How to Start Your Own Material/Product Library

One of our readers recently asked how workplaces catalogue and store information about materials and products, and how a young architect should go about building that knowledge. I remember, as a student, feeling frustrated understanding the basic properties of certain materials but not knowing to access them, what formats they came in, and at what price. So, what advice would I have for myself back then?

Firstly, I would suggest not to get ahead of yourself. While material and product knowledge feels like a very tangible thing to not know, in reality there is a deep canyon of wonderful knowledge you have yet to experience. This is why it takes so long to become an architect. As someone who is very goal and milestone oriented, this really frustrated me – but looking back, I would reassure myself that a career as an architect is a constant learning journey; your knowledge isn’t ‘useless’ in industry as a student (far from it), just as it won’t be ‘complete’ the day you get registered (again, far from it). Focus on getting experience in general, and the material and product knowledge will fall in to place as you do.

Secondly, the answer is all around you. You are surrounded by buildings built from a diverse range of materials and products – you can observe which ones are the most popular (they are probably the cheapest, often practical and easy to install), which ones are used in different applications, how durable they are, what their aesthetic qualities are and how they perform throughout different times of the day or year. Notice when a project has something different to most of the others and ask yourself why that might be. Walk past a project under construction each day and take note of what’s in the walls behind the plasterboard and cladding. Take part in local architecture tours and ask questions about materials of interest and why they were chosen. Visit local showrooms. Keep a notebook dedicated to materials and products (sketching them will help you retain and understand information much better than taking a photo that gets lost on your iPhone.) (See my previous article on why you should keep three notebooks.) The more experienced I become, the more fascinated I am with how most of the industry does things, and why they do it that way, and how it could be better. Be the best architect you can be by engaging with this kind of curiosity.

I think the paragraphs above answer the real reason this question about material libraries was asked, but I’m also happy to share what they look like in reality.

At my workplace, our material library is based on the order that we develop a project with a client – so information about floor finishes is in an earlier folder, while paint finishes are at the end. We’ve developed this over time to suit our methodology and it’s very unique to our approach – it would seem unusual to many other firms. These folders then have sub-folders for different elements, and further sub-folders for different products/brands. Our primary folder structure list is below.

1. Demolition and Salvage

2. Site and Landscaping

3. Car Accommodation and Shed

4. Pergola, Entry Cover and External Shading

5. Exterior Materials and Colours

6. Roof and Rainwater Collection

7. Windows

8. Doors

9. Floor Finishes (other than tile)

10. Appliances

11. Wet Area Fixtures

12. Joinery

13. Ceramic Tiling (and Splashbacks)

14. Shower Screens

15. Insulation and Moisture Control

16. Internal Fitout

17. Stairs and Handrail

18. Services

19. Waterproofing and Wet Area Setdowns

20. Earthworks, Concrete Footings and Slab

21. Framing

A more conventional approach is to have folders that follow the order of construction of a house/building (depending on the type of firm). To start your own, I’d recommend picking up any basic construction book – you know I love George Wilkie’s ‘Building Your Own Home’*. Open the contents page and create a list based on that! You can flex it overtime as your interest and methodology develops. Using this book as a basis, (and removing any irrelevant topics) your list would look something like:

1. Site Preparation

2. Footings

3. Drainage

4. Retaining Walls

5. Timber Floor Frames

6. Steel Flooring Systems

7. Concrete Slabs

8. Timber Wall Framing

9. Metal Wall Framing

10. Brick Veneer Construction

11. Sheet and Board Cladding

12. Solid Masonry Construction

13. Interior Linings

14. Windows

15. Doors

16. Roof framing

17. Roof tiles

18. Roof sheets

19. Ceilings

20. Services

21. Plumbing

22. Electrical

23. Appliances

24. Fixing Out

25. Trims

26. Joinery

27. Fireplace

28. Stairs

29. Car accommodation

30. Thermal Comfort

31. Floor finishes

32. Painting

Finally, I know that despite all that I’ve said you’re still hoping I’ll talk about some of my preferred products. So, here’s a few that come to mind as some of my favourites:

- Weathertex Cladding – One of the more durable, cost effective and sustainable timber claddings going around.

- Custom Orb Metal Cladding/Roofing – Quintessentially Australian, practical, durable, and much cheaper than other trendy profiles – but must be detailed correctly.

- Sanden Heat Pump Hot Water Systems – Heat pump technology is the next greatest thing in super energy efficient heating and cooling.

- Paperock Benchtops – more durable than timber, but more sustainable than fake stone, there’s a lot to love about the soft matt finish of Paperock.

At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that materials and the construction industry are constantly changing, so don’t feel pressured to ‘know it all’ - instead, develop your curiosity for materials and products as a skill that will serve you well for your entire career.

I have no affiliation with the recommended products above.

*The link to ‘Building Your Own Home’ is an affiliate link so we receive a small commission from any sales, at no cost to you.

Post publication: One of our readers had an excellent suggestion that I wanted to add here:
”Another thought, and this especially applies to students or grads working in medium to large firms, ASK to be the person that sees all the product refs that visit the office. Don’t think of it as the lackey job… think of it as the BEST training ground about products and ask as many questions as you can think of, including: What is this product’s main competitor and how are they different? What is the pricing structure and is it a budget product of a premium product? What’s the most common installation problem with this product? When this product fails or wears, (they all do), how does it fail or wear?”

Sarah Lebner