How to select the best architect and builder for your next construction project
By Kelli Anderson
Finding the right architect or builder for your next construction job can save you money, time and sanity if you choose your future partners correctly. It's no small thing to ensure that the business relationship you share is a good one when projects typically average several years from a brainstorming start to a ribbon-cutting finish.
"You're going to be married to this group for a year or more," says Don Fowler, park supervisor with 20 years of experience in the city of Grandview, Mo. "So if it doesn't start off well, you're in trouble."
Before saying "I do" to that special architectural or construction someone (or even before beginning the search for them), it helps to understand your construction project's functional needs, its scheduling and funding availability, and recognizing whether it's a simple, "boilerplate" project or a complex one. Identifying what your project is and isn't will help you give better information to prospective architects and builders while giving you the information you need to better formulate the criteria on which to judge them.
"The first phase should include a community-specific survey of recreational wants, needs and willingness-to-pay, project site selection, identification of funding sources, and functional space needs," says Greg Neal, director of the Chavez Community Center in Santa Fe, N.M. "This will give more accurate information to the proposing firms and will ultimately provide for a better contract between the owner and consultant."
Also invaluable is knowing yourself and how you work best. Do you enjoy the challenge of juggling 500 balls in the air? Do you have the time to oversee every detail down to the perfect toilet-flushing mechanism? Are you knowledgeable or experienced enough to handle this project on your own or do you need a consultant, general contractor (GC) or construction manager (CM)? Can you give up control when you know you've found competent people or do you crave being a part of every decision?
Gathering project data and answering questions of management style will directly effect what kind of management and delivery method will best suit the project and your needs. And that, in turn, will have an impact on how and on what basis the architect and builder are selected.
In some cases—as in the traditional Design-Bid-Build delivery method (DBB)—the architect and builder are hired independently and need to be evaluated accordingly. Their roles are distinct, and the building process is a more linear one in which either an owner or GC takes completed designs to a builder and subcontractors.
In the case of hiring a CM, where the CM works closely with the architect to give them input on constructability, it is critical to have a good working relationship or "fit" between the CM and architect. In the case of a Design-Build delivery method (D-B), the architect and engineer and builder (sometimes the builder is partnered separately) come under one contract and function as a team where the design is not created at the beginning but is a multitasking process informed by the engineer's knowledge of constructability. Knowing how long the D-B team has functioned together, then, becomes important delivery-method-specific information.
Before adding these new working relationships to your work environment, it is important to have all the key players in your own establishment in place.
"Make sure you have all your recreation professionals—especially a director—in place before beginning the process," advises Penny Kipley, parks and recreation director of the recently opened Gilpin County Community Center in Golden, Colo.
Kipley experienced firsthand the difficulties encountered when the director isn't hired until late in the game.
"We didn't have a director in place from the beginning, and that hurt us—we suffered in the design phase," Kipley says. And later, as change orders resulted to correct design oversights, the project went over-budget.
When key sources of information like the director are missing from the initial planning and analysis, it is virtually impossible for architects and builders—no matter how skilled—to fill in the inevitable gaps. In Gilpin County's case, the job, which used the D-B delivery method, was hampered by the staffing issue but ultimately resulted in a beautiful 43,000-square-foot facility of which the community is proud.
Hiring the architect, however, was a more textbook experience in Gilpin's case. Kipley describes the formation of a committee made up of park and recreation staff, aldermen, and park commissioners who were aided, in their evaluation process, by a CM to sift through all the various contenders.
In many cases, the resulting short list of potential candidates is then issued a Request For Proposal (RFP)—a summary of project specifications and contractual expectations. The subsequent responses are then evaluated based on a variety of criteria such as team dynamic, experience and project ideas.
Whether using the aid of a CM's rating scales in the selection process, using your own community's pre-established system or selecting a D-B firm's one-stop-shopping, there are some universals in helping determine whether the architects, builders or D-B firms are good ones.
First, it helps to know where to look.
"Look locally to see what firms are experienced in the type of project your doing," Neal says. "Look at firms farther afield in [rec industry] publications and attend functions like the NRPA congress or state conferences with people present at those functions." He also suggests asking colleagues who they have used successfully in the past.
One mistake to avoid, however, is letting cost determine your choice.
"When choosing a builder, you have to take reputation, experience with your type of construction project and experience in your local environment into account," says Bruce Mather, executive director with 24 years of experience in facility management at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Ill. Cost counts but only when factored in with other criteria essentials like these.
A résumé will tell you what awards they have won—always a good thing—and will give you a list of references for previous work. And here lies the real gold mine of information. Visiting a referenced site gives you the incomparable insight of talking with the owners about the execution of that project—the good, the bad and the unexpected.
Enough cannot be said in stressing the benefits of actually standing within the walls of a prospective designer's or builder's work.
"I can't imagine a better thing to do than to see them standing in their building with the client they worked with and to see them talk about the successes and the challenges," says Joel Leider, principal with an architectural firm specializing in project planning, SportsPLAN Studio in Kansas City, Mo. "It's the best thing they could ever do."
