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how to find an architect commercial construction

How to Find an Architect for a Commercial Construction Project

Why Finding the Right Design Team Is Essential for Success

For owners, there are hundreds, if not, thousands of decisions you will make during the course of a project. But perhaps one of the most important decisions is hiring an architect for your job. Whether you’re building a house or a skyscraper, the process you take to find an architect is essential to your project’s success.

Just take into consideration the $300 million Ray and Maria Stata Center at MIT designed by an award-winning architect. Despite the architect’s credentials and the building’s innovative exterior, MIT ended up filing a negligence lawsuit three years after the building opened citing major design flaws causing structural issues. Drainage issues caused mold on the exterior, cracks in the walls and even dangerous icicle formations from the roof when temperatures dropped below freezing. The case of Ray and Maria Stata Center is just one case of why hiring the right design team for your project is essential. With the wrong decision, you risk losing your building’s intent and could face design issues once construction begins.

The design is truly the backbone of your project–and you need an expert to help get it right. Thus, to get your project off on the best foot possible, it’s essential you take the time to do your research and find an architect who is best equipped for your project’s particular needs. Whether you’re new to hiring a design team or are looking to improve how you find a firm on your next project, below, we’ll walk you through everything you should take into consideration during the process.

Why Finding the Right Design Team Is Important

Each project is unique. Every building serves a different purpose, and its individual location has its distinct set of characteristics and environment. At the core of it, architects are like artists–and highly educated ones at that. You wouldn’t commission a sculpture artist for a painting, and similarly, you wouldn’t hire an interior designer to handle your project’s landscape. The point is, you need the right design team to handle your unique job.

While the process to find an architect can indeed be incredibly time consuming, it’s essential to making your project a success. In general, the shared goal of the owner and architect is to make sure that their project meets the design intent as discussed in concept design. Beyond just the design phase, keeping the architect’s design intent with consistent communication throughout the construction process can be critical to ensuring the building meets code and contractors and subs can execute building according to the design documents. With the right firm to handle your project, you’ll ensure that your project is not only built, but it helps to reduce overall costs by reducing the need for change orders and rework and helps keep your schedule on track.

Below, we’ll walk you through a few of the standard processes owners go through to select their design team. Note, that all projects are unique and the process to find an architect varies case by case, project by project. Primarily, we’ll discuss how to select a design team using a traditional Design-Bid-Build delivery method. If your project is using Design-Build or Integrated Project Delivery (IPD), the selection process could be quite different.

Setting Up a Selection Committee

Before any firms are short listed or even contacted, your project might require a formal selection committee. Creating a cohesive selection committee also ensures the project approach values teamwork and collaboration from the start. While a selection committee is not always mandatory for every project,  having multiple project stakeholders involved certainly can help owners make the right hiring decision by providing a broader range of viewpoints. For instance, if you’re in healthcare, it’s wise to involve representation from the hospital leadership, the board of directors and even physicians and nursing staff–those who will actually be using the facilities. You may even want to include an internal architect or designer on the team. A good rule of thumb is to keep the committee broad but exclusive, with around only 5-8 members. However, if your project requires less or more extensive collaboration, this number might vary. Furthermore, it’s important to keep members of the selection committee involved in the whole construction process from the initial design through closeout.

If your project requires a selection committee,  it’s critical to outline the selection criteria and process. Clear procedures will give everyone on the committee a firm idea of what exactly is the intention of the project and how it will move forward in design.

Creating the Long List

Before the official search begins, keep in mind that to find an architect for your commercial or even civil construction job, creating the initial long list begins differently if it’s a public or private project.

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Public

In a public project, any firm is welcome to apply as long as they meet bonding and minimum experience requirements. Often, documents are made available at cost or deposit to any firm who requests them. Typically, documents are also placed in plan rooms for architects to bid on.

Private

For private projects, bids are open by invitation only. Commonly, but not always, an owner who needs to find an architect will already have 5-10 firms in mind who they have either worked for or who have a good reputation with the type of project they’re looking to construct.

If you’re looking to widen your networks of potential firms, a great place to first start is your network. Has an architecture firm been recommended by a peer or other project owner? Do members of the selection committee have other design teams in mind? Another place to look for established architects is through a general internet search or looking at the database in the American Institute of Architects.

Short Listing Architects

Before you prepare and send out your RFP, you’ll want to narrow down a short list to around 3-6 architecture firms. Nonetheless, if your particular project has more risk, this might be in the range of 3-20 firms. No matter how many firms you plan to select for your short list, you’ll need to compare and contrast all long list firms. A request for qualifications (RFQ) is a common practice to cut down a long list of potentials. In addition to a description of who you are and what you are looking to build, an RFQ should include details on the all the services required (interior architecture, landscape architecture, facade, etc.) as well as the fee, program, schedule, budget, and other important project information. The firm will respond with a qualifications statement that includes who and what type of fir they are, the services they provide, examples of projects and references.

The first obvious step in this process is to review the qualifications of the firms. Questions you might want to consider include:

  • Does the firm or architect have the necessary certifications? Does their portfolio align with your project’s needs?
  • What is the reputation of the actual architecture firm? How many employees do they have?
  • Are they equipped to handle a project of your size? Have they handled similar sized projects before?
  • If it’s a general architecture firm, do they have experience with similar types of projects (e.g., healthcare facilities, universities, etc.)?
  • If the firm came through your network or a referral, do they have a positive track record in project’s they have serviced?
  • Is the firm local? If not, do you think distance will impact your project?

