Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Cost of Doing Business

Aerial view of Eugene City Hall, circa 1964
After a seemingly interminable selection process, the City of Eugene this past Friday issued a notice of intent to award the responsibility for designing a reinvigorated City Hall to the team led by Rowell Brokaw Architects (RBA) of Eugene. Ultimately, City Manager Jon Ruiz made the choice, which came down to a decision for him between RBA and THA Architecture of Portland.

The City originally characterized the selection process as comprised of two stages: 1) evaluation by a selection committee of written responses to the Request for Proposals; and 2) interviews with teams conducted by the committee, which would forward its recommendation to Ruiz. A total of seven teams submitted proposals:  

  1. Rowell Brokaw Architects  
  2. THA Architecture 
  3. Robertson/Sherwood/Architects (the firm I work for)
  4. Poticha Architects
  5. Skylab Architecture
  6. PIVOT Architecture
  7. TVA Architects
Of this list, the three highest scoring teams—THA Architecture, Rowell Brokaw Architects, and Robertson/Sherwood/Architects (RSA)—moved on to the round of interviews. After the selection committee scored each of the interview presentations, it determined that THA achieved the highest point total (92.1), followed closely by Rowell Brokaw (88.6). Alas, RSA ranked third across the board (76.0), so my firm’s pursuit of the City Hall project would come to a disappointing end. 

If the City chose to respect the process outlined in its own RFP, it would have selected THA Architecture then and there. However, it became clear those who questioned the absence of citizen participation in the selection process had Jon Ruiz’s ear.(1) In response, Ruiz appointed an altogether new committee comprised of ten community members to help him come to a final decision about which firm to award the project to. 

The City would require both THA and Rowell Brokaw to effectively be interviewed a second time, to jump through another, unexpected hoop. This took the form of separate presentations before the citizens committee and interested members of the public. The City encouraged members of the public in attendance to provide written comments, which Ruiz would consider in addition to recommendations from the committee. 

I sat in the audience during the May 15 public presentations. I thought Rowell Brokaw and THA both performed superbly. I know each firm and its respective team members are more than qualified to do the work. I’m happy for RBA but also feel badly for THA, which despite having equally expended blood, sweat, and tears, is consigned to the status of an also-ran alongside the rest of us who vainly sought the project. 

Expending significant resources in pursuit of a design commission is part of the cost of doing business these days. To have a shot at the most desirable and prestigious jobs, architects often have no choice but to pull out all the stops and invest heavily in flashy proposal documents and presentations. They spend countless hours honing their message and assembling the best consultant team possible. In many instances, this involves bringing in heavy hitters from outside the immediate area.(2) The concomitant costs these team members incur for staff travel and time away from billable activities add up very quickly. 

Firms are increasingly disposed to skewing the “risk/reward” ratio irrationally toward the “risk” end of the spectrum knowing that to do otherwise is to surrender any hope of securing the prize. In the case of Eugene City Hall, it is worth questioning whether the scope of the “reward” can possibly justify the lengths to which Rowell Brokaw and THA were compelled to go. After all, the total direct construction budget is estimated at only $11 million. From a dollars and cents perspective, the City Hall project will not be a windfall for RBA. If their effort was anything like ours, they invested tens of thousands of dollars in resources and redirected the energies of productive staff away from paying jobs in pursuit of the project. For smaller firms with less robust balance sheets, such marketing expenditures can be crippling if they are not always fruitful. 

Firms are also too willing to go above and beyond in an effort to set themselves apart. It isn’t enough anymore to simply communicate how the client might derive greater value from your services than from your competitors or to display a winning team chemistry. No, you need the marketing resources of a Fortune 500 company too and a sizeable portfolio of award-winning, net-zero ready, LEED-certified, and gorgeously photographed projects of exactly the type and size proposed for the task at hand. This is an unsustainable arms race, one in which clients like the City of Eugene are complicit abettors and one that will always favor larger, established firms. 

Is there a better way to select the most qualified firms for significant publicly funded projects? If there is, I’m not aware of it. The alternative methods that come to mind have their shortcomings too. Design competitions can be exploitive and by their nature do not integrate stakeholders’ input during the important early stages of a design’s iterative process. Selecting a firm from a pre-qualified pool of candidates can work for smaller routine projects but is far less effective a strategy for larger, more complex commissions, particularly ones subject to intense public scrutiny. 

Do clients understand the disproportionate burden their consultant selection processes imposes upon firms interested in working with them? I like to think so. I don’t expect the City of Eugene to come up with a solution by itself to a universal problem as intractable for the architectural profession as this one. On the other hand, it would be nice if all public agencies planning to hire architects in the future gave greater thought to how they might level the playing field (perhaps by explicitly limiting types and quantity of required presentation media). Any qualified firm should have a fair shot at the most desirable projects. A system that unduly perpetuates selection based upon factors immaterial to the task at hand is a flawed one.(3)

(1) The City Hall design selection committee included eight members, of which only Hugh Prichard was not a city staff person.   

(2)  Rowell Brokaw’s team includes The Miller Hull Partnership of Seattle. Robertson/Sherwood/Architects likewise teamed up with an out-of-town firm, the SRG Partnership.

(3) I hope this post doesn’t come across as a case of sour grapes. Admittedly, I am frustrated by the rules of the game we are too often forced to play, which are inherently unfair to firms with limited resources at their disposal. 

No comments: