I’m sitting waiting in a Las Vegas resort conference room for Marc Kushner to come in at the 2017 BIMCON. He walks in cheerfully and greets me, donned in black jeans, black shoes and a black long-sleeve sweatshirt—an outfit he later tells attendees at his keynote resembles a burglar. But he’s sticking with it—the all black—because at some point “it just seems pointless to fight the architect stereotype.” So why not embrace it?
Yes, Kushner is an architect. But he is also the co-founder of Architecture super site Architizer.com. And he is here at GRAPHISOFT’s user conference to share some news—some fantastic information—that architects may not be acutely aware of.
The Big Spenders
It turns out architects are some of the biggest spenders on the planet, specifying over $570 billion in products for the built environment out of a $1 trillion market. With that kind of purchasing power, you would think the manufacturers of building products would be knocking their doors down. But that’s not quite happening.
Kushner wants to fix this. And to do so, he intends to change the relationship completely around. And he has built a new online platform— a marketplace—purposely made to do just that.
“You shouldn’t have to get on the phone to start to shopping around for windows,” says Kushner, “right? And then get these phone calls for the rest of your life.” As an architect who also has a thriving practice, he is aware of the pain points architects face, and he is describing one of them.
“So it’s called ArchitizerSource™ and its been up and running for a year in beta in New York,” he adds, “and we are just now expanding it, 15 firms are coming on board each month.”
Architecture in a Media Revolution
To frame ArchitizerSource correctly, we need to know something about Kushner. He understands we are in the midst of a media revolution, the same media revolution that is unhinging social and political institutions that long believed they were immune to society’s media convulsions.
“I spoke about this in my TED talk,” he adds, “which is that social media has changed how people consume architecture.”
“So if you consider the revolution that has happened on the consumer media side, you can expect the same thing to happen to the business side of architecture. So what we are looking at with Architizer is how we find building products.”
Here is how architects find building products today. They go hunting for them. For anything new, anything they never used before, they are off on a fox hunt. And today that starts with Google, at least 95% of the time, or so says a proprietary industry source we are not at liberty to cite.
They Will Come—To Us?
In today’s consumer market if someone is hunting for a new thing they may Google it first, but they often end up at places like Amazon, where you can read people’s reviews, look at star ratings, and consume pictures and videos. “Nothing like that exists in the building products world,” he adds, “there are no reviews.”
ArchitizerSource is shooting to change that. Here is how it works. Architects describe what they are looking for; they ping relevant manufacturers who respond to the pricing, lead times, and product specs. “And then the architect can make an informed decision,” says Kushner, “with sort of a snapshot of what the industry has for them, without revealing the architect’s identity.”
The whole goal is that the architects don’t have to go hunting for building products anymore, they only need to describe in words, pictures, drawings, and BIM models what they need in their building designs. The manufacturers then come to them. After all, they want the business—and it’s a huge business, in the hundreds of billions.
We all know that bigger companies get better health insurance deals; “scale” has its advantages. But architects are predominantly smaller companies. The manufacturers are larger than they are. But what ArchitizerSource is aiming to do is serve as a type of consolidated proxy for the architects—and a huge force multiplier.
An Implicit Recommendation Engine
What’s fascinating about what Kushner is telling me is how they got there. Architizer.com started as a user-generated site to help architects like him and his partner—the younger firms—get the word out about their great work. For those who are not aware, you can create a free portfolio of your firm’s work at Architizer, as well as research products and view architecture all day long.
“At first we got a lot of pictures, but then we started getting a lot of data,” says Kushner. “So now we get uploaded spec sheets. So we know what products are in the buildings. Which means we have retroactively built a catalog of 18,000 building manufacturers who are used in specific projects by specific architects.”
“So even today on the platform,” he says, “you can look up Jeane Gang’s firm [Studio Gang] and look up the Aqua Tower, and you can see all the building products that are used in the Aqua Tower.”
“So it becomes an implicit recommendation engine, which is already more than we have now. But the next step is actual recommendations. Let’s put it this way: you have spent a year putting together these construction documents, and you sit down with a contractor, and he looks up at you and says, ‘this product is shit, and I’ve installed it; it’s garbage.’ And then you feel like an idiot and how were you supposed to know that?”
