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With banks cautiously loosening their grip with proven investors and morale percolating with hopeful intent, the building market for condos and multi-unit housing is again showing signs of life. South Florida and outer Manhattan, for example, are two markets that are sprouting new construction for apartment sales and rentals.
When working on these kinds of projects, communication occurs among four main contacts: the buyer, architect, manufacturer and client. The buyer is either the general contractor, the developer or the owner of the project. The buyer generally communicates directly with the architect on building products and furnishings for the building. It is the architect’s responsibility to give clear adherence to the manufacturer in regard to drawings, specifications and approved designs. The client in this case is considered the buyer of the unit and should always have a clear understanding of what cabinet choices they have.
Pointers for Successful Communication
The manufacturer is usually in the passenger seat, trying to get the project awarded. For a working relationship to be successful in the long run, it is important that the manufacturer doesn’t oversell. The company needs to face any limitations realistically in terms of volume, production times and manpower. A mutually beneficial relationship depends on respect and professional understanding.
Product Selection: What to Consider
The decision about a product, especially from the kitchen and bathroom category, is most influenced by past experience, budget, the architect’s recommendations and the marketing/sales division. All of these factors are valid, however, in most cases marketing wins and is most influential in the buyer’s decision-making process.
Important factors for the selection include the manufacturer’s capacity, performance and reliability of the product. Many buildings today are looking to meet LEED or USGBC requirements. Market value and the reputation of customer service during and after the installation of the building product should be considered even before meeting with the company.It is up to the architect and buyer to fully research the company in reference to financial strength, longevity and overall performance. Often it is up to the architect to make the initial selection, which s/he will then present to the buyer.
A good barometer for production capacity for a small project should not be less than 200 cabinets per day. When a buyer or architect is in the decision-making process, they need to consider what type of track record a company has and how long the company has been in operation. Later down the road, a developer does not want to be faced with problems obtaining replacement parts. This impacts the decision of the fronts for the kitchen; for example, it may not be wise for a developer to choose an exotic wood front in the event that at a later date it is no longer available. Another issue when selecting a cabinet is with book-matched fronts. Should a buyer select book-matched and one cabinet front in a unit gets damaged and a replacement is needed, all fronts need to be replaced. In this case, the buyer must weigh attractive design with long-term practicality.
Questions for the Buyer to Consider:
- What is the delivery time from the release of the design to the jobsite and through final installation?
- Who is taking care of the installation?
- What type of packaging is being used?
- How many cabinets do the developer and architect expect to be delivered per day? Per week?
- Are parts readily available at the factory? If not, how are they supplied if replacement parts are needed?
- What is the warranty in the event that a product is damaged upon receipt at the jobsite, and what are the terms and conditions when a cabinet becomes damaged?
The buyer also has the right to ask the manufacturer for a performance bond, which is a document issued by a bank or insurance company to guarantee that the value of the work will not be lost in the case of an unfortunate event (such as insolvency). A performance bond is also known as a “surety bond,” which is a promise to pay the obligee a certain amount if a second party (principal) fails to meet some obligation, such as fulfilling the terms of a contract. A suitable manufacturer for a multi-unit building should be able to present this bond. A company with good credit or good standing will be able to get one.
Reaching the Final Agreement
A signed shop drawing by the architect or buyer’s representative, including a written production release by the buyer, is the only way to create a final manufacturing agreement. A shop drawing is the best receipt for the buyer and manufacturer as long as it is completely clear, detailed and mutually agreed upon.
Final plans should be attained by the manufacturer to specify and draw the project correctly. The plans provide detailed information, including ceiling heights, electrical plans with outlets, plumbing diagrams, final floor-by-floor detail, requirements for appliances and countertops and finally, provisions for cabinet backing or inside wall material, which is always important when mounting cabinets.
Outside-the-box requests sometimes arise from the architect or buyer in regard to upgrades, for example. Sometimes a penthouse unit will have features the others don’t. In this case, clear documentation to upgrades and credits needs to be established up front. Red flags for kitchen manufacturers start when the company starts to design products outside of their business model. A manufacturer performs better on multi-unit projects when producing products from its own product line rather than creating “special” products.
Consistency in quality, color and style for cabinet door fronts is the responsibility of the manufacturer to maintain during the production process. Most large cabinetry companies equipped to furnish high-rise developments have a specialized Quality Control Department to undergo rigorous checking and testing. Additionally, depending on the size and duration of the building’s progress, aging and storage need to be considered especially for raw (wood) materials. For real wood fronts, in the case that the cabinets arrive on time and the project is delayed, storage must have be kept dry in a dark cool place and out of view of any direct sunlight.
Because the buyer and architect have so many decisions to make for one project is the reason a project can be held up. The fewer kitchen choices a buyer offers to their end client, the least amount of difficulties are expected in reference to ordering, specifying and installation. Giving a customer too many choices, especially those who live out of town, will create delays, confusion and disappointments because of more complicated decision-making. It’s generally recommended not to give customers moving into a new building more than two packaged design options for their future kitchen.
Kitchen designers may run into special conditions from the buyer or architect, for example, they may want to see the kitchen in full before the release of the main production. A real-life, mock-up kitchen has many great benefits for all of the trades. First off, a mock-up display is a great way to test the design and clear up any uncertainties. If the buyer or architect has questions or concerns, seeing the design in real life solidifies their decision and approval. A mock-up also reconfirms that the electrical, plumbing and appliance fittings are correct. Lastly and most important is that when the building is on the market to ensure the look and feel of the design underscores the unit’s marketing goals.
Scheduling of appliances and cabinetry should be a priority. It is important to keep the flow of communication constant throughout the entire phase of the project for notifications on delays and milestone dates to better align delivery and performance. Before installation, the manufacturer should appoint a chief installer who serves as the go-to for technical issues. Union and OSHA requirements can be requested to be presented by the manufacturer to ensure that proper safety is executed on the jobsite. Also ADA requirements should be discussed before approaching the installation.
Training and knowledge of the facts and demands of the job are acquired through factory training and experience. Professionalism is attained when the right person acquired the proper experience and skills. Last but not least, servicing multi-unit projects requires the highest level of integrity from the manufacturer’s representative combined with attention to detail and an innate interest and passion for the trade.
- Lothar C. Birkenfeld is a National Kitchen and Bath Hall of Fame award winner and a 30+-year veteran of the European custom cabinet industry. Birkenfeld discusses what it takes to make it in the cabinet business as a manufacturer for multi-unit projects.