How to Select a Design Professional

There are many factors to look for when selecting the best qualified Design Professional, yet in this day and age the only important factor seems to be price. "How much will this cost me?" is the battle cry of corporate purchasing managers and school superintendents alike. 

But is the lowest cost really the best value? How do you know if you are comparing "apples to apples" when you receive proposals? This article reviews some basic factors to look for when evaluating design firms and proposals. The recommendations are not only our own, but those of the American Institute of Architects, National Society of Professional Engineers, and even the Federal Government.

Here are some questions to ask potential Design Professionals:

"Tell me about your licenses."

Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of selection. Will you have professionals working on your project? Look at the depth of each discipline. Is there one Registered Architect (RA) or four Registered Architects? Apply this same question to all disciplines. If there are only one or two licensed professionals per discipline, chances are they won’t be involved with your project, other than providing limited oversight and stamping the drawings. A limited number of licenses should immediately raise a warning flag in your mind.

"What disciplines do you offer in-house?"

This is important for several reasons. You might find that you can "One Stop Shop" if the design firm has all the major disciplines under one roof: architectural and interior design; structural, civil, HVAC, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection engineering; surveying; etc. Having a single source leads to better communication, coordination, and quality.

"Tell me about my design team, especially the Project Manager."

This question is closely related to the first question. What are the qualifications of the team who will be designing your project? Are they licensed or certified? Are they college educated or are they glorified drafters? Many firms imply their designers are "architects" or "engineers," even though they have no licenses or formal education. Also, learn about the project manager. Talk with him/her. How is s/he qualified to manage your project? What similar projects has this person managed? Is s/he licensed? Degreed? How many years experience does this person have?

"Tell me about the relevant past experience of your firm and the design team."

A two-part question, necessary to accurately identify the Design Professional’s qualifications. What projects has the firm designed that are similar in nature? How recent were these projects? This is an extremely important question, because while the design firm may have an extensive resume of related projects, it is quite possible that the individuals who designed them are no longer even with the firm. This leads us to the second part of the question. What relevant experience do the project team members have? It is possible for a firm to have limited relevant experience on the surface, but a wealth of knowledge on the project team. Ask to see the resume of each member of the design team. Not only do you want the discipline leaders to be educated, licensed, and/or have many years of experience, you want them to have many similar projects "under their belts." The credentials of the design team members are actually more important than the credentials of the company as a whole.

"Can I visit your office?"

Before you select a firm, ask to visit their office. Why? You want to see them in action. You want to walk the facility and meet members of the design team. You want to see if the Design Professional is as "state-of-the-art" as they claim to be. If they say all work will be performed on Computer Aided Design & Drafting (CADD), ask how many stations the company has. Ask to see them. If they have twenty designers and four CADD stations, how do you know your project will really be computer-designed? An office tour will generally either enhance the image presented on paper, or refute that image.

"What clients of yours can I talk with?"

References. Call several clients of the Design Professional to inquire as to their thoughts on the design firm. How did the project go? Was the relationship with their Project Manager a good one? Was s/he responsive to the client’s needs? This question can also be asked in reverse order. Before you contact any Design Professionals, contact area firms that are similar to yours. Ask whom they would recommend. Call a contractor or two and ask who does the best work. Call vendors to see whom they would recommend.

When the selection comes down to price only, you are the loser. The Brooks Act, passed in 1972, mandates the use of qualifications-based selection for all Federal civilian agency projects. A similar law was enacted in 1982 to apply to military agencies. If you compare the bottom line only, you are almost guaranteed to not compare "apples to apples." While it is possible that the most qualified firm is the lowest price, you won’t know that until you compare qualifications. When you select the most qualified firm, you are in essence selecting the "Best Value." When you select the cheapest firm, you are playing Russian Roulette.

The services of a Design Professional are not a specific product. They are the ability to formulate and translate ideas into specifications and drawings for a product. The "Best Value" in professional services can frequently justify higher initial design fees which are more than offset in construction and life cost savings developed through better solutions.

In review, always keep these factors in mind when selecting a Design Professional: licenses, firm experience, project team experience, discipline in-house, project manager credentials, references and/or recommendations, and design professional’s office environment. Many government agencies and private corporations utilize a checklist to compare qualifications. Only after you have chosen the best qualified firm or firms (apples to apples) should you consider price.