David BainWho chooses products? When and how do they do it? David Bain, Research Manager at NBS explores how to put your products at the heart of the project timeline.

On the face of it, you might think that the answers to the questions I've just posed are simple – designers select the products they want for a building when they write the specification, often at the eleventh hour, just before the project goes out to tender. Whilst this is a common description of product selection, it is certainly not the only way that designers specify products. What’s more, as BIM transforms the design process, the process of product selection is transforming too.

On traditionally procured projects, the architect makes many of the product decisions as they complete their specification – typically at the Design Stage of the digital Plan of Work (Stage 4). Research that we carried out last year shows that traditional procurement is not the only method widely used by architects: 37% of design consultants most commonly work on design and build projects. In these cases, contractors and subcontractors will be making many of the product decisions. And, of course, consultants other than architects specify products too – M&E engineers, civil and structural engineers, landscape architects, architectural technologists and lighting designers, to name but a few.

BIM and the Plan of Work promote the evolution of project information, including product selection, as design intent emerges and is realised. The design, the model and the specification are started early, and the levels of detail added throughout the Plan of Work timeline, through collaboration within and beyond the project team. Some product decisions are made as the design concept evolves and the outline specification is written – much earlier than Stage 4. We also know that some decisions aren’t made until construction has started (Stage 5): choices of finish and door furniture, for example, can sometimes be left until after the building fabric is in place and there is more certainty about the remaining budget.

It’s not just during design and construction that people choose products. When the building is in use, products need replacing as they reach the end of their life. Here, BIM can make it much easier for facilities managers to know which products they have in their building, and to find the models and manufacturers when it is time to replace them. Looking at the Plan of Work, this means that there are many people who make product decisions. Architects, architectural technologists, engineers, surveyors and contractors will choose products; but specialist designers, subcontractors, facilities managers and clients also do so. These decisions could be made at Plan of Work Stages 2, 3, 4, 5 or 7. In some cases, products may be considered as early on as Stage 1 if the client knows that they
require a particular product to meet the brief – perhaps a particular colour of cladding to match their branding.

Therefore designers, clients, contractors and facilities managers all make decisions about products throughout the project timeline. What is different at each stage is the information that is required and the format that it is in. Product selection isn’t just about BIM, of course: specifications are, and will remain, the most important documents for recording product selection and product attributes. But BIM is helping professionals make product decisions, visualise these in their overall model, and ensure that they have the technical data they need.

Using our understanding of the market and the research we carry out with architects, engineers, contractors and others, we have mapped the product lifecycle stages, and the resources specifiers use to help them make product decisions, to the Plan of Work. In the sections overleaf, we talk about what happens in terms of product selection at each stage.

Digital plan of work diagram

 A diagram showing how the digital plan of work maps onto product lifecycle stages and
the range of NBS and RIBA tools available to support at each stage.
View an enlarged image.

Inspiration and discovery

The product lifecycle is circular in that products are researched, selected, specified, purchased, installed, used, recycled and then researched and selected again. It can also be seen as a funnel. At the early stages (the wide end of the funnel), the people making decisions draw on a wide range of information sources. Some of these are conscious and planned – an engineer learning about new product innovations in a CPD session, for instance. Others might be conscious but experienced by chance: an architect may pass by or read about a new building and be inspired by it (or a specific detail of it). But some could be unconscious and shaped more by beliefs (a passion for zero carbon design, perhaps) or an interest in certain aesthetic movements, or historical periods.

At Stages 0 to 1, there is unlikely to be much formal research into products. Instead, clients and lead designers will be drawing on their experience, which encompasses these diverse sources of inspiration and discovery. They may have saved some of their discoveries: by bookmarking a webpage or social media site or book, saving a manufacturers’ CPD presentation, or keeping hold of a brochure.

Defining selection criteria

The core design team has been assembled: commonly the architect, structural engineer and services engineers. They will each start thinking about those products central to achieving design intent. Here they might start to define the selection criteria for these products: the building may be in a conservation area where only timber-framed windows are permitted, for example, or the client may wish to achieve a particular BREEAM certification and the services engineer may have particular sources of renewable energy generation in mind. These designers are initially likely to draw on their experience of using particular products in the past or those sources of inspiration described above. But they may need to start some cursory research – searching to check that a product has not been superseded, or that its performance characteristics haven’t changed. This might involve digging out those CPD presentations, books or magazines they have kept, or they may turn to internet search engines and directories to find basic product details. Therefore, at this stage, it’s important for specifiers to be able to quickly lay their hands on product information they’ve saved, or that they can easily find basic product details like manufacturer and product name.

