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How to win public-building construction work

In 2009 alone, the Massachusetts Designer Selection Board (DSB) awarded 39 contracts totaling nearly $26 million for public-building construction throughout the Commonwealth. Although that year was almost universally a bad year for work on the boards, designers selected by the DSB won work on a diverse array of projects. These included $33,000 for an energy-neutral greenhouse, $250,000 for interior space planning and design, $400,000 for the renovation of a charter school, $1 million for science-lab modernizations, $2 million for a strategic masterplan for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, and $2.5 million for study and design of structural-system and building-envelope repairs.

The BSA recently welcomed DSB members Michael Kim AIA and Mary Ann Williams LEED AP, AVS, MCPPO for a conversation on how to win public-building construction work.

How does the process work?

Kim: The DSB is an autonomous, 11-member board made up of architects, engineers, contractors and independent members. We recommend designers for public work after we have issued a public advertisement, reviewed the qualifications submitted and voted on the finalists—in some cases, after conducting interviews.

All applications get divided into three piles.

  • “A list” means you’re completely approved to be awarded the project.

  • “B list” means there are small problems with your application.The DSB has the option to vote you onto the A list or leave you on the B list. Either way you still might ultimately be selected.

  • “C list” means the government cannot legally enter a contract with you. Those applications go straight into the garbage. If you do end up on the C list, your firm will be informed by mail about what you did wrong.

What is the DSB looking for in applications?

Williams: I am looking for a team that can finish on time and on budget. So one of the things I look at—and this is a very good way to determine if you want to pursue a project—is the size of the firm versus the size of the project. Is it a one-person shop going after a $2 million fee on a project with an accelerated schedule? Well, that’s just not realistic; they are going to get swallowed up by that project.

I also look at if you’ve worked with the listed subconsultants before. You wouldn’t be submitting together again if there had been a problem.

The other thing I look at is the complexity of the project and the individual team members qualified in that particular area—particularly with courthouses or corrections institutions, which have unique issues around separation between the public and private spaces and with the people inside the facility. Your application needs to portray your firm as an asset not a liability to such projects.

If you can address all these issues, then tie it all back to your availability. If we see that someone is working in Dubai 80 percent of the time saying that they are available to do a project, we’ll do the math and see it doesn’t add up.

It’s not about whether the state works with a big firm or a small firm; it’s about right-sizing your qualifications for the scope of work and the schedule.

What makes an application stand out?

Kim: It’s a merit-based program, and we are trying to determine the best fit. The short answer for that is Question 10, where you get to field your own response to the criteria, which is key. There is one firm, which shall remain nameless, that puts the same response to this question for every single project it applies for. Now, I see that firm in the pile and basically put their proposal aside.

What knocks firms out of contention?

Kim: Prime or sub-consultants using the wrong form would result in them being placed on the “C” list and is grounds for rejection. (Applicants Please Note – February 2006).

The most common reason for being booted to the C list is for the MBE/WBE participation (Minority’s Business Enterprise/Women’s Business Enterprise) requirement not being met—or being met with a non-requested subconsultant.

Williams: Yes, be very careful. If you are applying for a building-envelope review and you propose an interiors subconsultant to fulfill MBE/WBE participation, it is likely that doesn’t fit. You will end up on the C list!

Kim: A discipline can be split up to meet the MBE/WBE participation requirements. Applicants are strongly encouraged to utilize multiple disciplines and firms to meet their MBE/WBE goals. Consultants to the prime can team within their disciplines in order to meet the MBE/WBE goals but must state this relationship on the organizational chart (Section 6 of the application form) and submit all necessary forms. If you have questions, call the DSB at 617-727-4046.

As an aside, I have been told that women-owned architecture firms are the largest new entity in the profession, so make those contacts now.

In a process where scale, availability and experience are evenly weighted, where does the desire to bring in new blood figure in?

Williams: Sometimes several similar projects are reviewed in the same day and, after looking at all the applications, we realize it’s the same pool of architects chasing these 2 or 3 projects. If several firms are qualified for the work, we don’t award all the projects to the highest-ranking firm; we try to spread the work around and consider other high-ranking firms.

Kim: We are trying to find the right balance between experience and new ideas, and it’s our obligation to spread the work around, both among different firms and geographically.

How can a firm new to state work gain experience?

Kim: The “house doctor” projects are an ideal place for firms new to the process to gain experience with the state. These are generally smaller, often multiple contracts that are somewhat undefined at the time of the application. The process of selection through the DSB is the same as for larger projects, with the exception that there are no interviews. The actual project contracts are awarded by the respective agencies or Division of Capital Asset Management (DCAM). House-doctor contracts are only allowed up to a maximum of $2 million in construction costs.

How much does the agency or client’s perspective come in?

