Iceberg theory of building materials
The Iceberg Principle: The Hidden Costs of Building Materials

Material selection is one of the most important aspects of a building project. Beyond aesthetics, many factors go into the final decision, including code compliance, performance, and environmental and health impacts. For many building owners, the cost of materials can be the driving factor behind the selection process. Operating on a tight construction budget, it can be tempting to use inexpensive materials without realizing this decision will have long-term repercussions. When selecting building materials, initial costs are only the tip of the iceberg.  

The Iceberg Principle of Building Materials 

During design and construction, it is important to consider the long-term expenses of building operation, including ongoing maintenance and product replacement. At Neumann Monson, we often discuss the “Iceberg Principle” as it relates to design. The idea is simple: the highest costs of building ownership occur not during construction but over the building’s lifetime. Like an iceberg, the initial cost is most apparent, while hidden maintenance or replacement costs lurk beneath the surface. Ultimately, inexpensive materials with a short lifecycle will cost a building owner more than durable materials with a higher initial price tag. 

The Iceberg Principle in Action  

A commercial client we recently worked with nicely illustrates the Iceberg Principle. The client had 60 stores across four states and asked us to design a new prototype to implement across their portfolio of properties. Our goal was to create a prototype that would better reflect their brand, increase their visibility, and showcase their inventory. Historically, they had chosen Vinyl Composition Tile (VCT), an inexpensive material often used in high-traffic areas. Although VCT has a low initial cost, its performance is based on a rigorous maintenance cycle of waxing, stripping, and rewaxing. At the same time, it has a short lifecycle and typically needs to be replaced every ten years. To address these problems, our team’s prototype utilized polished concrete.  

Unlike VCT flooring, polished concrete is low maintenance, making it ideal for a commercial environment with plenty of foot traffic. It can also last over 40 years, giving it a much longer lifecycle than VCT. While polished concrete’s high initial cost gave the client pause, it was a wise economic choice. Using historical data on the performance of VCT flooring, multiplied over their number of stores, we demonstrated the long-term economic value of spending a little more upfront for polished concrete. By thinking about the longevity of their building materials, the client was able to save on the operation costs of building management.   

Building materials performance

Flooring materials like VCT, sheet vinyl, and carpet are high-maintenance and will need to be replaced at least once during a 20-year cycle, depending on foot traffic and the quality of the product. While initially more expensive, options like concrete, porcelain tile, and terrazzo are easier to clean and will often last decades. This concept extends beyond flooring. Maintenance and replacement costs can be significant for outdoor materials that are exposed to the elements. A material like red cedar cladding, which we used in the design of the Unitarian Universalist Society facility, weathers naturally and does not require yearly protective stains, reducing maintenance costs. Depending on the scope of a project, a building can contain hundreds of individual materials, making the selection process important. Although the initial price may seem daunting, quality materials are always a sound investment.  

Working with an Architect

Selecting building materials is a challenging process, but our architects and interior designers are knowledgeable about every aspect of the products we recommend. At Neumann Monson, we engage our clients, including facilities and custodial staff, to determine their goals regarding durability and maintenance. We then present clients with options that include initial costs and lifecycle costs. By designing with longevity in mind, we help our clients make informed decisions.