Design Corner: Orchestrating Your Building

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.


These contractual issues can also be affected by the project's delivery method, whether traditional low-bid, construction manager at-risk (CMAR) or design-build. CMAR can often involve certain building components being designed turnkey by a subcontractor. A large-scale example of this is in the area of aquatics, where a number of pool companies offer design as part of their range of services. In design-build, the entire project is contractually turnkey and under control of the contractor. The point is, there are many possible professional relationships on your job, all of which can influence design decisions. In the example of a pool, your architect might hire an aquatic engineering consultant, or work with a pool vendor directly (or indirectly), or the turnkey supplier might bid on the job separately, requiring the design of the aquatics piece later in the process than most architects would prefer. The challenges and opportunities inherent to each arrangement vary, depending on the nature of the project and type of owner.

To keep the design process on track—it isn't an overstatement to say that if architects worked directly with key vendors on all of a building's pieces, there would not be enough time to actually design the building—a designer may utilize a performance-based specification approach. In this way, a competitive process can be maintained while, in effect, the number of potential bidders is limited. The specifications will describe the basis for design, list approved manufacturers and invite others to submit their products as substitutions during bidding. This covers the owner legally—designers working in the public sector can't sole-source products absent clearly defensible reasons—and ensures that the client gets quality equipment.

Beautiful Music

Most institutional owners have purchasing departments with their own procurement rules, as have different states and municipalities with regard to building projects in the public sphere. This means that nearly everyone remotely connected to a building project can have a hand in determining which roofing company or hardwood sports flooring manufacturer ultimately wins the bid. Although everyone might have an opinion (or a sales pitch) about which product is best or most desirable, no one is in a better position than your architect to determine a given product's suitability, for the simple reason that everything needs to be planned for in the building design.

People tend to use the word "designer" interchangeably with "architect," but above all else, a good architect is a planner—and not someone who works alone. Your architect should be a good listener who makes recommendations based on your stated needs and the architect's own experience. Your architect has biases of his or her own, but if you selected appropriately, those biases are based on product knowledge and design experience, and balanced by professional ethics. While "pretty" is understandably often at the forefront of architect selection, professionalism and planning expertise is what gets you the building and all of its many components that you contracted for.

A seasoned architect is well-positioned to serve as the point person for your team. We think of the architect as the conductor of an orchestra, making sure the many project participants skillfully play their instruments together. As a planning and design professional, your architect is uniquely situated to mold these different products, materials, components and systems—and the team itself—into soaring music.



Stephen Springs, AIA, is a principal with Brinkley Sargent Wiginton Architects in Dallas. For more information, visit:


Stephen Springs