Architects Will Be Kind To Each Other–It’s In Their Best Interest
Kushner and the folks at Architizer are convinced that architects will be open with each other. When they first started with the idea of Architizer the criticism was that architects would not freely upload their projects.
But they did.
Going back to the contractor’s patronizing comments—something younger architects must endure like some fraternity hazing ritual, “…collectively the industry knows that; so we should be saying that to each other,” says Kushner.
I ask how architects will pass this well-earned knowledge back upstream to ArchitizerSource so that other architects benefit. He says it will work similarly, perhaps, to LinkedIn’s recommendations. “You know, LinkedIn has been careful to be only on the positive side. So we thought that might be the way to go, but you can still read between the lines.”
What is powering Architizer’s faith in their new initiatives and plans is something though, perhaps more fundamental. “Whatever mentality that has invaded our brains now where we want to share everything has also invaded architecture as well. So no,” he adds, “I don’t think anyone is truly going to be altruistic and just come and do it. The way we envision it happening is we are playing off the tight-knit culture of architecture. When I appeal to an architect I tend to get help, right?”
The Building Manufactures’ Response
Kushner’s theory about the benefit to architects in ArchitizerSource is very sound. More than a digital version of the Sweets catalogs, what makes ArchitizerSource of high-value is its connection to a massive, collective body of architectural projects. Finding products through what other architects have done with products is useful.
The ability to have some kind of recommendation system, even if today it’s just implicit in the use of products on certain architecture firms’ projects begins to suggest how the tight-knit industry of architects can look out for each other. But there is also the question of will the manufacturers get on board too?
Now it turns out that a lot of manufacturers are excited about ArchitizerSource—which Kushner just calls “Source”—because at the end of the day, as he says, “All they want to do is get specified by architects.” But he admits the biggest manufacturers aren’t quite as excited as the smaller and mid-level ones. And he also admits this is challenging cultural assumptions within architecture too and the way architects operate.
As a bunch, architects are extremely risked adverse. Once they find their “go-to” solutions, they tend to stick with them. ArchitizerSource is the thing that disrupts the old school sales relationships in the industry. “The manufacturers like it the way it has been,” he says, “because we are so dis-incentivized to find alternatives that once they build a relationship they know they are going to get the sales.”
Competition Is Good For Innovation
But what if they didn’t just get the sales so easily anymore?
If architects have a way to mitigate the risk of specifying a product they have never used before—through an online marketplace that gives them the equivalent of Amazon’s 1500 reviews and five stars, implicit recommendations from firms with deep benches of experience—wouldn’t that change things, foster more competition?
Yes. It likely would, is Kushner’s belief.
At the moment there is no place on the Internet for manufacturers even to catalog what architects are looking for much less what about those products matter to them the most. “Our hope is that by gathering up that information and feeding it back to the manufacturers we can speed up the innovation cycle in building products,” says Kushner, “which is currently pretty glacial.”
He says ArchitizerSource is also invaluable for value engineering exercises. “Our favorite success story is a ten-person engineered wood flooring company out of Brooklyn, who got a meeting with SHoP Architects for a 100,000 square foot project—a huge buy,” he says. “They didn’t win the job, but they got the meeting with SHoP, and now they have an avenue to get their products in front of their decision-makers at the right time—that is invaluable.”
This video above showcases how SHoP Architects has used ArchitizerSource to design and specify the materials for Uber’s new headquarters building.
The team at Architizer believes that once you apply that dynamic to the entire industry, through a consolidated marketplace like what ArchitizerSource is building, the manufacturing industry will see a shift in R&D.
I challenge his confidence on that certainty.
“Well, I like to think of Elon Musk’s roof tiles,” says Kushner. “It took Elon Musk to come into our industry and show us that we could do roof tiles differently. Really? Like we literally needed a Messiah to come to show us we could do roof tiles differently—because there is almost no innovation in our industry. I mean it’s so incremental it verges on nothing.”
I agree with the strength of his poignant point and inject the word “glacial” into our convo.
“Exactly! They should be on the same innovation schedule as Apple—and the car manufacturers. It’s really criminal,” he passionately adds, “that the people in my architecture firm are specifying the exact same shit I specified 15 years ago when I started out.”
For those architects who are interested in learning more about ArchitizerSource™, or would like to participate in the late beta program possibly, they can venture over here to this site for more info.