Many architects follow economic trends, pursuing work in various markets, such as office, retail, healthcare and education, when these markets are booming. They may be effective and successful general designers in a number of markets, or they may be attempting to transfer skills from their specialty market into a new one. However, an effective school project is about more than just design.

From Commodity Buying to Alliance Building

Focusing narrowly on hiring a competent designer places the school district at the level of a commodity buyer, and educational leaders understand that a school construction project is not a product, but a process. A school district is really buying an organization, a team of professionals with the skills, values, capabilities and processes that make a project-delivery system work for the school district. The district is, in essence, buying the experience and expertise of a trusted advisor, an A/E firm with education-specific expertise that enables it to provide effective counsel to the superintendent, the school board and the faculty. Beyond that, the district is buying the“chemistry” that facilitates formation of an effective partnership with a distinctly different organizational culture to meet a common goal. Ideally, each organization will balance the strengths of the other and create the synergy necessary to establish a long-lasting relationship. What to Look At, For and Beyond

Now that a school district has established a goal for the selection of an A/E firm — one that will serve as a trusted advisor, work as an effective partner and, perhaps, become a true ally through the years — school districts should be looking carefully at six key issues.

Look first at your school district’s unique educational philosophy, needs and expectations for the project. All too often, a school district will use some sort of stock A/E interview questionnaire. While many of these appear to cover the key points, they are too general to be really effective for an individual school district. Start by conducting planning workshops with the school board, faculty, and operations and maintenance staff to clarify the district’s educational mission as it relates to the facility, identify lessons learned from previous construction projects and determine the district’s unique needs and expectations for this project. If the district has not undergone construction for several years, talk with administrators of at least five other districts that have recent experiences. Ask them what they learned in the process, what was successful and what they might have done differently. This process will enable the district to develop a concrete set of needs and expectations that can be translated into clear criteria for selecting an A/E firm.

Visit the schools designed by the three finalists. The project photos and storylines in the A/E’s portfolios may look great. But the district may see and hear something quite different when they visit the facilities and talk with the administrators, faculty, and operations and maintenance staffs at schools that have been occupied for a while. You should evaluate the facility in terms of whether it met that district’s expressed needs, not whether the design meets your preferences. Be sure to ask if an individual was part of the planning and design process; that person’s feedback is the most meaningful.

Look for a comfortable“fit” with the A/E firm and its key people. Learn about its corporate culture, values and mission. Understand the roles, capabilities, experience and expertise, levels of involvement and responsibilities of the key people who would be assigned to the project. And get a sense for the intangible quality that will facilitate a partnership — whether one calls it camaraderie, chemistry or teamwork, it should just feel right.

Look for an A/E whose key people can both listen and provide solutions tailored to the school district’s specific situation. An experienced education A/E will not only be able to listen to and grasp the needs of the school district, but also the principals will be able to use their knowledge of the requirements and trends in the education market to elucidate effective solutions. It is not enough for an architect to say he or she knows how to build a high school, for example. He or she must be able to identify the current issues and concretely describe requirements and solutions for a variety of spaces — science labs, performing arts, industrial arts, family and consumer sciences, special education and counseling.

Look beyond design capabilities for a full range of services and resources. The A/E firm should offer a wide range of services to meet the school district’s anticipated and unanticipated needs. Look for in-house capabilities including demography; community planning; development of educational specifications; development of space standards; environmental design (green building); construction delivery options; commissioning; and post-occupancy training, warranty and evaluation. Not only does this help a school district avoid hiring additional consultants, but also this in-house knowledge base informs the planning and design process.

Look for a proven performance record — ask “how” questions. Pose practical, case-study questions related to educational programming, board relations, community involvement, bond issues and other aspects of school planning and development. For example, ask how the firm will go about developing cost estimates and schedules, and what other districts’ expectations were and how these were met. Expect detailed answers that reflect specific knowledge of and experience with educational facilities. An experienced firm understands how to design effective learning environments and has the practical experience to bring that about.

What to Avoid

A well-qualified A/E firm will be able to provide solid, substantive evidence of its capabilities, qualifications and experience in the educational facilities market and will charge a fair fee for these services. The decision should be straightforward and clear. But, today’s school market is highly competitive, and there are a number of pitfalls school districts should avoid in the selection process.

1. Differentiation based on fee; instead, use qualification-based selection.

2. Selecting a firm in which only one or two architects have school experience; instead, look for a solid team with depth.

3. Firms that try to impress with lengthy, slick presentations; instead, look for substance.

4. Firms with numerous staff members attending an interview; instead, expect to meet three or four key people.

5. Firms that try to impress only with beautiful photography; instead, focus on whether individual projects met the needs of the owners.

6. Firms with few school projects, or no recent ones, in their portfolio; instead, look for a solid history and current experience.

7. Firms that need to bring in an out-of-town partner firm without a solid reason; instead, ask what value it brings to your project.

8. Firms that present preconceived plans, renderings and models; instead, look for a firm that will listen to, understand and interpret your school district’s needs.

The Fundamental Characteristics

If a school district knows what to look for and what to avoid, it should be able to identify a qualified education A/E firm that can serve as a trusted advisor and a partner in the planning, development and execution of a successful project. It may even be the beginning of an alliance that will guide the district well into the future. Fortunately, there are a number of excellent firms who have made a long-term commitment to educational facility planning, design and construction, and have the track records to back it up. They share certain fundamental characteristics and offer clear benefits to the school district.

First, they are able to develop an understanding of the owner’s unique needs and expectations. The benefit is that they will act as a capable advisor and lend strong credibility to the project with the school board and community.

They recruit and develop a staff with the skill sets and experiences that can effectively address educational design issues. The benefit is that they will produce quality designs, quality drawings and solid cost estimates.

They develop operational procedures tailored to the educational market and guided by a quality-assurance process. The benefit is that they will produce the project on time, on budget and with minimum change orders. They create design standards and details for common school elements. The benefit is that they can develop plans that balance quality and economics, creating effective learning environments.

Finally, they have an organization that is geared toward organizational learning; they have systems in place for peer review of projects and ongoing professional training and development. The benefit is the commitment of the entire firm to a client’s success.

Selecting a qualified school architect is about more than just design. With countless resumes, rendering and rhetoric to peruse, it’s about reading between the lines.