In the case of D-B firms, be sure to look not only for architectural experience similar in scope but also for firms with a long-established relationship with their architectural team.
"Design-build firms work as a team," says Craig Chapman, head facilities section for U.S. Navy MWR division in Millington, Tenn. "A long A & E (architectural and engineering) partnership lends strength to the process."
Knowing how quality of a project will be achieved is another important area of evaluation. As before, ask previous clients how the architect and builder have fared in the area of quality control. Different delivery methods, however, provide the checks and balances of quality control in different ways.
If the owner is captain and commander of the operation, the owner becomes primarily responsible to ensure that the design and build of the project is as intended. Understanding the constructability of an architect's design and knowing how to oversee its execution—usually with the help of the architect—becomes vital to quality success.
If hiring a GC, ideal for having one go-to person on a project, the owner should have either an in-house staffer or hire an outside agent to oversee the project's progress. In the case of a DBB project at Elmhurst College, Mather was primarily responsible for construction activity. The project went very well. He cautions, however, that GC contracts for fixed payment can offer an inherent incentive to cut subcontracting costs. When this occurs, financial shortcuts can lead to poor construction and costly errors, which become the owner's responsibility. Quality needs to be checked by an owner's representative.
A CM, an agent for the owner, provides a managing service for any delivery method and is the primary monitoring agent. A CM with a reputation for good people skills and for giving 150 percent is a good candidate for quality results. They can collaborate with the designer on the constructability of the proposed designs as well as coordinate and oversee the actual construction process, checking for quality and keeping schedules on keel.
If using a D-B firm, quality control is both an area for the owner to oversee and an internal factor for the firm, which should be addressed during the selection process.
The D-B should be able to describe the organization, lines of authority and responsibility, and planned method of quality control from design start through construction completion, Chapman says, as well as provide the organizational chart of the quality control network.
Past experience is a good indicator of quality design and construction. But in the contractual zeal to stay within budget, some D-B firms may make changes that the owner may not feel are adequate. Know your D-B firm and whether, in the case of quality effecting issues, they can be collaborative when it counts.
Choosing a firm or individual with experience in the local community is also a plus. Being familiar with everything from soil conditions to local materials, codes and regulations will go a long way to avoid the costly and time-consuming pitfalls of ignorance. A lauded designer working exclusively in tropical climates is probably not going to be the best choice for a design in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Just as important, however, is not going with a firm or individual just because they are the community darling. If they've not had experience with your kind of project, be willing to think outside the municipal box and consider more experienced firms and individuals who've worked in your region.
In the case of the community in Grandview, Mo., it successfully worked with both a local architect it trusted and with an experienced architectural firm out of Minnesota. The larger firm had the expertise they needed, while the local team, not experienced with such a project, was nevertheless very eager to understand all their needs. They listened well, and it was that skill that ultimately gave Grandview the customized, unique results they wanted.
Architects and firms working on complex projects like recreational facilities usually team up with specialists to handle the multifunctional design needs that range from aquatics to fitness to childcare to concessions. What becomes vital in such complicated construction is the architect's ability to listen carefully to the needs of the owner, staff and users.
Evaluating the responsiveness of the firm to your functional and aesthetic ideas is critical to weed out those with the inflexible "we-know-best" attitude and to recognize those firms who really know how to listen and consider your input and concerns.
Two of the best ways to get a sense of the firm's ability to listen is to take the time to talk to them and get a sense of whether they will work well with you as a team and then to talk, at length, with those who have worked with them in the past. Likewise, in evaluating a builder, taking the time to get a sense of the relational "fit" and talking to others who have worked with them on previous projects will give you a pretty accurate indication of whether they will work well with you.
After walking down the contractual aisle, there are some key factors to help ensure that the relationship stays healthy and happy. First, in the planning phase of the project, be sure to give them the benefit of everyone's wisdom—from janitorial, mechanical, programming and administrative staff to the users in the community. Let no view be left behind in the effort to make sure everyone's needs and wants are understood.
Another invaluable skill is knowing when to get out of the way. Creativity and skill can be needlessly stifled when micromanaging owners don't know when to let others do their job—especially when dealing with D-B firms in which handing over control is characteristic of the process. It is a definite art to oversee a project and be involved without creating an atmosphere where other professionals feel their expertise is not respected and where they are constantly second-guessed and challenged. If you've hired people you can trust, then trust them to do their job. Only when they lose that trust should you feel justified in holding the reins more tightly.
In the end, no matter whether your project is small or large, simple or complex, using a CM, or a GC with a DBB or a D-B method, it still comes down to one thing:
"It doesn't vary that much," concludes Mather, who has used all the various delivery methods successfully. "In every case, design is the key element. You're handing off a set of drawings and saying, 'Go build it.' We go back to people who've given us good designs and people we're comfortable with. Everyone can see the results of the project—what it looks like and how it functions."
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