The 3 C's in Selecting an Architect: Cost, Competency & Compatibility
May 21, 2007
Read Part II (Case Study)
Three C's a building committee should consider when choosing an architect are cost, competency, and compatibility, and although competency is the first factor one considers in a Qualifications Based Selection (QBS) process,* it is oftentimes overlooked. Costs are the professional fees** submitted by the prospective design teams (architects, engineers, consultants) and are generated from information provided in a Request for Proposal ("RFP") issued by the parish. The RFP should include the approximate size, schedule, and aspirations of the project, as well as a construction budget based on comparable projects and fund raising capacity. Compatibility, the rapport an architect has with the core leadership team, is assessed during the interview of the final candidates. Each core team has its own identity. An architect that worked well for one parish might not work well with another group. The third "C" -- competency -- is the subject of this article. I will address the issue of assessing design competency in particular and will use an accompanying case study to illustrate the process.
Technical competency, the ability of the design team to assemble an effective set of construction documents (drawings and specifications) used by the contractor, is simple to assess. A few phone calls to contractors will uncover a design firm's reputation for producing quality documents. Most committees will stop at this level of assessment for competency; however, a healthy selection process must evaluate a candidate's competency in design.
Architects work in different stylistic genres; however, within these styles are common rules of composition, proportion, integrity in the use of materials that can be assessed. Music appreciation is an appropriate analogy. One enjoys a child's piano recital in a different way than they appreciate a concert pianist. Both are following similar rules of music, but the concern pianist can nuance the rules in ways that win appreciation by the trained ears of their colleagues, to the enjoyment of the larger community. A person might like jazz over classical but will refer to someone knowledgeable in the other genre before spending money on a recording or a concert ticket. A building committee needs to operate in a similar fashion, relying on those in the community who can assess a candidate's design skill. A liturgical space consultant can assist the committee chair with identifying people in the community (e.g., architectural faculty, gallery owners, etc.) who bring the needed level of critical assessment, as well as training the committee in art and architectural appreciation.
Once the general level of design competency is evaluated, the committee needs to see how well the candidate can work with nuanced goals and aspirations assigned to a project. It is critical that the committee knows what the parish wants to build. For example, will the church need to attract youth and/or comfort those older? Are there multicultural characteristics to celebrate? The building might need to respond to social or environmental justice issues. Will the facility be used for lectures or sacred music concerts that require different acoustic controls? These issues, along with budget constraints, will surface secondary competencies needed by the candidate. These competencies are best addressed as questions posed to the candidates in the Request for Qualifications ("RFQ").
One last tool a committee can use to assess design competency is visiting projects designed by the candidates. How well these engage the user and capture the subtle aspirations and goals comparable to the project at hand, should be discussed after the visit. It is also good to note how well the building has weathered over time.
A healthy selection process for an architect takes time. In the accompanying case study (the chapel at a Jesuit High School in Sacramento, CA), the process took fifteen months. Much of that time was spent preparing the committee to confidently select the architect. Lectures, slides, tours, and workshops were among the tools used by the liturgical space consultant to assist the committee in articulating the relevant design issues and expand their appreciation of architecture and art. As Built of Living Stones reminds us in article 175, "The construction or renovation of a church building is a complex task that demands prayer and reflection, technical expertise and study."
* Qualifications Based Selection is a three-tier selection process endorsed by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and starts with a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) that is issued to as many architects as a faith community wishes. Competency is assessed from these responses. Semifinalists are selected from these firms to submit a Request for Proposal (RFP), which includes their fees for professional services (architecture/engineering and consultants). These fees are based on the project's size, schedule, and the goals the parish provides. A construction budget is also included and is based on comparable projects and fund raising capacity. Since it takes a great deal of resources for a design team to gather these numbers, a community ought to limit the number of semifinalists to no more than six, depending on the size and scale of the project. The third tier of this process is to interview the top candidates.
** Many dioceses stipulate a range for professional fees, typically seven to nine percent of construction costs, which is lower than comparable building types. A custom home, for example, will warrant a fee of 12 - 25%. A committee needs to assess the relative value of the fee with other important buildings in their community and determine if additional fees justify added value to the project.
Rev. Gilbert Sunghera, SJ is a liturgical space consultant at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture, Detroit, MI.
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