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Guest Column - April 2016

Design Corner

Orchestrating Your Building

By Stephen Springs


Many newcomers to recreation center design and construction think of it as a relatively straightforward process—you give your architect the program and budget, the architect designs a building that fits your program and budget (and aesthetic requirements), and the building is built to those specifications. You know that each part of the building will need to be scrutinized carefully for functionality, and that a host of commodities will need to be selected—building materials, building systems, surfaces, hardware and what are known collectively as Furniture, Fixtures & Equipment (FF&E)—but, after all, you have your architect to guide you. How hard could it be?

The realization that procurement comprises thousands of details, and that it involves a number of other professionals who have an interest in seeing particular equipment and systems specified, can come as a shock to those who haven't taken part in a large capital project before. With many voices promising the best product, the best fit or the best deal, it becomes hard to know who to trust. Your trusted architect is in the best position to help you through this process, but even though you contracted for design services, the scope of the design services can vary tremendously. Any number of building systems could be specified by your architect, by one or several consulting specialists (either under the architect's contract or separately by the owner), or even by product manufacturers—and many factors can influence the process, including the manner in which the project or its components are bid, or plain old personal preference. Many building owners quickly become confused by the seemingly endless possibilities.

With any luck, you saw beyond the pretty pictures that were at the center of the hiring process, because the real-world ability to effectively plan the work is at least as consequential to project success as aesthetics. Certainly, getting the details right will have more of an impact on customer satisfaction.

Pulling It All Together

Among an architect's many tasks is to meet a diverse set of goals articulated by a diverse group of people. A board representing a parks district or college probably has at least one member thinking in terms of "making a statement"—the creation of something that speaks to the community's (or board member's) highest aspirations. But others will weigh in, too: the facilities manager who wants building systems that he or she knows how to operate; the bean counter who sees the building as an investment that will pay dividends; the recreation programmers who desire spaces that are multifunctional and adaptable; the maintenance staff who want finishes that are durable and easy to clean; and the end users who expect an environment that is warm, comfortable—even "rich."

The owner gets the biggest say in all this, of course, and guided by the owner's program and the project budget, the architect works to fill in the many details that owners ordinarily would be inclined to leave to the architect. And yet, there is no detail too small when outfitting a large public building. Consider just one system installed in most new rec centers—audio for use in fitness studios and multipurpose community rooms. A dozen different suppliers might be interested in bidding on the project, and they will consider the architect, the owner, the owner's representative (if applicable) and the acoustical consultant all to be potential entrees into the selection process. Each firm may send out an emissary to the designer seeking a "mutually beneficial" collaboration that will end with the firm's products being specified on the front end, or a sales rep to the building owner touting the benefits of the firm's equipment. If the sales pitch finds a sympathetic ear, the owner (representing his or her internal planning team, which might include a fitness director very interested in one manufacturer's product) might then approach the architect to request that this product is specified.

The problem, from an architect's perspective, is that not all projects are contractually arranged in the same way. Sometimes, the architect is responsible for the design and specification of audiovisual systems, in which case an audiovisual designer is brought in as part of the design team, and the equipment, spaces and support become part of the construction contract. At other times, AV systems are not part of the architect's contract, but they still have to be designed in concert with the rest of the fitness center. The architect in such a scenario has to either try to predict the sort of infrastructure that has to be put in place by the electrician, or work directly with the owner's turnkey AV designer/installer to coordinate support for their system into the building design. Likewise for technology, security, access controls, hardware—the list goes on.