Hiring a Design Professional

Embarking on a facility project, be it renovation, new construction or landscaping, can seem a daunting task to add to an already long list of responsibilities. Carefully investing in the time and research needed to choose the design team goes a long way toward making the project a pleasant experience that helps fulfill your institution’s mission.

1. Process: For public institutions, a smooth project begins with a thorough understanding of your state’s process. Beyond that, whether public or private, what kind of planning, design and construction process does your team desire, asks Cheri Hendricks, AIA, principal of Seattle-based Broadview Associates Ltd. For example, do you want the design firm to be a project team leader in planning and programming or simply to design a building that’s already been planned and programmed?

Hendricks, who not only is one of five AIA knowledge community leaders but also has been an education client for 15 years, believes that administrators get the best final project if the architect is involved from the earliest stages of planning. When the architect is intimately involved in the programming process, he or she hears firsthand the user’s specific needs, wants and use patterns.“If a planning or programming document is simply handled to the architect, much of the spirit of the project can be lost in the translation,” she says.“It’s a bias not everyone holds.”

2. Experience: Gary A. Brown, FASLA, director of Planning and Landscape Architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who does master planning for the institution, looks for a design team that has past experience in the project type his university is undertaking. “If we were hiring a master planning consultant, we’d look to see if the firm has done master planning for similarly sized universities,” he says. “We ask for references and talk with prior clients to understand their qualifications.”

Hendricks agrees. “I’m looking for a team that brings the ability to design an exemplary building, from the standpoint of both architecture and a particularly insightful interpretation of educational needs,” she says. She typically tours prospective architects’ completed buildings, and asks them to present why their buildings are exemplary and whether their translation of the needs was sophisticated. Finally, she asks the users if each facility translates the way they hoped it would.

3. Qualified personnel: The firm you’re considering may have an excellent track record of beautiful and functional facilities. However, that doesn’t mean that the team they’re proposing for your project is the same team that produced the excellent track record. “I ask them to be explicit about who has designed what and who has worked on what,” says Hendricks. “So, when I go see the firm’s buildings, it matters if the project designer of that project is the same one being proposing for us.”

Knowing who worked on what is important because some of today’s projects are quite large, with 10 or 12 subconsultants. Therefore, asking about individual qualifications opens the door to discovering who is your point of contact. “Is the person dazzling you during the interview process just the person dazzling you during the interview process, or is he going to be on the project every day?” asks Lauren Della Bella, vice president of marketing for Cincinnati-based Steed Hammond Paul.

4. Slow down: When you reach the point where you’re ready to interview prospective design firms, slow down and consider how much time to devote to each interview. Often it’s only 30 minutes. “In 30 minutes, it’s hard to communicate why you should be hired,” says Della Bella. “And, when you’re interviewing five firms in a row at 30 minutes each, it’s difficult to make a hiring decision. I think that if you’re going to avoid something, avoid rushing the selection process.”

5. Owner’s representative: Douglas Heeston, vice president of Institutional Advancement at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College in Ohio, highly recommends that colleges that have a small or no architectural staff hire a local professional owner’s representative. “We found that hiring an owner’s representative was money well spent,” he says. “The owner’s representative was at the table from day one to project completion. He represented the college at all meetings. He knew the technical jargon; he knew what was appropriate.”

6. Compatibility factor: Architectural projects typically aren’t completed in six months. Rather, they usually take two or five years to complete. Because of that, Della Bella recommends hiring people you believe you can work with.

Hendricks agrees that it’s important to have a good fit. “Some of the universities I have worked for have been focused on a mission — really looking at their practices and trying to change them,” she explains. “That requires a firm that understands that you’re trying to move forward and may not have the future perfectly envisioned,” she explains. Such a project demands a design firm that is flexible, listens well and is creative in generating options.

7. Understanding the user: It’s no secret that colleges and universities are constantly improving to attract and retain students in a competitive market. Administrators must hire a firm that understands the students they’re seeking.

