Jesse Lefkowitz

To realize how far product and material choices have come in the past five to seven years, one needs only to look into the master bath of a recent home by Santa Monica, Calif.–based Belzberg Architects. The clients had a favorite orchid, which the architects recreated in stunning pixilated color on an entire wall with tiny ceramic tiles. The image was generated on an in-house computer and sent to the tile manufacturer for printing. The result: an art installation, like having a gallery in your own bathroom, but without the hassle and expense of hand work.

The digital revolution has made mass-customization increasingly common, down to the last detail. Today, many manufacturing companies are able to accommodate one-off requests at a competitive price point. That makes clicking through online catalogs—another digital-era gift—only the starting point for design possibilities. It’s no longer simply a choice between, say, a clear or translucent curtain wall; now architects can design a pattern of gradated filters that control how and where the light comes through.

“We’ve always had a choice of colors and textures, but never so much power in manipulating the third dimension of design—patterning,” says Belzberg Architects principal Hagy Belzberg, FAIA. “Digital manufacturing technology has existed a long time, but until now it hasn’t been cost-effective to use in residential applications.”

Technology is just one aspect of the past half-decade’s shift in the way residential architects find, vet, and spec products and materials. Driven by changing modes of practice, a global marketplace, the elevation of green building standards, and even the Great Recession, spec writing isn’t necessarily the linear process it has been. Reminiscent of the master builder model, there’s a more intensive collaboration with consultants and trades, whether it’s because of LEED targets, a search for cost-efficient solutions, or the desire for innovation.

the virtual marketplace

Ask around, and it’s clear that product catalogs are going the way of the pay phone. “Every year we purge a little more,” says Charlie Kaplan, LEED AP, principal of New York–based Peter Gluck and Partners. A few favorite binders are kept in the office because “sometimes it’s just easier to thumb through by hand,” he adds. “Our library now is filled with actual books. Proportionally, the amount of space we allocate to materials has almost doubled. The Internet is good for finding products, but it still can’t let you touch them.”

Dan Rockhill, a designer/builder and self-described materials junkie, organizes product websites in folders under his browser’s “Favorites” tab. At the helm of Rockhill and Associates in Lecompton, Kan., he takes full advantage of online sourcing for everything from house wrap to hardware. “Years ago, finding a stainless steel sailboat fitting for use on a building would take forever,” he says. “Now I can find it in less than five minutes and have the order shipped to my door.”

Besides, says Rockhill, who also runs Studio 804, affiliated with the University of Kansas School of Architecture and Urban Planning: “Students are born and bred on the Internet and able to move through the options to search for materials much more expediently than I had experience doing. It’s a tremendous step up, and certainly improves our ability to entertain a broader base of materials from which to draw.”