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05 June 2013

Government Agencies Hiring Architects: Kind of a Waste of Time

Disclaimer: This post represents my views and not that of the firm I am employed at.

Recently the architecture firm I work for submitted what is known in the Architecture and Engineering (A/E) community as an RFQ (request for qualifications) for the City Colleges of Chicago's new Malcolm X College. An RFQ consists of sheets detailing relevant work that the firm has engaged in recently, proof that the firm is insured, forms signaling that the firm doesn't have conflicts of interest, financial statements going back several years, etc. You get the point. It's a lot of information. I was in charge of putting together the RFQ for my firm along with the fifteen other firms we partnered with.

The project itself is an educational facility that has a teaching hospital component and a budget of $251 million. My firm designed two of the three hospitals that Malcolm X College has a partnership with, so we're familiar with the area and its stakeholders. We specialize in healthcare, teaching hospitals, high rises, corporate centers, and higher education.

The A/E team that won the contract can expect to see maybe 4.5%-6.5% of the $251 million budget, so the design fee will be roughly $12-$15 million which gets split between more than a dozen professions - structural engineers, architects, geotechnical engineers, etc. It's the kind of money that allows you to expand your office and hire additional staff.

Submitting for these RFQ's is a gamble. They consume a lot of time and energy that could go towards billable work. I personally put in well over 160 hours for this proposal and there were multiple people who worked with me. The document we produced is 290 pages and was coordinated between sixteen separate consulting firms. The submission required multiple physical copies in addition to electronic copies that had to be couriered over to the CCC's headquarters. All of this is done at our expense. We aren't reimbursed for anything. I would conservatively place the cost to my firm, not including the cost to our consultants, at well over $10,000 and probably closer to $20,000 or more. To be clear, we are aware that this is a gamble and typically only go after jobs that we think we are highly qualified for and have a good chance of winning.

We were selected for a call back after the initial submission, so we had to produce yet another set of booklets and show up for an interview. This requires more preparation, more printing, and more hours. We then had a second call back that was followed by more questions:

"Does your firm have enough people for a job of this size?"

"We have nineteen people in our office and we've partnered with another firm that is similarly sized. We also plan to hire additional staff." And the truth is that today's software (BIM, Revit) is so powerful that really this project could be done by maybe less than ten people in our office if they worked on it full time. We've designed buildings that were many times this size (Water Tower Place, Prudential Plaza/Tower, Old Orchard Shopping Center, etc.)

"Your team is very diverse but what about your firm?"

Crickets. How do you tell a review committee that your firm went from roughly 65 people to nineteen in the matter of a couple years? Architecture is feast or famine and right now we're starving. We used to be diverse and to some degree we still are. We're just not the kind of diverse they're looking for.

It was announced (source) that Moody Nolan, a firm based in Columbus, Ohio, won the contract. Their Chicago office has nine people (related). They also happen to be the largest African American owned architecture firm in the US; a fact that both the mayor and CCC are very proud of.

Moody Nolan is qualified to do the work and I harbor no ill will towards them, but why did the CCC pick a non-Chicago based firm? Especially since they keep touting how many jobs the project will bring to the Chicago area. Why did they question our size if they picked a firm that's local office is less than half of our size? This contract is for design development and construction documents (the design was done by Canon Design) so it will have to be handled locally with feet on the ground. Why did they question the racial makeup of our firm if we exceeded the MBE/WBE requirement (25% minority, 7% female) by almost three-fold? Are you really telling me they couldn't find a qualified architecture firm in Chicago?

I call shenanigans.

Many of the RFQ's we submit for are to some extent a ploy. The agencies asking for them are largely going through the process to satisfy legal requirements, but then choose not the most qualified firm but the one that fits whatever profile it is that they're looking for. And that's to be expected, but don't drag us along and waste our time and money. We don't have any to spare.

After the announcement my firm had a very terse Monday morning meeting. We were told that five people would be laid off by the end of the day and everyone else's hours would be cut by 20%. Just fourteen more people and an almost century old Chicago architecture firm will be out of business.

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