AWI certification

Is membership or certfication with AWI worth your while?July 29, 2003

How many of you are members of AWI? Is it something that you think will help grow our organization?

Forum Responses
(Business Forum)
From contributor S:
It is easy to become an AWI member - send them money. To become AWI certified, send them lots more money. Read what it will cost you to become an "AWI certified" shop -you will be surprised.

In my opinion, the only reason for the existence of the AWI is that architects have no clue what finish work is. Therefore, if you think like an architect, you might want to join. You will find that some job specs state that you must be AWI certified to bid the work. Do not believe this, as it is not the case in most states. Collusion comes to mind when I see "AWI certified" as part of a spec.

If architects knew how to do their job, which includes writing the specifications for the work that they have been contracted to design, there would be no need for AWI.

Another useless certification. Build your name on the quality of your work. You have already joined your own woodworking institute by paying your dues - write your own certification. Your business grows on word of mouth.

From contributor R:
I've been a member of AWI for about 18 years and have realized a great many benefits from the organization. Certification is an effort to level the playing field on bid work by requiring all bidders to meet certain criteria, including a familiarity with the quality standards that form the basis of most architectural specifications. This is especially helpful to architects and owners who are working out of their usual areas and don't know the players. It's business as usual for many other building trades to have an industry certification. It helpful to me as a woodworker in that there is an objective standard for potential customers to judge me by and to judge my competitors as well. Certification doesn't bear on most of the work we do, which is repeat business and word of mouth, but it has been very helpful and useful in the more open market area.

The certification program was painstakingly designed to avoid "collusion" or restraint of trade - anyone can become certified if they can pass a hundred question open book test, provide 10 letters of recommendation, and show the inspection team that they have a woodworking plant and that they do work at the level of certification they are applying for. There is a fee because the program costs money, and it's less for AWI members because we already subsidize the program with our annual dues. I regard certification as a good investment and an excellent marketing tool. It's not perfect but it works well for us most of the time.

I agree 100% with the above post on this. The AWI does a lot for those of us in commercial work. The quality standards are the bible of our industry. Architects and manufacturers rely on the AWI to insure that proper construction and materials are used and that minimal standards for different levels of quality are clearly understood.

Being an AWI member has put business in my shop. We get many requests for bids that just do not reach the public market.

As with any group that has a value, there is a cost involved. It is so low as to be insignificant. On certified jobs there is an added cost and if the architect wants to specify the job as certified, then he knows it will have a value.

You do not have to be a member of the AWI to use their specifications.

AWI is at right around 1000 manufacturing members strong, with hundreds more supplier and associate members. It can definitely help to grow and strengthen your business as it has for mine and many of the friends I have made through the organization. Like anything else, you'll get out of it what you put into it.

From contributor B:
There's a big difference between being a member of AWI and being certified through AWI.

In the commercial woodworking industry, there are great benefits to being an AWI member. If nothing else, the seminars that are offered provide great learning atmospheres. You can attend these seminars as a non-member, but I think membership has other benefits.

However, with all due respect to contributor R, I think the certification program is misguided and has become something much different than the intended purpose.

In my local market, there have been a few members with strong political ties to AWI that have been certified. These companies, along with a handful of others, are well known within our market as providing inferior quality work. As a matter of fact, the only members in our market who are truly qualified to provide premium quality architectural woodwork (us included) refuse to become certified through AWI. The reason is that we've developed strong relationships with architects and GC's, and have worked very hard to obtain a great reputation based on a history of providing superior quality work.

These certified companies are known by the same group of architects and GC's as providing poor quality. However, as is common, maintaining a good reputation is an ongoing process. It takes hard work, and we continue to take that seriously on a daily basis.

However, those who couldn't (and probably never will) develop a good reputation on quality work have gone to the AWI certification process as a means of convincing the young blood in the business that they are capable of providing quality work.