“One of the things that we’re seeing more and more on college campuses is that there’s a direct relationship between the facilities and attraction and retention,” says Della Bella. “For example, if you have programs with a lot of research dollars, you want to have facilities that make good use of those research dollars. Understanding what the student who will use the research facility wants may give you a leg up in the attraction process.”

8. Budgets: This is a huge issue, as campus budgets are tight and administrators are dealing with less money. On top of that, inflation in the construction market is rising at a much greater rate than it has in the previous decade, further impacting budgets. Therefore, it’s important to choose a firm that understands how to deliver the project within the dollars that are available.

“There’s not a day that goes by that you can’t pick up a newspaper and read about some major public construction project that’s over budget,” says Della Bella. She explains that students are becoming more sophisticated in their decision-making. If they see you’re overspending your facilities budget and raising tuition, then you’re sending a negative message that may affect their decision to stay.

9. A strong and balanced team: “A good architecture firm needs to bring a strong and balanced team across a variety of different loads of practice,” says Hendricks. “The planning and programming process requires facilitation skills. The design phase requires excellent design skills but also effective cost management so that the design doesn’t go out of budget. The construction phase can require a completely different management style in terms of paying attention to details and quickly working through challenges. The team that is successful throughout all the different phases of a project has a balanced set of skills across all of those subdisciplines.”

10. Hand-select subconsultants: Some campus administrators prefer that the architect brings with him a full team of subconsultants. When serving as the client herself, Hendricks personally prefers to select the architecture firm and then join with the firm in selecting the subconsultants that are the best fit. The benefit is that the administrators often know more about specific project challenges.

Hendricks cautions administrators not to force the architectural firm to work with someone they’re uncomfortable with but to work for consensus in the selection. “I think you get the best team,” she concludes. “I also think you get better performance from the subconsultants because they know they’ve been hand selected by the client.”

11. Workload: “Be sure to ask about the prospective firm’s current workload and if the staff they’re proposing is available to deliver the project on your time line,” says Hendricks. “We often ask them to talk about that in the interview process. For example, I’ll say, ‘Show me through the next three years the project world load you’re committed to and who’s assigned to those projects.’”

Tips for Hiring a Design Professional

Here are eight more tips to help you successfully choose the right design professionals for your next project.

1. Form a project quality team. “We formed a quality team with representatives of all campus stakeholder groups,” says Douglas Heeston. In a charette process, the quality team interviewed more than 200 people on campus about needs through the next 10 years. “When you use a quality team process, everybody feels they’ve been heard.”

2. Build relationships. “Know how the design professional selection process works on your campus and in your state,” stresses Gary A. Brown. “Get to know the people who make decisions — and have good relationships with them so that, when you need them to make decisions, you have those relationships to rely upon.”

3. Choose well-educated consultants. Your consultants should prove that they’re pursuing continuing education. “We’re trying to be on the cutting edge, and it’s important for our consultant to be able to help us with that,” says Brown. “For example, we expect all our consultants to be well versed in sustainable design.”

4. Encourage the project partnering process. Once construction started, Heeston’s construction management team, following the project team philosophy, brought an outside consultant to each bid phase. “In addition, every contractor was required to spend a day going through the project partnering orientation,” he notes.

5. Investigate the subconsultants. If the design firm does bring its own subconsultants to the table, be sure to research each one. “I want to know as much about the specialized consultants the design firm is going to be hiring as I want to know about the principal firm itself,” says Heeston, “because sometimes those special consultants are doing some critical project pieces.”

6. Consider where the firm is located. Hiring a firm that isn’t local can cost a lot of money in travel fees. Brown notes that his university prefers to hire locally so that state funds stay in the state.

7. Look at the company’s record. Heeston checks to see how many of the firm’s projects were completed on time and on budget. “I look at the organization’s financial records, if available,” he notes. “That can tell me if they’re in stable fiscal condition or if they have legal or other outstanding issues to deal with.”

8. Be informed to get what you expect. It’s important for administrators to understand how all the subconsultants work together. “You have to know who your points of contact are, how the relationships are going to work, who’s delivering what service to your project and that it’s really what you’re expecting,” stresses Della Bella.