The Decision: Selecting an architect for your campus

The Decision: Selecting an architect for your campus

Any institution contemplating building or renovating a facility will inevitably hire an architect. The process of selecting one is often rushed or overlooked, particularly considering its long-term implications. The architectural firm you hire is coming on board to design something important, likely big, and almost certainly expensive. It better be the right one and you better like it a lot because you will be working together for a substantial amount of time. What the firm produces will become a reflection of you and your institution. Below are the nitty-gritty details and potential pitfalls of the process, starting from the planning that must occur starting with prior to issuing a Request for Qualifications all the way through to the decision process.

POPPOFF

Institutions have many reasons for building. The critical question you must decide internally beyond what you wish to build is why you wish to build something at all. Some buildings are built to solve problems that really should be solved in other ways.

POPPOFF is an acronym managers use to prioritize the types of decisions that any organization wishing to do anything must make.

  • Philosophy: What is the overarching philosophy behind a group’s existence, its raison d’être, its mission?
  • Objectives: What objectives must be defined and attained to accomplish the mission?
  • Programs: What programs does the organization need to put in place to meet its objectives?
  • Personnel: What personnel are necessary to staff the programs and implement the desired objectives?
  • Organization: What type of organizational structure will best support the personnel?
  • Finances: How will the organization design its finances to ensure its long-term viability?
  • Facilities: What types of facilities does the organization need to accommodate its work?

POPOFF is a good exercise for any selection committee. It helps clarify who you are and why you think you need a building. Note that facilities come last. Most of the thinking about your potential project should take place beforehand. Understand both the problem to be solved and why a facility is necessary to solve that problem.

Organizing

You will need to organize your undertaking when you proceed into architect selection. The institution should spread responsibility and activity for the process among individuals who have a direct stake in the outcome of the project; after all, they will be the most concerned about the outcome. Committee members can be tasked with only architect selection or they can transition into the building committee that will see the project through to its ribbon cutting. The committee should include two or three individuals who have been through the selection process; other representatives may include facilities, administration, maintenance, faculty, and students.

You should be certain that you or your committee has the authority to begin the selection process. This may seem obvious, but you are about to expend a lot of time and effort—not just yours, but also that of the interested architects. You should identify who will actually select the architect and whether the committee’s decision is a recommendation to upper administration or the final say. Large institutions typically have an institutional process in place, though internal and external politics and pressures may also be a factor.

Understanding how the final decision will be made is important to the operation and morale of the committee. Few things are worse than thinking you are charged with making the decision, only to be overruled by a higher authority. However, you may want to keep the specific details tight lipped to discourage lobbying, interior politicking, or pay-to-play activities. I have experienced situations in which a trustee decided to get involved in architect selection at the last minute, unwinding the entire committee’s best laid plans and casting doubt on the legitimacy of the entire process.

Either firm will get you a building, but the buildings will probably be very different.

The complex selection process needs a very simple “buck stops here” understanding. The authority to guide the process should be in the hands of someone who is willing to take responsibility for the success or failure of the entire project, including the selection of the architect. Ultimately, the decision should rest on those who understand the entire process and project.

The facilities group is one common leader. The group has the ability to respect, hear, and understand the needs, interests, and concerns of all stakeholders. This will, in turn. help bring on the best architect to address and meet the building needs. Not only will many of its staff members speak the language of buildings, but they will also likely work closely with the architects throughout the project.

The conventional process of architect selection by an institution involves the following:

  1. Define a long list of potential firms
  2. Ask firms to submit qualifications
  3. Reduce the long list to a short list
  4. Ask for responses to an RFP
  5. Shorten to an interview list
  6. Interview
  7. Make a selection

Defining the Long List

Architectural firms range from one-man-bands to multinational corporations. The former will most likely not be on the list for major projects, but a mid-sized firm may be just as good as a large firm. Both have strengths and weaknesses. A mid-sized local firm may be more responsive to your day-to-day needs and have the capacity and capability to do the design, technical, and administrative work. A larger firm can draw upon deeper in-house resources for specialized knowledge. Either firm will get you a building, but the buildings will probably be very different.

