Evaluating a new or unfamiliar building product takes time and should be done carefully. A wrong decision can result in unwanted consequences like construction lawsuits and a damaged reputation. This is a big reason why architects and others in the construction industry often tend to eschew new products in favor of what they are already used to. The downside to this approach is that there are products on the market with significant advantages that are cast aside due to perceived risks, real and imagined. Fortunately, there are reliable and verifiable metrics that can help guide you into getting more comfortable with an unfamiliar product.
Third party testing exists to provide a standardized way of evaluating whether or not a product performs the way it is supposed to. ASTM, IAPMO, NSF, ISO and UL are just a few of the larger testing entities that analyze a wide range of material and building system properties such as hardness, fire rating, wear-resistance, wind-resistance, waterproofness, accelerated weathering, tensile strength, permeability and more.
If there is a competing product you are already using then one way to get comfortable with a newer product is to compare its testing data with the new product to be sure that they can both be considered to be “approved equals.” Some smaller companies may not have performed every test that a more established company has completed. Some of these tests can cost more than $50,000 and have to be annually updated for further fees. If a manufacturer has not yet completed a test they may be willing to do it if they believe there is a significant sales opportunity that may arise from doing so.
Sometimes, it may be worthwhile to convince a manufacturer’s rep to promote this test internally but don’t forget that these tests take time so be sure its completion fits within your project window. It is also very easy to get caught up on what testing entity performed the test even if the results are the same. As long as the test is from a reputable entity it is usually a safe bet that the same results on different tests mean the same performance characteristics. Occasionally, a manufacturer will not have a test completed. This may rule them out completely or you may want to still give them a chance if other key product metrics are met.
When selling new products some manufacturers place their prospects on a continuum ranging from “early-adopters” to more conservative buyers and specifiers. Early adopters tend to try newer products and they will “see how it goes.” Based on the success or failure of a given installation they may or may not use the product in the future. More conservative decision makers tend to only use a new product once all their competitors are using it and it actually hurts them more to not use it than to use it. Where do you fall on this spectrum?
Some manufacturers have been around for decades but only have projects completed in one region. Other companies may only be a few years old but have completed projects over a wide geography. In general, the longer a company has been in business and the more projects they have completed the more comfortable you can feel about using them in the future. Also, look on the company’s website to see what marquis customers a manufacturer has.
Certain types of building owners are much more careful about what products they use than others. Municipalities, universities, large tech companies, retail chains and others are helpful to look for when considering a manufacturer’s portfolio because they are larger and have more personnel resources to evaluate the products they choose for their buildings.
Another pitfall is to rule out products that have not been installed near you. Climate zones and other conditions can be almost identical in different parts of the world. If you are concerned about how a product performs in a particularly hot area, for example, you should seek a reference project that has been installed in one. Even if the reference project is not in proximity to your own location, you don’t want to miss out on a potentially valuable case study by only looking for projects close by.
If a new or unfamiliar product does not purport to offer some significant benefit over what you have been using then you are probably not going to spend a lot of time considering it. In some cases where you need to have multiple products on a list for competitive bidding then competitive advantages matter less but usually you are looking into a new product because it does something better. Examples of better performance characteristics include:
Sometimes the product benefit is so great that the other metrics become less important. That said, often a competitive benefit will have a corresponding drawback that must also be considered.
The financial aspects of a product are typically divided into two categories: first cost and operating costs. It is often the case that products with higher first costs tend to have reduced operating costs. Whether you are a consultant or an owner, it may be crucial to weigh higher first costs versus long-term savings.
It is helpful to consider what the expected length of ownership of the building is? A long-term owner like a school, municipality or university may be able to absorb a higher first cost if the return on investment (ROI) is short enough to be justified. With building improvements in energy retrofits, the desired ROI is typically 2-5 years whereas a longer ROI can often be absorbed by more permanent structural core and shell elements like cladding, insulation, and roofing.
Many other characteristics of a product and its installation will have economic influences as well. For example, products that can reduce construction time can get occupants in buildings faster thereby generating more revenue for entities like hotels, retail centers, and others. Other products that reduce the number of tradespeople for a particular work scope can offer savings as well because there is less chance of work from one trade being damaged by another trade that comes in after. An example of this may be seen in the context of Semco, one of PuraTerra’s manufacturer partners, which offers a single material that provides patching, grading, waterproofing, slip resistance and a finish coating all in one material.
A smart manufacturer will have considered the various ways that their product saves money. Please look for future articles on how to evaluate their claims using references and specifics from your own project.
When considering a product with which you are unfamiliar, one way to become more comfortable is to ask for people and projects that have already used the product in the past. However, one of the downsides of tracking down references is that you have to spend time calling and emailing people who are often as busy as you are, and they ultimately get no particular benefit in helping you.
That said, references can offer a wealth of information and can provide tips to ensure you avoid any mistakes someone else may have made in using the product themselves. Examples of this could be ordering the material too late, bad timing with scheduling a given trade or using a finish that requires more maintenance.
The biggest mistakes some may make is not calling on references at all and assuming that, because they had been provided, they will necessarily be positive. Sometimes a reference will have been happy with the product up until recently but the manufacturer doesn’t know that their opinion has changed. This can be a risk reduction gold mine.
When talking to references it is helpful to have a list of questions rather than just letting them speak about their experience. The following is an example of questions to use:
The above metrics will be helpful in determining whether a new or unfamiliar building product will be a fit for your project. To save you time, try to have the product rep do as much of the work for you as possible. They are typically willing to do this to earn your business. There may be room for embellishing in some areas but most reps want repeat business rather than a one-off sale and know that their reputation is going to make or break the chance for future sales. Some of the work will have to be done by you alone and the upside is that you can use new products to distinguish your work and provide better solutions to your clients and your team.
PuraTerra uses these metrics when evaluating new and innovative manufacturers to represent in the sustainable building sphere, and we hope these methods can be helpful for you as well!