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At the recent Starnet Fall Meeting held in Boston, one of the presentations struck a nerve with me.  It was given by Paul Lewandowski IIDA AIA LEED 

Design Principal with Lavallee Brensinger Architects and titled “Notes from a Design Junkie.”  What intrigued me most were two questions posed in the presentation; what do designers want and what do designers need? It’s important to understand first that there are throngs of young designers that are starving for information they are straining to get; in this instance that would be floor covering. Understand too that the designers want to collaborate with individuals and firms who can help make their job easier by working with them to determine what product fits the application they’re working on.  Certainly design, color and fashion are paramount and a given but they need guidance to make sure the fashion of the flooring product selected fits the function for which it’s intended and that the fashion, style and color of the flooring they’ve chosen won’t compromise the performance and appearance retention of the product. 

Getting technical information is high on the list of wants and needs.  With fewer true technical people in the industry and with flooring manufacturers websites that challenge the most patient and tolerant looking for information, the time it takes to navigate through to find what you need, if it’s even there, can be a daunting and time consuming task fraught with frustration and exasperation.  Educational programs in the form of CEU’s are also a want as are plant tours to see the flooring products being produced. Information on products has to be easy to access, detailed but simple to understand and maybe even a bit tutorial.  If they seek and find a flooring manufacturer’s website that is simple to use and has all the information they’re looking for and the products that manufacturer makes look good and perform, that’s where a loyalty will develop.  

Plant tours are also a want.   The old marketing adage, “if they can see it, you can sell it” certainly applies here.  The more designers and architects know about the flooring products the more they will use them.   Manufacturers typically don’t bring designers or architects into their plants unless asked and unless a sales manager arranges a visit for valued client.  They will certainly entertain these folks coming in and would welcome them but they aren’t normally including this in their active marketing plans as a regular course of business.  That said, there are certainly exceptions in the industry that actively bring in designers and architects. When architects and designers actually get an opportunity to see the products being manufactured that they include in projects, that understanding and knowledge will allow them to promote those materials and comprehend the complexity that goes into making the product and talk about them knowledgeably.

Another want is information on product content. The green aspect of flooring has reached a point where it’s a given and if you don’t have some kind of a legitimate green story your product is not going to be anywhere near the top of the list for consideration on a project. This is especially important to millennial’s; they want to know that the products they are specifying are coming from companies that share their beliefs about the environment and society in general.   But the green information is not the only aspect of product content which would include information in the product specification and information that makes sense.  I’ll give you an example using a project we helped an architectural firm with that’s been a client of ours for nearly 30 years.  They wanted some guidance on handmade rugs and sent information from two manufacturers of this product.  Comparing the specs side by side there was almost no crossover or true comparison that could be made down the list of specification items.  We do this type of work all the time and normally can make heads or tails of what the spec says.  We have access to more information than a designer or architect and this was a challenge for us, so you can imagine how hard it would be for a designer or architect to figure this out and trying to make a decision out of an utterly confusing situation.  So, when it comes to product information and specifications manufacturers websites need to be easier to use and more user friendly.

Another want is being able to work with a trusted partner; someone who’s in the game with them; most often that’s going to be the flooring contractor, in my opinion.  A commercial flooring contractor knows a multitude of flooring products, who the best providers of them are for a particular application, what should or should not be used and why and, most importantly, how to successfully install the products and maintain them.  The flooring contractor normally lives and works in the same geographic area the design/architectural firm resides in and has the same sense of pride for a successfully completed project.  So, even though the manufacturer can deliver a sense of trust from past experience, the flooring contractor delivers the entire package and works face to face with all parties involved and can speak the same language and can run interference on the flooring project to insure there are no compromises – that’s trust that can be counted on.

The truth about design firms, according to Paul, and I agree as we hear the same from architect and designer firm clients of ours, is that they’re swamped.  They have projects in the works and not enough people to work on them.  A lot of the grunt work, so to speak, goes to interns or young talent that don’t have experience but their services, early in their careers are used for fact finding, sourcing, gathering information, procuring or taking out product from the firms library and other tasks.  The architect on the other hand, also swamped, is expected to be am expert on every finish used on a project which is not the case and virtually impossible for them. The architect too has to rely on the best information they can get or that they’re given and trust – there’s that word again – that the information they have is correct.  Very often if a flooring project fails the affected parties will come back to the architect blaming them for doing something wrong, “you picked the material and put it in the spec and you should have known better” is the cry of those disappointed by unmet expectations.  But in reality the architect, no matter how good they are, is not an expert in all of the finish materials that go into a project.  We can use the comparison to attorneys; they know the law but they don’t know every issue of any case they are involved with, that’s why they consult experts who supply them with information they don’t have or can’t get on their own.  They look for the best for guidance and trust what they’re being told, with verification. 

The architect usually doesn’t think about flooring until late in the process as it’s one of the last finishes to be installed.  The designers then usually get brought in too late by the architects and the squeeze is on to pick a product, research it, get the specs and then get it installed and you can be sure when working under this type of pressure something is liable to go wrong.  We see this often especially with carpet and in particular relative to color.  A product is selected that, according to its construction specifications, is completely capable of delivering the type of performance expected of it.  The weak link in that would be the color.  Yellow, light blue and pink for example, all colors everyone seems to love in carpet right now, present a maintenance nightmare.  Without knowing what to expect of color in relation to soiling, cleaning and maintenance, no one gives any thought to what will happen to the appearance of the carpet a short time after installation.  This is what we can refer to as being in the right church but sitting in the wrong pew.  You picked the right product not just the right color and the wrong color makes the designer the cause of the problem, because if the product looks bad the assumption is that it is bad. This is the biggest problem in the industry, the wrong product in the wrong place.  Even if the product is right the color is wrong which – bottom line – makes it the wrong product.

Paul suggests that the future requires that all parties, which includes flooring contractors, manufacturers, product representatives, professional organizations, construction managers, dealers, distributors, researchers, interior designers and architects work together on flooring projects each benefiting the other and ultimately benefiting the end user.  This type of an arrangement will create a healthy business relationship, lower the chances of flooring failures and help eliminate the dissatisfaction of the wrong flooring product, style, fashion or color wreaking havoc on an otherwise beautiful project.