Karien Slabbert talks to industry specifiers and suppliers about the ins and outs of high-specification products in the South African built environment.

When it comes to building industry materials and products, durability and performance bear a lot of weight. But client requirements, legislation, as well as cost and budget, often play a defining role in tipping the hi-spec scale, writes Karien Slabbert.

An article published in Architectural Digest highlights the fact that today’s great feats of architectural ingenuity are pushing the field in bold new directions. “Architecture at its visionary best engages, exhilarates and inspires. It possesses a quality – almost indescribable – that embodies design ingenuity, connection to place and above all, imagination.” However, most industry specifiers would attest to the fact that high-end, cutting-edge designs call for high-specification, or hi-spec, products and are more costly. Ultimately one’s designs can only be as flexible, exhilarating, cutting-edge and off the charts as the materials – and budget – at one’s disposal allow them to be.

Raising the bar
With hi-spec building industry materials and products, durability and performance are of key importance. From a manufacturer’s perspective, noteworthy challenges include servicing the industry, incorporating the latest research into new products and developing new system solutions that adhere to building codes and standards.

In turn, architectural specifiers seek innovative, integrated, high-performance products and services. They need efficient outcomes for often-precarious built environments that will produce optimum cost and quality dividends. With high-end developments, the golden thread that ties all these aspects together is innovation and customised, solution-driven products.

A paradigm shift
Stephan van Niekerk, site agent at Dalmar Construction, says there has been a major shift regarding materials used in the construction industry over the last 15 years. He points out the following key denominators:

  • Costing: The modern-day trend is to construct a building – regardless of the type – that is safe, as well as cost-effective. This means as cheap as possible without jeopardising the safety and quality of the building.
  • Environment: Pollution and general day-to-day living costs increase annually and, as a result, we need to find ways to help save our planet and minimise costs simultaneously. This is where green building plays a big role. Solar power, energy-saving lights, heat pumps, better building insulation, water-retention and filtration systems, and materials found in the natural environment have become increasingly popular over the years.
  • Time: We live in a time where everything needs to be done immediately and the building industry is no exception. For instance, in-situ slabs as opposed to pre-cast concrete have become less implemented in the construction of multi-storey housing. This is due to the fact that it takes more time to use this material. Pre-cast slabs take a day to put up, where in-situ slabs take about a week. Saving time means saving money, and at the end of the day both the client and the contractors benefit from this. But it is important to never sacrifice quality and safety to save time and a few rands.
  • Market: The market has changed in recent years, which also influences the use of hi-spec products. In earlier years, certain companies had the monopoly in supplying materials like tiles or cement. Today there are an increasing number of companies manufacturing materials, making the market more competitive. This gives a person more options on a certain product, which increases availability and keeps prices of certain products much cheaper.

Eduan Kruger, a quantity surveyor at Central Development Projects, points out that specification has become more advanced and more detailed over the last few years. He says that clients’ requirements and local regulations determine how they specify products for hi-spec installations. Although budget dictates product preferences, Kruger says customised solutions are preferable on all upmarket or up-spec developments.
But the decision does not rest with one person. According to Van Niekerk, a range of role-players is involved in specifying products for hi-spec installations. “If you have an appointed engineer, architect, interior decorator or project manager, they usually specify certain materials to be used,” he notes. Van Niekerk reiterates the fact that the specification process depends on the budget and the client’s preference.

The technology revolution
Radinka van der Walt, an architect at Wolff Architects in Cape Town, says technological developments have broadened the range of high-quality products that are readily available to specifiers across the board. “With better technology, almost all products have improved over the years and in some cases certain products would not even have existed without today’s technology,” she notes.
In this regard, Van der Walt is of the opinion that nanotechnology has played a profound role in product development. “Take for instance the self-cleaning paint or glass that is available nowadays. There are all sorts of products on the market that would not have existed without nanotechnology. One product that I have used before with proven results is the self-cleaning paint for exterior conditions,” she notes.

Price tag
Undeniably hi-spec products come with a higher price tag. According to Kruger, they are willing to pay more for these products. “But it depends on the target market we are developing properties for. For upmarket developments, hi-spec products would most definitely be used, as well as for properties that remain in our ownership for more than five to ten years. For low-cost housing and other low-cost developments it is all about keeping to a very strict budget.”
Van Niekerk agrees that budget plays a very important role in the type of materials that are used for specific projects. “When doing a cost estimate on a project, we price on the methods and materials we usually work with. But if there is a specified budget, we need to make adjustments in either the materials to be used or the application methods to fit into the specification,” he notes.

Bottom line versus quality
“Whether a client is willing to pay more for longevity and a higher-spec product, all depends on what the product is used for,” says Van Niekerk. “When the product serves a specialised function, it is better to get the best-quality product, keeping in mind that it might be more costly to prolong the service you would get out of it. For instance, a cheaper paint will not last as long as a named brand that comes with a guarantee. And it makes financial sense to use the more expensive paint than to repaint a building every two or three years,” he notes.

