Architects and specifiers alike face significant and continuous challenges when it comes to identifying and validating reliable information about construction products. Using an incorrect product for an application can lead to significant failure, and most seasoned architects have many a 'war story' about relying on a piece of information that turned out to be wrong. As an example, a waterproofing membrane was specified for a reflecting pool that was being constructed in a hospital lobby. The product was initially recommended by its manufacturer (on its technical literature and through their product representative) for the application; later the product's acceptable applications were revised without notice, and the reflecting pool use was excluded. The product was not tolerant of the high concentration of anti-bacterial chemicals dissolved in the pool's water. The membrane failed, causing the pool to leak. Deemed responsible for specifying the failed material, the architect bore some of the cost of repairing the pool.
The lesson learned, here and on countless similar instances, is that because truly reliable product information is hard to find and harder to validate, architects and specifiers must be extra diligent about verifying that the information they're using to design and specify their projects is accurate and applicable. To make matters worse, there are sources that present advocacy as if it were unbiased information, and others that purport to be neutral and designer-focused but allow marketing to pass as basic product information.
But given that there are myriad product information sources, how should architects and specifiers sort through it? How can they protect themselves from specifying a product in an application for which it's ill-suited?
Here are some tips and related caveats for use of a variety of common information sources.
Manufacturers' Data and Product Reps
While nobody knows more about their products than the manufacturers, they're not always effective at communicating that information accurately. Product data includes a lot of useful information, and should be read thoroughly, but keep in mind that it's generated for the purpose of marketing as well as informing. Getting trusted product reps involved discussing the particulars of a project will help sort out the facts. Request their input on the drawings and specs because they will be able to help choose the right product and get it correctly documented. Along the way, be sure to ask them lots of questions, not the least of which should always be, "where should your product not be used?"
Also, ask whether test results that are published in the literature have been performed on production models intended for use rather than either inferred based on similar tests or run on units fabricated under more tightly controlled conditions than production units.
Construction Magazines and Journals
There are many journals that are specific to a certain facet of the construction industry, like Durability+Design which focuses on coatings technology. These can be good sources of information on innovations within a certain industry. Other journals are general to the entire construction industry. CSI's The Construction Specifier magazine claims to be "the only peer-reviewed U.S. publication targeted to those professionals who select, recommend and influence buying decisions." The claim of peer review invokes the idea that the magazine is scholarly and that the articles have been evaluated for validity. The Construction Specifier is not truly a scholarly or scientific journal, but the peer review (actually performed by an editorial advisory board made up of CSI members) can help filter out poor quality articles. Still, it's good to be on the lookout for stealth marketing. In its February 2018 issue, a piece featured on the magazine's cover described ventilated glass facades. The article referenced general industry standards and trade associations, but was written from the point of view of a single manufacturer of cast glass panels, by a technical employee of that manufacturer. Be cautious about the sources of articles in magazines; if they have an obvious means of benefiting from readership of their pieces, ask additional questions.
International Code Council Evaluation Service (ICC-ES)
The ICC reviews and issues Evaluation Reports about products that are used by code officials to verify that building products comply with code requirements. The reports list the criteria that were used to evaluate products and how products should be installed to meet requirements. Reports can be sorted by MasterFormat number or searched by keyword. Many, but certainly not all, products are submitted to ICC-ES, and close reading of the reports is necessary to understand the limitations placed on the use of the products. For example, some EIFS manufacturers require Type X gypsum board on the interior side of the wall in order to meet the Evaluation Report requirements, if that was how the assembly was tested.
Continuing Education Sessions
CEU sessions that are accredited by AIA or other organizations are required to be non-proprietary and unbiased, not promoting or marketing the CEU provider's products or services. The American Institute of Architects also provides the following guideline in their CES Provider Manual Polices and Resources, that any approved "course should be created by qualified subject matter experts, and presented by individuals with a background in education or skilled presenters on the subject matter." One thing AIA neglects to say in their policies is that the course content be true, or that claims made during presentations must be supported by evidence. So like with magazine articles, gauge the quality of the information provided by determining who stands to benefit by its presentation.
Another problem with CEUs is that attendees will often not know who they're targeting as an audience. Some sessions are advertised as providing a deep dive on a technical topic but in fact are just surface skims. Perhaps the organizations who register the courses should include a level, from 100 to 400, for example, indicating who would benefit from each session.
Webinars and Roundtables
CSI and other organizations present technical information in specialized webinars. CSI's Specifying Community is an example. The community hosts monthly webinars for its members on a variety of technical topics of interest to specifiers. Chicago Chapter CSI also hosts several technical and specifications roundtables each month. These offer an informal setting to gather and discuss detailed elements of a particular topic with topic experts. The open discussion setting permits dialog and in-depth follow-up on the topics at hand.
Searching Google for a topic often brings back a lot of useless web pages, but targeting your search carefully may return good results. Google image searches can be particularly useful. Need to find the difference between an eave and a rake? Image search on 'sloped roof components.' For basic things like that, Google is a quick and easy way to find it.
Talking to experienced architects and specifiers can be a great way to learn about products, but of course not everyone has had an experience with everything. The best thing you can do is develop relationships with a group of people that you can go to with questions, and be available to share your knowledge as well. CSI meetings are a great way to build this network. Other sources are the message boards on places like 4specs.com, where specifiers' knowledge, successes and horror stories are shared.
And, of course, Conspectus is always available and happy to help and share what we know.
Have any other great suggestions? Leave us a comment!