The system in place to certify companies doesn't really do much other than give a false sense of security to architects, owners, and GCs that a particular certified company actually does quality work. In fact, these certified companies are some of the worst in our market. By going through the certification process, we feel we're actually lowering our standards to the inferior competition.

The real problem occurs when new projects come about, with young architects or contractors who haven't had the experience of knowing the good versus the bad in our market. They often lean on AWI (or other trade associations) for guidance, and AWI is telling them "use a certified company and you'll get a good quality architectural woodwork product." In fact, they are only ensuring that they will restrict the bids to the companies who think there is value to being certified. And again, in our market those are the companies producing the junk that the architect is trying to avoid.

It is very easy to get certified through AWI, from what I've experienced. From the list of certified companies in our market, it must be true. It's not very difficult to answer an open book test, and even the companies producing junk work can find 10 people that are happy with them.

There are many good people at AWI. I don't think there are any bad intentions on their part, but it's developed into the wrong thing for the industry, in my opinion. If there is a truly effective certification, the process must be tougher than it is now. But it's past the point of no return with all the poor quality companies that have already been certified.

From contributor H:
If you are producing residential cabs, AWI is at best irrelevant and at worst, their standards can be detrimental to your business. Build the cabinet that your local customers want (and is competitive) and ignore the national standard.

If you are serving the commercial market, AWI is the gold standard. They have three quality levels - economy, custom and premium. No matter what a spec book says, ignore the first two and build to the premium standard. Architects (and owners) often ignore what the specs say when they don’t agree with the black and white standards regarding a particular detail, even when they originally chose a lesser standard. AWI says that they have created a variety to meet different applications, but in real life, our society has come to expect (and accept) nothing short of perfection.

With regard to the QCP, contributor R may say “The certification program was painstakingly designed...” but the fact of the matter is that it is a program that director Randolph Estabrook readily admits is in a state of flux and transition. Translated, the program has many problems and the people running it can’t definitively and consistently answer fundamental questions. The same questions asked on separate occasions often receive very different answers. Though intended as a tool to increase confidence in the best of our industry by architects and owners, it has failed miserably. I have had architects tell me that because they were so disappointed with the results of a given certified project, they will never use QCP again. Not a lot of confidence in QCP there, baby!

From contributor R:
There are a couple of things to add to what I've already said. Rereading my post, I find that I said that "the certification program was painstakingly designed to avoid collusion or restraint of trade" and I'll stand by that. Lots of lawyer fees went into making sure that it's fair and legal. However, I will agree that there have been and still are problems with the program, both in the process of getting certified and in the administration of certification. I have made my problems with the program clear to the national organization, both on paper and in person. That said, I will also say that for every shop that slips in under the wire at a marginal quality level, there is one that doesn't qualify at all (actually two in our area, to date), which shows me that the program can work if used properly. Of course many firms bid the work, ignoring the requirements for certification (and all other requirements sometimes) and then try to talk their way out of getting certified at the time of award.

On balance I've found it a beneficial program and I hope we can work out the bugs so that more people come to same conclusion.

From contributor G:
We are AWI and certified Premium. We are commercial only. I'm not so sure of the benefits of being certified. Example; on one large hospital job the spec was for AWI Premium but some new guy who was not certified lowballed his bid and the customer dropped the certification and gave him the job anyway. No, we wouldn't have bid it any differently anyway, but had we known, we wouldn't have bid it at all.

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned the AWI "Cost of Doing Business Survey." I consider that by far the single greatest benefit of my membership and it has nothing to do with being certified. I've participated every year for a while now and only wish all members would do so. The more info we input, the better for all of us. Survey results have been a tremendous asset in helping me guide my business.

From contributor B:
I totally agree that the AWI CODB survey is a very valuable tool.

Another issue on certification is that specifications usually indicate that the project have "single source responsibility" for fabrication and installation. In our market, this never happens. When the specification requires AWI certification, my feeling is that it is a conflicting spec.