Initiate a discussion among committee members about the type of architectural firm you might consider. Before you finalize the long list, look at the firms’ work online. The design and content of their websites can give you a clue about their design attitudes and abilities. Architecture isn’t rocket science, but prior experience in your building type will go a long way in making the process easier.

Your institution’s facilities department may suggest firms it wishes to put on the list from past successes, but it will behoove the committee to supplement the list. Browsing websites will give committee members a better feel for the types of firms available and their differences. Talk to other institutions that completed similar projects or investigate the resources of professional organizations such as SCUP, NACUBO, or ACUI. Nothing beats talking to those who have done it before.

When someone suggests a firm owned by his in-laws, cousin, best friend in grade school, etc., be wary and hold that firm to the same level of scrutiny as all others considered. Alternatively, you could also throw the bold individual off the committee—perhaps they’re not as helpful as you wished.

When you have compiled your long list, contact these firms to inform them of their good fortune and to gauge their interest. In our current economy, none of them will say “no.” As they receive other information from you, they may respectfully decline, but their decision may, to a large extent, be based on the communications they receive from you.

RFP versus RFQ

Prior to contacting your long listees, the committee must decide whether to issue a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) or go straight to a Request for Proposal (RFP). An RFQ will generally not ask for a fee or details on how firms may approach the project.

Architectural firms generally prefer the RFQ initially. If they are interested in the project, they will go to great lengths to submit an excellent response that addresses your perceived needs without having to generate a fee for a project that is relatively undefined. Understanding that they may have to live with that fee for years is terrifying.

A thorough RFQ contains the following:

  • Description of the selection process
  • Response due time and date, a schedule of the selection process and proposed project. (Public entities have strict requirements for submissions; make sure you comply or your committee’s work will be for naught.)
  • Project description, as complete as you can give
  • Request for general firm information, history, size, and services
  • Request for information about the firm’s experience, including: Experience relevant to the proposed project and type, additional information to help persuade you of its suitability, an indication of what you will be looking for in the submittal, and your general criteria for evaluating submissions

The document reflects the amount of planning that went into an institution’s request. One telling sign is a reused and poorly written RFQ or RFP. I have encountered RFQs and RFPs that contain inadvertent references to the wrong project or list requirements that have been growing unchecked since the 1930s. Wordiness and ambiguity add a lot of paperwork and time on your end to answer questions from confused firms and to shuffle through extraneous submitted information. A quick reread of the RFQ or RFP prior to its distribution can go a long way to saving you time.

Making the Short List

Before you begin shortlisting firms—even before you open the envelope of your first submission—you  need to develop a methodology for your decision process to ensure all committee members are on the same page. While discussions will wander into subjective territory, you may also want to quantify your reviews through a point system based on the committee’s original selection criteria. This forces committee members to commit themselves in writing to how strongly they feel about each firm in measurable terms. Public institutions are sometimes required to justify their selection; even if it’s not mandatory, a point system gives the committee’s decision a more defensible position if it comes under scrutiny. Regardless, in the end, most of the decisions will be subjective.

Even if it’s not mandatory, a point system gives the committee’s decision a more defensible position if it comes under scrutiny.

Your goal for the short list is to narrow your list down to a reasonable size, say eight to 10 firms, from which to elicit more detailed proposals. Subsequently, your interview list should not be more than three or four firms. If you interview five or more firms, the task will be overwhelming.

After finalizing the short list, you should notify all firms at the same time. A simple “thanks, but no thanks” to those not selected and a notification that an RFP will be forthcoming to those selected will suffice. To keep the project moving forward and to appear invested in your planning efforts, you should issue the RFP in a prompt and straightforward manner.

