Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Shadiness of the Profession

By Phil Mevert

As in most business professions that provide a distinct service, there are always going to be some “back door deals” going on. Architecture is no different; the most common way to acquire new clients is by knowing someone who is connected with them. This is most common to getting jobs in the private sector of Architecture.  When a private institution or client is looking for design services it is common that they ask someone they know who would be good to hire as an Architect for the project.  If the client is new to process and on a very tight budget the most financially beneficial way for them to get multiple design ideas for free is to turn the hiring of an Architect into a design competition that will determine who will be the Architect hired to provide the design services they are looking for.  This is an excellent benefit for the client as they get multiple designs at one time. From the architect’s side of this selection approach it can be very costly.

            There are many things that factor into how hard a firm will go at the project. One is how soon will this project develop into billable revenue and how realistic is it the project will not fall through. Another factor is how much of the upfront time and assets that are spent in trying to get the job can be made back with the fees once the project is under contract. Who the competition is and how they are connected to the client is also something to consider, is their connection to someone who has more say on the decision than your connection does? Once the firm decides to go after the project, if they do not select your firm for the project, questions that never really get answered start to rise.
            Did the client decide on who they wanted for the project before they ever asked for proposals and they just wanted some free design work? Did the firm that was selected spend extra time outside of interview and casual run ins to promote their firm for the job? What really was the deciding factor that separated the firm awarded the job from the rest of the options?
            Sometimes clients will tell you that the way your design was presented didn’t spark the interest of the selection committee. There are also times that a certain aspect of the design that is different between a couple of firms.  For example one firm could be proposing to use a ramp for accessibility from one floor to the next instead of putting in the more common stairs and elevator.  It should be commonly known that the combination of a stair and elevator would be cheaper than using ramps to rise to a floor level more than 10’ from finished floors.  If the client goes with the firm using ramps, and it is said that the ramp instead of the stairs was the glaring difference and a major reason for the final decision, the stair and elevator firm has to wonder why. Did the client adamantly state to the other firm that they really wanted and needed to have a ramp in lieu of and elevator or did the other firm just realize that the ramp was the most important item that they coveted? Is the other firm proposing this design just to get the job knowing that when the budget will force them to go to a design with an elevator and stairs in lieu of the ramp? Is the other firm just that unaware of the cost difference for the two accessibility design options or is there something else in the design that they did different that will bring the cost down and not cause other problems? There is a saying that there is more than one way to skin a cat and this is true with design as well. There are always multiple ways to solve a design issue and more than one can be a great way to do it, but if in the end it is discovered that the firm hired to do the design was dishonest in their approach to get the job, it devalues the profession and is a disservice to the client. Rarely in the design profession is this really known to happen but stuff like this can be kept so low key that it is possible that I could have happened and just never made public. The big question is, how can firms get real definitive answers as to why they are not selected for certain jobs over another firm? Are there major “back door deals” in the design professions and if so should there be regulations to stop it, or is that just one firm being better at selling their business to clients? These are some questions to ponder over the summer while relaxing by the pool. 

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