Selecting your Design & Construction Team

by | Design-Build, Facilities

Last month we covered the three primary project delivery methods; Design-Bid-Build, Construction Management, & Design-Build and reviewed the advantages and disadvantages of each method considering the challenging current construction market conditions.  This month we will address how to select your design and construction team members once a construction delivery method has been determined.  

Many have heard the familiar adage “Cost, Quality & Schedule…pick any two” when seeking the best design and construction partners.  In some ways it can feel like there is no way to get the best of all three for a construction project but is that really true? 

For all the complexity inherent in designing and constructing a new building or addition the one thing that is inescapable is that construction is a highly relational business.  An owner’s trust in their design and construction team is essential to maximize the chance of a successful project outcome.  Similarly, the architect must have trust in their full design team including all their engineering consultants responsible for the civil, structural, mechanical, and electrical design.  The general contractor must also have great trust in their trade contractors and material and equipment suppliers to achieve an on time and on budget project completion all with the expected level of quality.  

So how should a project owner identify and select the best design and construction team members if they have not recently worked together or perhaps ever at all?  As with any service, it is important to ensure that consultants are selected who have performed well in the past and have also done similar type projects.  Although commercial construction is much the same, there are nuances based on types of projects that are important to understand when selecting a design and construction team.  Hospital clients certainly expect that their designer and builder are familiar with clinical systems and design and construction code requirements for healthcare.  Similarly, a worship facility design and construction team would be expected to be well versed in safe construction phasing necessary to achieve an expansion of an active and vibrant campus that must be ready to host a worship service every weekend.  

The primary factors involved in selecting a design or construction team are 1) Staff, 2) Firm Experience, 3) Cost of Services, 4) Schedule, and 5) Quality.  These factors are summarized below for both the design and construction team.

FactorDesign TeamConstruction Team
StaffObtain a commitment regarding the specific project architect who will be overall responsible.  Review staff resumes and references. What support team will the proposed staff have inside their firm? Will a Principal of the firm be actively involved in the project?  If so, for how long?  What references have they provided? Can the architect be readily available for at least monthly on-site project visits?Who is the project manager?  How much of their time will be dedicated to the project? Who is the project Superintendent?  Will they be on site full time? Do their resumes indicate experience with the subject project type?  What references have they provided?  
Firm ExperienceDoes the firm specialize in the subject project type or at least have some extensive experience that is similar?  Are the staff responsible for past similar projects still with the firm and available for this project? How will the design firm select their consulting engineers?  Is a mechanical engineer already identified who knows the existing project campus and systems?    Do they have experience in your municipality obtaining project code approvals?What is the contractors’ safety record and OSHA EMR rating?  What is their record of past customer satisfaction?  What preconstruction capabilities do they have in-house to assist the design team in evaluation of alternative materials, systems and construction approaches to ensure best value and that the budget is achievable?  If applicable, do they have solid experience on renovation projects including keeping an active campus and existing building operational during construction?
Cost of ServicesHow does the design firm price their services?  What are their proposed deliverables and stages of design? What would be their proposed billing schedule of values by deliverable stage?  Are they including contract administration services to provide construction progress inspections and to attend regular onsite progress meetings?  How often will their consulting engineers be on site for progress inspections?  How do they manage the punch list process and gather, review, and turn over final operation and maintenance manuals at project completion?  How transparently are they pricing their “General Conditions” that includes all their staff and onsite office and project management costs?  How do they price their preconstruction services?  How many bidders per trade will they expect to receive and how will the client know? How do they manage change orders and price them?  What is their approach to managing allowances and contingencies?  Can they help manage an owner direct materials purchasing program to save sales tax? How important is it to them to pay their trade contractors in a timely manner?
ScheduleWhat are the design milestones and deliverables? What decisions are expected of the owner and when?  How does the design team coordinate with owner furnished equipment and communicate sources of all equipment and material on the plans so that responsibilities are clear?  How much pull do they have with their consulting engineers to ensure that progress plan design deadlines are met?What is the contractor’s track record for on time completion?  Are they open to incentives for early completion and penalties for later completion?  How do they plan for and deal with weather delays? How do they manage the details of the procurement of all materials and equipment especially those on the critical path of the project? Are they prepared to store and protect materials and equipment obtained early?
QualityWhat is the drawing coordination process between the architect and all engineering consultants?  How are the plans coordinated with the specifications? Is there a reasonable process for the contractor requesting approval for material substitutions?  How are submittals managed for efficient review and approval? How do they manage the in-progress work quality list and the final completion punch list for effective resolution with the contractor? How are warranties and guarantees managed?How do they perform constructability reviews the plans at various design stages? How do they coordinate the scopes of work required of different trade contractors to ensure nothing “falls through the cracks”?  Do they have a written quality control program that governs daily and weekly quality reviews?  What is their warranty follow up process?

As can be seen from the above, there are an extensive number of questions that must be addressed to ensure that the best firms are being selected for a project.     To most effectively achieve an “apples to apples” comparison of the approaches from various firms, it is highly advisable to ask all firms to respond to a common form of request for services and have all firms address the same set of questions.    There are three primary documents and/or phases that should be considered for both the design team and the construction team if a Construction Management or Design-Build delivery method are sought:

  1. Request for Qualifications (RFQ)
  2. Request for Proposals (RFP)
  3. Presentation / Interview 

The RFQ serves the purpose of requesting interested firms to present a brief package that highlights their overall qualifications for a project and typically includes both firm and personnel experience and capabilities as well as accolades and certifications that are relevant to the subject project.  The RFQ typically serves as a filtering document that allows an owner to invite the most qualified firms to then submit a proposal in response to a subsequent request for proposal.

The RFP is much more projec-specific and comprehensive and seeks to understand in great detail the approach a design or construction firm would take to the specific project.  The RFP typically will include a long list of specific questions to which detailed answers are expected.  It is common to request examples of similar past projects, references, resumes of proposed staff, a proposed overall project schedule, and approach to the overall project budget as well as the proposed cost of services.  The response is typically a professionally produced book limited to a prescribed number of pages and created in a requested format.  Owners often “short list” the finalists from the content submitted in the proposal received in response to an RFP.  Short listed firms are typically asked to make a presentation in a meeting with the project owner.  

The Presentation/ Interview is usually a “chemistry test” in which the owner has an opportunity to assess the overall competence and approach of the presenting firm including (very importantly) their proposed project staff who they commit to the owner for the duration of the project.  These meetings can last anywhere from 20 minutes to multiple hours but commonly have a period for a presentation of the proposed project team and approach followed by a time of questions and answers.   

Designing and constructing a new project is a very complex and relationally intensive process highly dependent on an excellent working relationship among all parties.   Despite the temptation to make “easy” selections by going with known individuals or firms, it is always prudent to take an objective approach to selecting the design and construction team.  In the end, those known individuals or firms may, in fact, be the best choices but responsible stewardship is to engage the design and construction team after a thorough and objective process.  The resulting project and the relationships among all stakeholders will be better for it.      

Steve Kuhn is the founder of ShareBuilt, a nonprofit organization, that directly connects those in need of new/renovated facilities to AEC organizations with resources to meet those needs and professionals called to serve their communities.

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