Defining the RFP

At this point, you should have a good list of firms. You must continue to ensure your process is perceived as fair and reasonable so that you will receive careful and thorough responses from all the firms you have asked.

Your RFP should be more focused than the RFQ and address issues that are critical to the specifics of the project. This phase will be similar to the short listing process, but more exhaustive; the committee members should establish, as a group, what they believe to be the most important selection criteria.

The firms receiving your RFP will examine it thoroughly before deciding to pursue your project, typically through a “Go/No-Go” process. They are investing a great deal of time and money into responding, so they want to know you and your institution are serious about the project and your approach to selection. If your RFP is poorly written or your needs appear ambivalent, the firms may decline to respond. More likely, they will begin to pepper you with questions for clarification. If questions start coming, it’s important to communicate both the questions and your answers to the entire short list to ensure a level playing field.

An optional interim step immediately after issuing the RFP is to gather all short-listed firms together and discuss the issues addressed in the RFP. This helps set the stage for getting the best responses possible. Tell all firms simultaneously that this is the only chance they have to ask questions. This will make the discussion lively and give you valuable feedback about the RFP itself. You may even decide to modify the RFP before its deadline.

The RFP should move firms out of their marketing mode and into their architect mode. Asking for the firms’ thoughts on issues critical to your project can be valuable and provide insight on their ability to listen and respond to your concerns.

Requesting conceptual design work at this stage, however, often results in finished designs worth little. Committee leaders should be wary of a de facto design competition organically happening. Slick design ideas can impress the less knowledgeable or lead the committee down a path of design favoritism based on aesthetic appeal without regard to program needs or affordability.

A good RFP can also pose simple questions for firms to address in their response and perhaps during an interview. For example, an RFP for a science building expansion and renovation may say, “The project will consist of meeting with facilities personnel and science faculty to program and design a renovation and expansion to Smith Hall, a 60,000-square-foot science building built in 1963.” This explains the project’s basics but does little to draw the respondents into thinking about issues.

An additional sentence such as “Please describe how issues relating to changes in science, teaching labs, and pedagogy will affect your approach to this project” will start your potential partners thinking about the project more as yours and less as theirs. It will also give you an additional window into how they approach issues that will affect their design.

Other general questions to ascertain how the firm works and set the groundwork for discussion during the interview include:

  • What are difficulties you have encountered during project design, why did they occur, and how did you resolve them?
  • What problems do you anticipate our project will face? How do you expect to solve them?
  • Is the construction budget we propose realistic? Why or why not?

Reviewing and evaluating the RFP responses will, again, inevitably be partially subjective, but a scoring sheet will help you remember all the information you are reviewing and how you feel about it. The following general questions should be included:

  • How well does the firm’s response demonstrate an understanding of our project?
  • What specific experience and resources does the firm bring that will be valuable to our project?
  • How well did the firm answer the specific questions we posed?
  • How does the firm propose staffing the project? Is it realistic? Does it have any shortcomings? Are all personnel available?

This list can be augmented with additional questions during the interview. It is for reference only—the discussions it engenders will be important, but it will also help keep the conversation focused.

Interviews

The most important step in the selection process is interviewing the final group of architects. At this point, the interview list should be pretty short—representing the three or four firms that have best responded to your RFP—because the process demands a lot of time.

In the interview, you will meet the individuals with whom you will spend months and probably years. Neither party wants to mess up. Assuming you have properly done your homework screening and shortlisting firms, each contender can complete your project, but you will need to be comfortable with them as individuals, colleagues, and even friends. During the interview, keep the following in mind:

  • Personnel: Will the people you’re interviewing actually work on your project?
  • Presentation: Was the presentation organized and professional? Was the subject matter covered?
  • Chemistry: How did you feel about the individuals making the presentation? Were they articulate and straightforward in answering your questions? How would you rate their communication skills?

Most of the architects standing in front of you have been in hundreds of interviews; all can appear charming and do the song-and-dance. What you want to discover is how well they can think, communicate, listen, and solve your problems.

