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Building Product Manufacturers: What We Learned at the CSI Master Specifiers Retreat

Feb 2016

This year’s Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) Master Specifiers Retreat brought together senior specifiers from across the country for two and one-half days of education, group networking, and one-on-one meetings with building product manufacturers.
In addition to the formal presentations, the retreat provided VI an opportunity to sit down face-to-face with specifiers for focused conversations about material and product selection and how these tasks are accomplished in some of the most well-respected firms in the country. CSI calls these sessions “knowledge exchanges,” and for a very good reason. We have always thought of these sessions as a form of educational speed-dating as participants sit on opposite sides of a small conference table and talk about subjects ranging from basic material properties, to new product applications, to perspectives on design, sustainability and resilience.
We had 30 minutes for each of these appointments, which gave us adequate time for quality discussions. We found the meetings to be open and sincere.
The specifiers we talked with are generally fine with vinyl, knowing that it performs and that is usually the best choice in the applications for which they specify it. But they also need our help. Specifiers want easy access to objective product and materials information, and they want access to continuing education so they can make sound material and product choices. 

Specifiers need better data to make decisions.
Here are three things specifiers say they want from product manufacturers:

  • Better market information. Most specification professionals are fine with vinyl, but they struggle with misinformation in the marketplace.
  • Material-specific characteristics. Specifiers said they need access to information about material characteristics and incompatibilities.
  • Data and best practices. Specifiers asked for information on manufacturer and industry improvement and best practice, along with the specification language to support it.

Specifiers also stressed that educational, technical and personal outreach continues to be a productive strategy for manufacturers, and they said that involvement with CSI and its many programs is beneficial.

Specifiers are frustrated by the “green” conversation.
The construction specifiers we talked with are generally supportive of the goals of sustainability. And there continues to be growing awareness of the Green Building Initiative and GreenGlobes as a viable and attractive alternative to LEED. Many said, however, that they feel that the increasing complexity of LEED (especially in the materials and resources area) has caused confusion for their firms and clients. They expressed frustration with green advocates for using red lists and de-selection rather than relying on sound science and demonstrated performance.
In addition, specifiers said that even design firms publicly not in favor of vinyl widely specify it. And in spite of design firm green-advocacy branding, they said that building owners are the ones who usually determine product use on any given project.
The specifiers we talked with tend to be technically competent and pragmatic—and our conversations focused on both the complexity of whole-building green rating systems and the cost of implementation. One specifier expressed concern over LEED Silver mandated school buildings in his state, designed and built at taxpayer expense. Hard costs aside, he asked: Does a green building rating on a school necessarily mean the school produces better students?
Health Product Declarations (HPDs) and human wellness were also topical, and we had the opportunity to discuss “hazards vs risks” with many of the retreat attendees. One specifier, describing himself as “skeptical,” was well aware of this topic and has written blog posts on the subject. Others hadn’t really thought much about it, but did express a desire to maintain a balanced approach in their material and product selection process.

Bringing together specifiers and product manufacturers adds nuance to the conversation.
The Construction Specifications Institute is one of the preeminent professional organizations in the construction industry, and CSI is a proven channel for building product manufacturers to reach design professionals. Its specifier members are critical to the process of making product and material selections and documenting the design decisions of the building team.
As the recognized authority on how products and materials are selected and specified, CSI is able to offer opportunities at the retreat for unique, advanced continuing education and progressive thinking. The luxury of time also enabled us to have informal conversations during session breaks and while sharing meals. Since the Vinyl Institute has been participating in the CSI Retreat for four years, we experienced the benefit of better recognition with members, manufacturers and CSI staff.
Next year’s Master Specifiers Retreat will be held in Tucson, Arizona, at the JW Starr Pass Resort and Spa on January 26-28, 2017. We hope to see you there. In the meantime, we encourage all building product manufacturers to engage with CSI at the local and national levels.