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How to build a better relationship with architects

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One thing I hear all the time when I visit shops all over North America is, “Why don’t architects know how to build casework?” This is usually said while mulling over a drawing and scratching their head. Well, truth be told, architects can’t know everything about everything. In large architectural firms, you might very well have people that are specialists in various trades. But in smaller firms the architect or designer has a lot of hats to wear, so we need to cut them some slack.

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The same person that is charged to design the foundation drainage is also responsible for the finished casework and/or millwork. I don’t think they really mean to frame the bathroom vanity with 2x4s or use outdated products in all the wrong places. They might just be misinformed as to proper casework construction methods.

Now, before architects start firing off hate mail, let me explain to my woodworking colleagues.

For those of you who design and build for your clientele, you can pretty much control the fabrication process as long as the customer is happy with the end result. However, those companies that bid larger commercial or municipal projects fall under an entirely different set of circumstances. You are bidding a project based on blueprints that might reflect cabinet construction methods that are old and outdated and could use materials that have been surpassed by new technology.

So what’s a cabinetmaker to do? You can always bid the job and provide an alternative product, but then you run the risk of being disqualified because you are outside of the bid specifications. Wouldn’t it be easier to get them to specify the same way we build it? Of course it would.

There are a couple of ways you can help our architect friends build better casework and specify jobs more in tune with your construction methods.

Make it easy

Architects are constantly looking for ways to save time because they don’t have much to spare. Help them out and get on their short list of suppliers by writing a product specification document, detailing the type of construction and hardware you like to use, if you notch for a toekick or use a ladder-type base or commonly make inset or overlay doors, for example. Include something unique that sets you apart from your competition, such as a molding profile.

I’ve had great success with an annual “Architects Lunch and Learn” event, where we’ve built small sample cabinets exactly to our shop’s specifications as invited architects and designers watched. Then we reviewed the specifications over a catered lunch and they left with the sample cabinet, our cabinet specification document and drawings that they could import into their next project.

We also took the time to put together a comprehensive catalog with all of our casework, products and specifications neatly packaged along with AutoCAD Drawing Exchange Format (DXF) drawings. This was also available as a PDF file, which was handed to them on a logoed flash drive.

Our products went to an independent third-party testing lab for controlled destruction and load tests where we came away with certifications. These, of course, were written into our specifications as required criteria. In many cases we virtually eliminated the competition just because of this one advantage.

You’re not alone

Industry organizations can play an important part in helping us work better with architects.

The Architectural Woodwork Institute has done an excellent job in raising the awareness of the designer community as to accepted industry standards. Almost every architect’s office has a copy of the AWI’s Architectural Woodwork Standards reference manual. By becoming a member, you’ll be viewed as a serious and conscientious fabricator and business owner. The organization also maintains a Quality Certification Program, which you just might find as a criteria when bidding certain projects. Millwork specifications might state, “All responsible bidders must be certified by the AWI Quality Certification Program.” Quality accreditation is a powerful marketing tool that prequalifies woodworking firms to bid on those projects. Getting involved with your local chapter will bring you closer to the specifiers in your regional area.

Membership in the Cabinet Makers Association, while still a relatively new organization, will increase your profile in the residential design community.


Anyone who has had to provide shop drawings and product submittals can identify with this section. Somewhere, in some obscure location, is a repository of architectural submittals that includes collections of a single drawer slide, one pull, a hinge, one shelf support, a lockset, various lighting components, a piece of edge banding material, weather-stripping, stain and finish samples and just about anything else that goes into an architectural project. Even though the architects have received them countless times in the past they still want to see exactly what you intend to use in their project and, of course, supply them at no charge. A suggestion to help keep your sanity: deal with it, provide it and bury the cost somewhere in the project. This custom will never go away.

Developing alliances with the architecture and design community can be rewarding for both you and your business. It’s not uncommon for an architect to consult with a trusted fabricator on project specifications. I know that architects can sometimes come off as aloof and intellectual and designers can appear fussy and difficult to please, but all of them are approachable.

When making a call on an architect, the worst thing you can do is try to sell them something. Realize this: they’re not buying, they are specifying. They want to be educated, not sold. They are placing their reputation on product performance and always have the safety and satisfaction of their clients in mind. Show them how your product is better, safer and stronger or will last longer than the competition. Do this and you will have their attention and, after a couple of successful projects together, you will also have their respect. You will most likely be their first call when they need some help. 

This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue.

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