Interviews, if done well, will take a lot of time, planning, and commitment from a number of important people, but the time invested will pay dividends for years. I’ve witnessed interviews from both sides of the table and seen both good and bad. Some institutions give prospective architectural firms about 30 minutes to present themselves and 15 minutes of Q&A. The 45-minute process shortchanges both the architectural firm and the institution. The purpose of the interview is to choose someone to work with on a potentially multimillion-dollar, multi-year project.

Make sure all members of the interview committee attend each interview. They should all be able to discuss the firms from firsthand exposure. The committee should also avoid scheduling interviews back to back to allow adequate time (at least an hour) between sessions to reflect or make notes in an unhurried fashion.

One of my most memorable interviews allotted three full hours for each of the three firms under consideration. My partner and I were initially appalled by the length and worried about filling up the time, but the ability to have a serious, in-depth conversation with the potential client was invaluable. We were able to move past the “who are we” phase and discuss project details in depth. In the end, we were selected for what has become an 11-year relationship, including three studies and two major buildings.

My most unusual interview was a traditional one-hour presentation and Q&A session—after which we felt we had done very well—followed by drinks and dinner with all three finalist teams and the selection committee. I’ve always held the theory that after one drink, the social veneer we all wear begins to erode, exposing the real you (after more than one drink, someone else may show through). The dinner was great and no one drank too much—we all knew the interview was still ongoing. The next day, we were informed that we had been selected for the project. Shortly thereafter, the client told us that our interview was not the best; as a matter of fact, they said we were the worst of the three. But our conversations at dinner and the intensity and passion we displayed convinced them that we were the firm with whom they wanted to work.

We spent three years with the client, designing and building a wonderful campus center that the institution’s president declared as “the best building in the entire state.” This is a great result for a client who successfully maneuvered an unusual selection process that cut through the superficial and zeroed in on finding who it would work with best.

Deciding

If the selection and interview process are successful, the decision will either be very easy or very difficult. After studying the decision process from both sides of the table, listening to clients’ experiences with other architectural firms, and analyzing our own mistakes, I have compiled some guidelines:

  • The architectural firm should put your needs before its needs, employ members who share the same values as its owners, and show through actions that it is designing the building for you.
  • The firm should be cognizant of not only your construction budget, but also the operational and maintenance costs of the building long after the firm leaves.

This is great result for a client who successfully maneuvered an unusual selection process that cut through the superficial and zeroed in on finding who it would work with best.

  • The architects must be proven good designers, able to solve complex problems of competing program interests, budgets, schedules, and the like.
  • The firm must communicate openly and honestly at all times. Problems will occur unexpectedly on nearly every project. When it happens, the firm must immediately begin solving it, not pointing fingers.
  • You need to like the individuals with whom you will be working; it’s hard to reach that decision in a 30-minute interview.

Wrap Up

The selection of an architectural firm is of long-term interest to you and your institution. A planned selection process will help ensure a successful outcome. Key points to remember:

  • Verify your authority to proceed with architect selection
  • Confirm that the decision-making process is clear, understood, and agreed to by all stakeholders
  • Do your homework before you long-list firms
  • Carefully screen through a defensible process
  • Define carefully what you want from the short-listed firms
  • Carefully screen through a defensible process again
  • Be wary of slick designs done prior to knowing you and your needs
  • Know what you are looking for
  • Conduct in-depth interviews
  • Decide

The time and investment you put into the architectural selection process will be reflected in the quality of the RFQ and RFP responses, the finalists you interview, and ultimately the firm you choose.

Allan Kehrt, FAIA, LEED AP, has practiced architecture for more than 35 years, 28 of which were with KSS Architects LLP, which he cofounded. He has responded to hundreds of RFQs and RFPs, and was short-listed and interviewed for almost as many times. Through professional and community activities, he also engages in the architectural selection process. Contact him at akehrt@kssarchitects.com.


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