The fabricator and the installation company would need to be certified (which will never happen because the installation company is typically a contractor). Plus, even if they were both certified, not having a single source of responsibility makes it impossible for the project to be certified doesn't it? How does AWI determine who might be at fault (fabricator/installer), especially when the problems might occur after installation?

Another reason the architects/contractors should do their homework and pre-qualify companies on more than just whether they are certified by AWI. The good architects will actually visit our shop, look at our shop drawings, and review some installations. It takes more time, but that's what they're being paid to do.

From the Director of the AWI Quality Certification Program:

Contributor S: Your claim that it is easy to become certified is only accurate if you consider the completion of the 150 question test, 10 letters of reference from GCs, design professionals and owners in addition to plant inspection and inspection of compliant samples for each section and grade addressed in the Quality Standards Illustrated easy. Each participant firm in the program has the QSI sections they have been certified and inspected for listed on their certificate of participation. After completion of the application process, the first two projects produced under the program are required to be inspected during fabrication, finishing and installation (if part of the contract). Certification is not for every firm. There have been many firms that have been unable to successfully complete the application process.

Contributor B: The AWI Quality Certification Program is a program designed to deliver compliant woodwork to the owner. If the design professional feels that the work provided is not compliant, then by all means they should call for an inspection of same. Refusal to correct non-compliant work will result in revocation of certification. And yes, that has happened. The owner may decide to accept the non-compliant work, but the program has worked. It has made the owner aware of the discrepancies.

Contributor H: I recall making a statement that “the program is evolving.” Not that it is in flux. If architects are disappointed in the program, perhaps they have not taken advantage of the procedures and policies.

Contributor G: If the design professional chooses not to enforce the specification, it is not a failure of the QCP.

Contributor B: The AWI Quality Certification Program currently has firms that are certified for installation only, and finishing only. There are many projects that have been registered for fabrication and finishing by one firm and installation by a separate firm.

From contributor R:
What I tell architects and owners about the certification program and about AWI is that they are starting points for quality, with certification giving them a higher level of confidence than membership (in my opinion, AWI membership should require certification - all members should go through the certification process.) But I emphasize it's only a starting point. There is no substitute for a long, carefully cultivated relationship if you're looking for quality assurance, but certification tells the design professional that the woodworker has at least read the quality standards, that other customers have had good experiences, and that someone has objectively reviewed earlier installed work. After the project is in process there is an objective evaluation available before problems arise and a means of resolving conflicts if problems do arise. My shop does more negotiated, value driven work than otherwise, where certification is superfluous, but we also deal with a lot of public work and also with out of town contractors and architects who don't know us. Certification is a good place to start with these kind of projects, but it's up to the design professional to first be sure to enforce the specifications and then to follow through and use the program to reject non-compliant work. Unfortunately, in hard bid public work, you can get away with the minimum, and the program has to be objective. At least we can hope that all fabricators meet the minimum, which is certainly not always the case in non-certified work, and that over time the standards will rise. In the meantime, I personally pursue the kind of projects where certification isn't necessary, and I am glad the program is there for the portion of my work where it's useful.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor Y:
QCP is a good program for open bidding where the GC makes the purchasing decision. Very little of the work that we do is of that type, and that is why, when the fees went up radically, we reluctantly dropped out after being one of the first in the country to certify. AWI is a great organization. It is very true that you only get out of it what you put in through participation. The dues are considerable, and are not worth it to use the name alone.

Comment from contributor A:
We were members of AWI and went through the certification process. After being low-balled on several jobs where AWI premium was spec'd and having the jobs go to low quality producers, we gave up. The AWI certification was costing us money and making us less competitive. I challenged an architect on one of the jobs; he said the owners didn't want to pay more to meet the spec, i.e. it wasn't the architect’s fault. Yes it was; he wrote a spec the owner didn't want to follow! We now do most of our work by negotiation; I don’t want to produce the lowest quality I can get away with so I can be low bidder.