here in the GCC, it still lacks quality, and there has to be a reason why a lot of
these details aren’t delivered in the end,” said Honey.

So how can architects influence decision-making in terms of specification for projects? Firstly, there needs to be better communication between suppliers and architect firms.

“Suppliers should be sending architects emails with BIM models in them,” said Piper. “And they should include all of the specifications, from pricing to whatever meta data you want. It’s convenient for us, and it takes the path of least resistance. There’s so much competitive advantage to any supplier that does that, because then we can easily incorporate their products into our design proposals.”

Honey added, “Even prior to BIM, during the rendering stage, if a client absolutely falls in love with the vision, and wants the street lamps or what have you and you know who actually has these models then there’s a huge incentive to just specify that particular product, because it saves everyone time.”

Piper, Honey and Asl also said that making introductions between suppliers and clients at the right time has previously gone a long way.

“When you know someone who has a specific product, often times, making a simple introduction works,” said Honey.

“There’s a very critical point in design where it’s just a vision, and you get your high level decision-makers basically approving it,” said Piper. “Now after that point, you either have to then match that design somehow and if the products mentioned are ambiguous then you leave it open ended. If you can show the actual element exists in the real world, and show it used, and that gets approved by the decision-maker, that product is most likely going to get specified.”

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