Hi-spec products often require minimum or no maintenance. When using traditional materials, one needs to consider the cost of renovations and repair, such as repainting the interior and exterior of buildings or fixing roofing. This leads to downtime, disruptions in productivity, as well as maintenance costs, such as labour and renting scaffolding. When considering these budgetary issues, customised solutions could have a positive impact on one’s long-term financial bottom line.

According to Van der Walt, both customised solutions and budget play a role in specifying products. She notes: “There are definitively certain solutions that we know would be the best, but if the client cannot afford them, we must go for something a bit cheaper. In some cases, we would make a case as to why we believe this specific product would be best and rather make a saving somewhere else. For instance, we are currently working on a project located in an area with high air pollution, and for this project we would demand a self-cleaning exterior paint.”

Lifecycle analysis
As such, lifecycle analysis plays a role in specifying products. Van Niekerk explains: “When doing a lifecycle analysis, it is important to compare the price versus how long the product will last. It doesn’t make sense to go for a product that’s much more expensive, but doesn’t last much longer than a cheaper product.” It all depends on whether it is financially viable versus longevity of the product.

Ins and outs
An important question to ask is whether there is a specific checklist for choosing hi-spec products. Kruger says that although they use a checklist for interior and exterior environmental factors, it is not very detailed. Van Niekerk adds that the process is quite simple. He explains: “When using a product on the outside of a building, one must make sure that the product will last in harsh temperatures, rain, snow, cold weather etc. Most products do state if it is safe to use for exterior purposes.” Conversely, interior products still have to comply with high standards, but they do not necessarily have to be as tough and durable as their exterior counterparts.

According to Van der Walt, their practice does not have a checklist. “But every project and its location would go through an analysis process done by the architects to determine its specific needs with regards to internal and external situations where hi-spec products would be recommended to the client.”

Technology-driven hi-spec products present a range of solutions.

Surface applications

  • Paints that are free of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) offer a healthier, environmentally-friendly solution.
  • Light-reflective white paints offer an illusion of space in otherwise cramped environments.
  • Customised air-cleaning paints provide antimicrobial protection against harmful bacteria, such as E.coli and Staphylococcus aureus and does not wash or wear off during the lifetime of the paint. This provides an ideal solution in areas where cross-contamination, illness and infection need to be eliminated, such as hospitals and food production and processing units.
  • Tiles that include photocatalysts – which works like chlorophyll photosynthesis in nature – help clear the air of pollution.

The flipside: supplying materials and technologies

Architects and design professionals know how important it is to express their own personal style and creativity in their work. Fulfilling this goal means finding aesthetically compelling materials that can help to bring their vision to life. Some of the advantages of these materials include diversity and flexibility.

Environmental solutions: According to Stephen Wilkinson, managing director of Rheinzink South Africa, for architects, developers and builders, in today’s age of sustainable construction, there is a new dimension to appreciation and application of architectural detail and materials. This new challenge is underscored by concerns over power supply and the growing global respect for the basics of sustainable construction. This respect is evident in measures to calculate and analyse a building’s energy consumption, to categorise a building according to ecological, economic, socio-cultural and technical criteria, and to measure the influence a building and its materials have on the environment.

Demand-specific solutions: From corporate and hospitality, to retail and educational facilities, when it comes to hi-spec products, demand- and legislation-specific solutions play a key role. With regard to fenestration requirements, The South African Glass and Glazing Association highlights the importance of Solar Heat Gain Coefficient (SHCG) and U-value, as stipulated by SANS 10400-XA. In this regard, architectural window film improves the performance of fenestration. Products by specialist companies, such as Llumar, help save energy, provides security protection, enhances privacy and design, as well as controlling permanent damage. All while adhering to regulations.

Made to measure solutions: Large-scale constructions also call for specialised products. For example, when constructing extensive and highly complicated structure, such as power stations, construction chemicals such as liquid waterproofing compounds, super laycryl professional liquid waterproofing, ecofelt fibre material, as well as cementituous and waterproofing slurry are indispensible.

Product rules and regulations are put in place to ensure that everyone, especially the end-user, is protected. There are stringent policies and procedures with regard to the way various products are manufactured and installed. The National Building Regulations determine the way in which all companies operating in the building industry should conduct their business. To ensure safety, products need to be durable and robust enough to oppose certain pressures that they are subject to.

Upping the stakes
Many variables play a role in specifying hi-spec products. They should be flexible enough to ensure creativity and harmoniously adapt to any architectural environment. But beyond creativity lies a plethora of other weighty issues, such as cost, building regulations and a gamut of other project-specific considerations. Van der Walt says: “I think that everyone should pay more for a product that proves to be better and have a longer lifecycle than its less pricy competitor that cannot live up to these expectations. But unfortunately, every project has a limited budget. If one can afford it, I would certainly recommend going for the higher-spec product.”