Designers, clients, contractors and facilities managers all make decisions about products throughout the project timeline.

Assessing product alternatives

At Stage 3, the core design team will be preparing specifications and drawings for planning applications, so they may have produced outline specifications and included some product details. There might be a model, perhaps containing some manufacturers’ BIM objects. They may be downloading product data sheets, specifications and BIM objects from manufacturer websites and technical libraries. They may also involve other designers and consultants, such as landscape architects and fire safety consultants, who bring their own ideas about products.

At this stage, specifiers want to be able to identify the performance data quickly so they can compare alternatives and make the best decision. They might want phone numbers and emails so they can start a dialogue with suppliers. After planning consent has been granted, the project team continues to evolve (on a traditional project), or a main contractor will be appointed for a design and build project – and they in turn will appoint their own design team.


While specification may have begun at the concept or design stages, we know that much still happens at the design stage. BIM and tools like NBS Create are helping designers to build their specifications as the design takes shape, but this change in working habits takes time to become embedded. At this stage, in particular, time is in short supply and designers want technical information in a simple format that they can easily assess and put into their specifications and models. As well as performance data and certification information, they may also want to base decisions on things like availability and locality of supply, or availability of competent installers – so it can be useful if suppliers provide this information.

Where they are confident in their knowledge of products, specifiers want to be able to easily copy and paste product specification details, or to download a BIM object – 71% of respondents to this year’s BIM Survey want manufacturers’ BIM objects. For those that they know less about, or for more bespoke products or systems, they value guidance from manufacturers. They often want to speak to a technical expert who can help them choose the right product or help them complete their specification accurately and quickly. Once they’ve done this, using NBS Plus within NBS Create, they can integrate this with the model.

Purchase, installation and handover

Specialist subcontractors and installers will purchase and install products as part of Stage 5: build and construction. They’ll want clear and detailed drawings and specifications to follow to ensure that they are installing exactly the right product in the correct manner. Complete and accurate specifications help here. If manufacturers have provided the specification or BIM object, designers and contractors will know that they are all working to the latest information. Specialist subcontractors have also told us that design which takes adjacent products and buildability into account aids construction on-site. If guidance about buildability is provided at the design stages, this can help make sure that the most suitable product is chosen, and prevents hold-ups and changes down the line.

As construction takes place, contractors will update and supply the ‘as-built’ information, which may include the model, drawings, specifications, operation and maintenance manuals and warranties. With BIM, there is an opportunity to ensure that a fully updated 3D model of the building is handed over to the user.

Maintenance, end of life and replacement

The completeness and quality of ‘as-built’ information can vary, but there is a sense that it is improving. Project teams working to Level 2 BIM will increasingly need to make sure that a complete and updated set of documentation is provided to those operating a building. This means that facilities managers can maintain installed products effectively, and therefore maintain building performance. If BIM has been adopted on the project, facilities managers will have the tools to know exactly what they have in their buildings, and can easily contact the manufacturer to purchase replacements.

Find out more

In this article, I have painted a very broad picture of the product lifecycle and the digital Plan of Work. I have highlighted how BIM is now embedded in the product lifecycle at different stages. This will only increase as more organisations and professionals adopt BIM. Early adopters of BIM, particularly designers, need BIM objects for the range of products and systems that they want to use. Increasingly, those who do not provide information about their products in a BIM-ready format will not have their products selected as the number of BIM projects increases.

Our industry is complex, however. The people involved, the decision-making criteria and the information that people need when specifying varies depending on sector, procurement route, project, product type and the people making the decision.

This is where we can help. We carry out research tailored to individual manufacturers and their product range. Using our industry knowledge and access to the range of professionals across the Plan of Work, we know who to contact, how and what to ask. We also know how to interpret what they say in the context of wider developments in the industry and what that means for you, your marketing and product development. If you would like to find out about what a particular group of specifiers think about your product or brand, or the latest innovations they are seeing, please call us for an informal conversation on 0191 244 5725 – we’d be glad to help. You can also find out more about what we offer and download a brochure providing more detail.


This article features in the National BIM Report for Manufacturers 2016. You can download your full, free copy of the report (.pdf, 3.19Mb) which includes comprehensive analysis of this years' findings alongside specialist insight and case studies focussed on real-world BIM implementation. Articles from the report also feature on theNBS.com.