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What challenges are facing architects today when it comes to product specification? And what can manufacturers do to help? Building Design spoke to over 300 architects to find out, including Richard Gatti from Gatti Routh Rhodes

Richard Gatti

Richard Gatti, founding partner at Gatti Routh Rhodes

Gatti Routh Rhodes was established in 2013, won BD’s Young Architect of the Year in 2019 and now comprises a staff of six. Its work ranges from furniture design to private housing work for domestic clients and up to large-scale work for local authorities. We spoke to founding partner Richard Gatti.

What are the issues currently impacting on specification and how are these changing?

There is the post-Grenfell issue around product specification. When you specify a product, especially regarding fire safety, you are reliant on classifications done by others. Some manufacturers have been misleading the product certification bodies. So you end up wondering whether you can trust the products being specified to do what is claimed.

I’m not against the revision of fire regulations or increasing safety, but there are things about the fire regs post-Grenfell that don’t seem to make a lot of sense. For instance, we can’t use mass timber anywhere near the facade of buildings. That is certainly the case for residential buildings over 18m high, but clients and insurers have interpreted this as that we can’t use it at all, for post-completion insurance reasons. In reality, mass timber can perform as well as or better than steel or concrete in a fire and it’s certainly a significant weapon in the fight against climate change.

Other issues are that it’s hard to talk to lift manufacturers and that mortar samples are impossible to get hold of. That’s an industry-wide problem.

How are you responding to these specification challenges?

It’s not uncommon to specify based on what we have done before or something that we have seen that we like, such as a new product in a magazine. There is a potential challenge in terms of getting stuck in a rut, but it depends what is being specified. The internet makes it very easy to get samples, as most people send these out free. But this means lots of people are shipping stuff out which is then chucked out or just collects dust.

Where do you turn for information on product specification issues?

The internet – to the British Board of Agrément and GreenSpec or previously things like Specification Today. Or we use what other people have used.

“The internet makes it very easy to get samples, as most people send these out free. But this means lots of people are shipping stuff out which is then chucked out or just collects dust.”

How confident are you in these sources of information?

The BBA haven’t come well out of the Grenfell Inquiry. The notion that it’s somehow the architect’s fault because they specified something certified to be fire-resistant, but which isn’t, feels deeply problematic.

What are the issues or topics where specification knowledge is lacking?

The knowledge gap is often with insurers and clients and with building control rather than with architects.

What do you think would help improve knowledge on challenging specification issues - and how could manufacturers help?

We end up with quite a lot of samples in the office. It would be helpful to have more places with sample libraries. They do exist – some are set up by consortia of practices, and the Building Centre too but has an odd selection and is so far away. If there was one close to our office, I’d pay, but otherwise probably not. If there was one run by manufacturers, it would be limited.

What product developments would you like to see to ease some of these challenges?

Everyone claims their product is the most environmentally friendly – green concrete and steel, carbon positive timber. You have to take your own position on net zero, but it doesn’t feel there’s

a single consistent measure that covers cradle to grave or even cradle to site. You must make a decision whether something locally sourced is better than something made from waste timber, for instance.