When asked why furniture selection and bidding should be included in the architect/interior designers contract, I often find myself speechless. Most often, I hold back my natural response, “Why wouldn’t you?” and try not to overwhelm the person with reason after reason for why it’s the only way I would do it. You might say, “Well you’re an interior designer, of course you want us to include furniture in your contract.” Consider this, in new construction, the construction of the building is going to be your largest expense. Your second largest expense is going to be furnishing the building. Why would you want to take on this massive project and expense rather than allowing a professional handle it for you? Often times, when furniture is bid, any costs you incur in hiring a professional will be offset by the savings found through the competitive bid, and you will achieve a better result. The benefit you have in hiring someone who is intimately familiar with the project is that they know all the details for why decisions were made and the goals that were set forth early on in the project.
The importance of selections
Furniture selection and finishes are key to a holistic design for a building. After all, it is the part of the room we experience not only through sight, but also through touch. It becomes one of the most important tools for using a space. When a building is designed, each space is planned with a certain function in mind. Those functions generally have a specific requirement to fulfill its intended purpose. Doesn’t it then make sense that someone with an intimate knowledge of the design would be most capable of selecting furniture that fits the space? Not only will the furniture function better, but it will also coincide with the design of the room much more seamlessly. Furniture should not fight the building design; it should contribute. Think of it as the icing on the cake.
Furniture contributes to how people experience a building as much as, if not more than any other element in the design. Think about it this way; when you go to a fancy restaurant, would you feel comfortable sitting through a 5 course meal in a hard metal folding chair? Of course not. You would also likely not be willing to pay the same amount of money for that meal because you didn’t experience the level of luxury you were expecting. Although this may be an extreme example, furniture really does affect how a person will experience a space and will influence whether or not his or her impression of the space is positive or negative.
The process of selection
I always recommend that the client be integrally involved in the selection of the furniture and make an effort to understand the specific reasons why one option may be better for them than another. The best way to really understand the options is to take a trip to a dealer with your designer. Most times, a variety of furniture styles and quality levels can be discussed at the same place.
The durability of furniture should always be considered. When thinking about the durability, the breaking point should never be the only metric by which you assign success or failure. It is important to select products that will withstand their use and have good warranties in case they do break. However, often times, furniture will “ugly out” before it “wears out.” This affects how people perceive a building and will reflect directly on the client. If you walked into a hospital waiting room and the chairs looked dirty, you would perceive that the hospital is not clean. It may just be that they scrub the chairs so well that the finish has come off of the vinyl. It could, in fact, be very clean and you just have the perception that it’s dirty because it’s worn. This is a perfect example of why durable finishes are important. On the contrary, you may perceive that a space is very clean because the fabrics look new and the wood makes you feel like you’re at home. If the correct fabrics were not chosen, they could be harboring bacteria, dust and a whole host of other pathogens. The selections you make are extremely important in any environment and should be considered specifically for how the space is being used.
Warranty scopes and lengths should be carefully considered when selecting furniture. With as much money as you will likely be spending to furnish your building, you want to be sure that if things break, they will be fixed by the manufacturer. There are a few things to remember:
- Know the scope and length of the warranty. Most reputable manufacturers have a readily available, easy to read warranty statement that is very straightforward. If you come across a manufacturer that is reluctant to give you their warranty information, or if the information is vague, it should send up a red flag immediately.
- Check to be sure your furniture is warranted for the type of work being done. Some manufacturers will not warranty a chair that is for 24/7 multiple shift use for as long as they will an 8 hour chair. Also be sure the chair is warranted for the weight of the person who will be using it.
- Check references. When purchasing from a dealer, ask for references for the size project you are planning. When contacting the reference, ask them about any problems they have had with the furniture. If there were problems, ask how they were addressed and how quickly they were addressed.
- Know what you’re getting with used furniture. Used furniture is rarely warranted to a second owner. This may not be an issue as long as you’re getting it at a great price and know that if anything goes wrong, you will be responsible for fixing it. The key to making this work is finding a reliable dealer who is willing to help with repairs when problems arise.
When purchasing furniture for US offices, buy American! American furniture manufacturers have a reputation for making high quality furniture. Typically they must go through much more intensive testing than overseas manufacturers. They are much more likely to offer better warrantees, great service and will be knowledgeable about code requirements in your area. Beware of manufacturers that only assemble their products in the US rather than manufacturing them here. They will often import parts that are low cost but also low quality and then mask them by covering them with fabric or mixing them with other higher quality parts. You want to be sure that all the ‘stuff’ you can’t see is manufactured well. Your designer should be able to help you with sorting out all the details of the furniture you are considering.
Consider bidding, but bid well
The bidding process has the potential to save clients up to 15% depending on the type of furniture, size of the project and the type of client. Much of the decision to bid is going to depend on the needs and wants of the client. Most often, I would recommend bidding but there are a few things to consider.
- There are additional benefits to being a publicly funded entity. If a client is a public entity, often times they are required to bid if the dollar amount is above a certain amount. They are able to get around this many times by purchasing through state contracts or GSA-General Services Administration contracts. There are also purchasing contracts available to non-profits and not-for-profits. These are basically pre-negotiated contracts that allow public entities to purchase without bidding because the “bidding” is done ahead of time. What is not considered in these contracts is shipping, handling, delivery and installation. I recommend bidding that portion of the project even if you will be purchasing off of state contract. In general, this is a great option for fast tracked projects and is available to any entity that receives public money.
- Timing is everything. If you are considering bidding a project 7 weeks before it needs to be installed, you are too late. You need to be ordering. In this case, your best course of action is to work directly with a trusted dealer and take your designer along with you. The bidding process needs anywhere from 10-20 weeks to go through the entire process from writing the bid document to getting the furniture installed. Within that time, your design team will do estimates, get approval for concepts, write the bid document, give you time to review the bid document, send it out to dealers to bid, assess the results of the bid and work with the dealer to make finish selections and place the order.
- Make sure your designer is specific when creating the bid document. Many times, the best description that a furniture supplier gets from a client is that they need an office chair. That would be like going to a car lot and saying, “I need a car.” There are as many options in furniture as there are in cars; think of it as the same range as from Honda Civic to Mercedes SLS. Furniture ranges from budget to designer, traditional to contemporary, large to small, hard to soft, with and without specific options. Without giving the bidding dealers an idea of where you want to be in terms of quality and cost, they have no way of bidding “apples to apples.” I like to use the “basis of design” method for bidding. In this case, I will choose something very specific and list it for a particular application (i.e. Haworth Zody Chair with mesh back, seat slide, lumbar support, height adjustment, adjustable arms, painted finish, and Grade D fabric). I will include everything from the model number to the fabric grade. By giving a very specific description of what we have based our design on, dealers are able to see what we would like in terms of style, quality, and color. Bidding dealers should be able to select something comparable from their own lines and include that in the bid. This has proven to return the best results in terms of comparable quality and cost.
- Give your designer a budget. If you aren’t sure about how much is reasonable, then work through establishing a budget with your designer. Make sure you understand what you’re getting for your money and assess whether or not those things are important to you. Your designer should be able to help you work through these things. Visiting a dealer is a great way to get a feel for what the difference is between a chair that costs $300 and a chair that costs $900.
When beginning the process of furniture procurement, be sure that you involve the appropriate professionals, assess your needs and stay involved in the process. Having worked with several clients to procure their furniture, I can tell you that the Mies van der Rohe was correct when he said, “God is in the details.” The more you understand about what you’re getting and why it costs what it does, the more satisfied you’ll be with the results.