Originally posted Wednesday, 04 September 2013

By Owners Perspective

As someone who has spent a considerable amount of time over the past 30 years as both a practicing architect and an Owner’s representative, I have encountered—and can now dispel—a number of myths about design professionals and their relations with clients. For the benefit of our industry, I’ve cited 10 of the most prevalent myths below and paired them with the facts as I see them.

As someone who has spent a considerable amount of time over the past 30 years as both a practicing architect and an Owner’s representative, I have encountered—and can now dispel—a number of myths about design professionals and their relations with clients. For the benefit of our industry, I’ve cited 10 of the most prevalent myths below and paired them with the facts as I see them.

1. Myth: If an architecture firm takes the difficult, low-budget, undesirable projects, the client will someday give that firm a desirable, “high-design” project.

Fact: Clients tend to see A/E’s in specific roles. A firm that is known for successfully completing low-budget, difficult, renovation projects will get a reputation as the “go to” firm for this kind of work. The client may think of those firms as can-do miracle workers, but they typically do not see them as “starchitects.” On the positive side, these firms are likely to consistently receive mundane projects. On the negative side, they are not likely get an opportunity to do a “high design” project, unless they joint venture with a big-name design firm.

2. Myth: Big city architecture firms don’t cost clients any more money than small-town local firms.

Fact: Big city firms from distant locales like to make this statement at interviews to level the playing field with the local architects. There may be good and sound reasons for hiring experts from afar, but low price typically isn’t one of them. It stands to reason that the reimbursable costs for a firm that has to fly across the country, stay in local hotels, rent a car, etc. is going to be higher than the firm who’s employees drive to the client’s office or jobsite in their own cars and return to their homes at night. Office rents cost more in big cities, and employees often earn more, which inevitably translates into higher billable rates. For these reasons, it is disingenuous to tell potential clients that it won’t cost them any more money to hire your big city firm than to select a local small-town firm. You may have unique expertise that the local competitors don’t have, and for this reason you are the top candidate for the commission, but you’re not likely to be cost competitive.

3. Myth: If an architecture firm is shortlisted for several projects and doesn’t get any of them, you are not likely to get a commission with that particular client in the foreseeable future.

Fact: I’ve seen a number of instances where architects are shortlisted for several projects in a row and not selected for any of them, but then they get hired for the very next project. A savvy selection committee knows that it is a combination of the best firm and the best fit. Team ‘A’ can have an excellent group of individuals and the chemistry can be right with the client, but the project may not be a good fit. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with Team ‘A’; they simply need to keep competing until their firm is the best fit for the project at hand.

4. Myth: In difficult times, every RFP is worth pursuing.

Fact: Some jobs are absolutely not worth pursuing, even in the worst of economic times. The best example is when you don’t have the minimum qualifications or germane experience. You only waste your money and the Owner’s time by submitting proposals on projects for which your team has little or no germane experience. This is especially true when times are tough and the competition is fierce.

5. Myth: Who the architect proposes as their consulting engineers for a project is not as critical as who is proposed to be the lead architectural designer.

Fact: The design architect is very important, but increasingly, the mechanical engineer and the electrical engineer are the deal makers or deal breakers. As buildings become ever more complex, clients are redoubling their focus on the mechanical and electrical engineers’ role. Indoor air quality, energy conservation, and lifecycle cost analysis issues only add to Owners’ newfound interest in MEP engineering team members.

6. Myth: Clients don’t really follow up with references or solicit input from their colleagues at other institutions, universities, public agencies, etc.

Fact: Clients do make reference calls, and a bad reference can kill a firm’s chances of landing a project. A/E teams need to regularly contact their references and make sure that your architecture firm is still in good graces with your former clients. One lukewarm reference (or worse) can be the difference between being the runner-up and getting the commission.

7. Myth: An architecture firm needs to pursue every RFP a client sends to you; otherwise, you diminish your chances of working for them in the future.

Fact: Clients understand that not every project is a good fit with every firm. As long as you call the client prior to the submission date and let them know that you won’t be submitting a proposal because your office carefully reviewed the RFP and concluded that the requirements don’t play to your team’s expertise, most Owners will admire your insightful self-awareness and honesty and will readily consider your firm for another project in the future.

8. Myth: An architecture firm can rest on their laurels if they’ve done a number of successful projects for a client over many years.

Fact: It may not be fair, but your firm is only as good as the last job you did for an Owner. Clients tend to remember only the last project—good or bad. They tend to forget the previous half-dozen projects that everyone on the client’s staff thought were very successful and focus solely on the latest one.

9. Myth: Sustainable design does not cost more.

Fact: When looking at first costs only, sustainable design almost always costs more. We can all point to increased productivity, less absenteeism, lower energy and water bills, etc., but those are long-term cost savings, not first-cost dollars. To cover the added upfront expenses, something has to come out of the program, or the “design-to” budget needs to be increased. The first costs of environmentally responsible buildings are generally some percentage higher than doing the cheapest, minimally code-compliant solution. As professionals, I believe we should passionately advocate for environmentally sound design solutions. But to tell the client, “it doesn’t cost any more” is to be disingenuous and will only serve to erode your credibility with the Owner.

10. Myth: It is better to commit to an unrealistic schedule or budget up front to get the project, than to tell the client what they don’t want to hear.

Fact: The client may be upset with you initially, but sticking to your convictions will likely help avoid a greater disappointment later. Clients may want to hear that they can have it all by tomorrow, with no pain or expense, but they will be twice as upset if you capitulate and then don’t meet their unrealistic goals. Owners look to A/E professionals to guide them through the design and construction process. They will feel bitterly deceived if you encourage unrealistic expectations at the start of the design process.