The Proposal

Now that you have completed your initial search and vet to find an architect for your project, the real work begins for the firms on the short list. After you have drafted and distributed the project’s RFP, with a set completion date (generally, at least two weeks), your role is to wait until the deadline.

Once the deadline has ended, it’s time to review the proposals from the short list. If you have a selection committee, gather the members to review and discuss together. An important aspect to note when reviewing proposals is that a lower cost is not always as cost-effective as it seems, while a higher fee does not always provide the quality it appears to. It’s up to you, and possibly your selection committee, to start digging into the specifics of the proposals; it’s never a wise idea to choose a firm on price alone. Instead of thinking solely about the design cost, consider the value you want the firm to bring for the price. For example, some firms might be more focused on efficiency, while other design teams are more artistic and strive for unique and quality designs.

In addition to your selection criteria, proposals should at least meet the following minimum qualifications:

  • Do they fully address the project’s needs, Scope of Work based on RFP?
  • Do they address budget and schedule? If not, do they provide reasons why they are over/under from RFP?
  • Is the work they are proposing realistic?
  • Are they designing the correct layout (e.g., egress of the building, the program listed in RFP, consistent materials with the fabric of urban environment)?
  • Are they innovative? Do the initial designs they provide strike your interest?
  • Does their portfolio match your project’s needs?

The Interview

After the proposals have been reviewed, narrow down the selection to a few firms to move to the final interview stage. Once again, this number could vary anywhere from 2-10 firms, possibly more, depending on your project needs. Just like the RFP, notify the firms and allow them at least two weeks to prepare for their presentation. However, if you want to see more intensive presentations, using technology like VR or 3D models, you may even want to give design teams up to two months to prepare.

Depending on your preference and time, decide on the interview structure before notifying firms. You might want only to schedule one round of interviews that last one to a few hours. Alternatively, some projects might include multiple rounds of interviews for the top firms. Once again, it’s up to you to decide how long of a process your project will need to make the best decision. Also, always leave time for Q&A after each interview–extremely important to ensure all members of the committee have had their concerns answered.

During the interview, keep an eye out for the following:

  • What’s the firm’s communication style like? Does it mesh well with you and your team? Do you know who you will actually be communicating with on a day-to-day basis?
  • What digital tools are they using? Do they use construction productivity software to facilitate communication during the design stage?
  • Are their renderings impressive or what you have in mind? Are they using 3D Models, 3D printing, augmented reality models or hand-drawn sketches?
  • Do the concept floor plans tell a story? Are they diagrammatic and visually pleasing?
  • Does the design team also come with a portfolio of Engineers? Can you also afford them? Do they have certification and experience in standards like LEED if your project requires them?
  • When discussing any cost of schedule concerns, how do they handle it?
  • What is the cost per hour in comparison to other firms?  Do they work more efficiently than other architecture firms?
  • What is their internal design team or design consultant team like? If they use consultants, do they use those with a good background and reputation?

After Interview

The time has come to make a final decision; it’s up to you to figure out which firm you think is best suited to complete the job. If you involve a selection committee, spend the time to consult together and discuss the pros and cons of each interviewing firm. If you see any notable cost or schedule flags, crunch the numbers and dive into what the firm is really trying to tell you before making a quick decision. Also, if you haven’t done so yet, make sure you check references before making the final call.

Finally, think carefully about the decision. First and most importantly, the success of your project is a priority. You should choose a firm who fulfills all if not most of your criteria for success. Keep in mind that sometimes the right decision can also feel like a personal decision. As an owner, you will have to spend a great chunk of your time (probably at least 2-4 years) with the architect as the project progresses. Make sure you are choosing a design team who is not only well-suited to do the job but is one you can work well with personally. A great proposal is one thing, but an architect or design consultants who are extremely difficult to work with bring a slew of issues that can otherwise make your project a nightmare. At the end of the day, communication is critical, so you should aim to have a good rapport with the firm you choose.

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After Selection

Once you have confirmed with the final firm that you will be moving forward, don’t forget to notify the other firms you will not be working with them. Just a simple thank you email or call to acknowledge their hard work, goes a long way. You never know, you may end up working with them in the future, especially if you’re working in a small metropolitan area, and minimum effort goes a long way to ensure you won’t burn any bridges.

Remember to dot your i’s and cross your t’s with the awarded firm, too. Once you confirm, they will work to create an agreement Scope of Work and other critical project details. Review the contract carefully and if you have any questions and concerns, make sure you ask before signing your project away. At this point, you may also negotiate the fee, although you’ll want to settle on an agreement both parties will be happy with in the end to keep a positive relationship as your project moves forward.

Find an Architect; Build a Relationship

Although the process to find an architect is time-consuming, it’s well worth the resources when you select a firm who has the skills to take your project to that next level. The way the design phase is executed is a good sign of how the rest of your project will play out. So, if you care about reducing costs, minimizing delays and overall project quality, decide on a design team who is right for your project.

Finally, hire the design team you most want to commit to with a long-term business relationship, not just a one-off project. If your project is successful, you’re more likely to hire the same firm for a future project. Don’t just find an architect you can live with at this moment, find a firm who will grow with you over time.

Ross Wagner

Ross is a Customer Advocate at PlanGrid. He helps implement PlanGrid with companies and projects up and down the West Coast. When not working, Ross loves exploring new cities, talking architecture, and seeing live music. He has a Five-Year Bachelor's Degree in Architecture and a Minor in Business from the University of Texas at Austin.

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