Williams: Typically, if there is an engaged end user, they will get and review copies of all the applications. They make their comments but do not get to decide which team ultimately gets selected, as that is the purview of the DSB. What’s nice about that is we certainly get a sense of what the end user wants. But we don’t always agree with them. Sometimes it can be very clear that there’s an existing relationship they want to continue. That’s not a bad thing necessarily. But all things being equal, our job is to spread the work around, and we can’t just have the same firms paired with the same clients over and over again.

Kim: For the larger projects getting an interview, the end user is almost always there at the interviews, and we ask for their input. The DSB is a volunteer board. We only meet twice a month and cannot go to all the sites. So we really do our best to equally consider their desires with our knowledge.

Should an architect try to get to know the client ahead of time?

Kim: No, DCAM and the DSB are the architect’s client. It is DCAM’s responsibility to manage the user agency and arrange site tours so that all candidates get equal access to the same information.

Williams: I’m not sure how much good that would even do. The board is independent in its findings and usually votes are well-divided and very close.

Can two local firms partner to win a job?

Kim: Absolutely. However, don’t force a marriage just for a project. If you come in for an interview, Mary Ann and I are going to ask if your firms have worked together before. When we do see firms that have partnered on non-state projects because of their synergies, we want really to develop those teams—particularly those with MBE/WBE participation.

Williams: It can work if how the relationship is structured is clear and well-articulated in your proposal. But don’t stop there. Make sure your firms demonstrate chemistry in the interview. You should not be clearly meeting each other for the first time in that room.

What else can be done to boost a firm’s chances?

Kim: I encourage you to come see how the DSB works in person. All meetings are open to the public; all you need to do is sign in. It is not the most scintillating two hours you will ever spend, but is very informative about how your application might be received.

Williams: Any presentation requested should be directed to the DSB as an informational interview and not to project managers in DCAM since they have no responsibility for making project awards.

When you are pursuing a project, you can have as many conversations and ask as many questions as you want of the DSB. But once you’ve submitted an application, that’s it. There’s no going back.

I also encourage you to set up an informational interview with the DSB so we can get to know your firm.

Isn’t the wait for informational interviews two years?

Williams: Yes, one to two years.

Kim: We only meet twice a month and informational interviews are held only when there aren’t projects requiring interviews. But we do welcome informational interviews and enjoy seeing you there. Given the limited availability of slots, if you are interested, sign up now by calling the DSB at 617-727-4046.

What do I do if my firm received a negative evaluation?

Williams: If a firm receives a negative evaluation, they can respond in writing to DCAM. I’ve seen firms come in and, with some success, admit, “Yes, that happened. That’s true. But those people haven’t worked for our firm in four years” or “Yes, something like this happened and these are the steps we have taken to make sure something like that never happens again.”

If a firm has 36 good references and one bad, does the bad one cancel out all the others?

Williams: Not in my book, because you’re looking at many comments.

How important is the master file?

Williams: It’s always there in the background, so you want to keep it updated. If you’ve grown from 30 to 300 employees or really reinvented yourselves through your areas of expertise or new ownership, let us know that.

What influence do DCAM project managers have?

Kim: They grade firms’ previous state projects, and those DCAM grades carry a great deal of weight. If you have a very good grade, that’s a great way to get new work. If you have a bad grade, well that’s difficult, but not impossible, to overcome.

Williams: Let’s qualify what we are talking about here. If someone writes, “They were awful to deal with,” what does that really mean? There is an emotional charge there. But in one case, the grade revealed that, on a previous project, a firm went 25 percent over budget, missed their milestones in developing design and didn’t manage the subconsultants. Well, that gives us serious pause.

Is there such a thing as including too much information in your proposal?

Williams: I don’t think there is such a thing as too much information—if it’s relevant. 

Kim: There is too much information if it is impenetrable.

Do all the references in an application get called?

Kim: The grades from DCAM come down from the state. Then there are the references you provide, which are often from other projects that weren’t with the state. Expect those to get called. I’m astounded when I call references and hear their experience was awful; this is a reference you have some control over! Call your references before and know what they are going to say. There was once a case where a reference was several years deceased, and that wasn’t too good, seeing your references can’t speak for you from beyond the grave. The subcontractors’ references only may be called sporadically, but one of the three people on the DSB assigned to your application will be charged with calling the prime’s references.

Do project team members carry more weight than the firm’s principals?

Williams: It depends on project, the role each person has in the project and how you talk about the percentages of their time. If the application shows your firm’s least-experienced person spending the most time amount of time on the project, where’s the expertise?

Kim: The power of the process is that different people on the board look at it differently. In my experience at larger firms, which is extensive, I was named as a project manager for projects I would never be assigned to. And I know that and know that other firms do that, so I personally take it with a grain of salt. Having said that, we’ve had two or three cases where there was a seemingly senile principal, but a dynamite project manager came in for the interview and won over the board. That happens.

Is it worth pursuing $1 million to $5 million projects on the other side of the state?

Williams: It’s hard to say. One school of thought is that the state doesn’t pay for travel, so who cares? The other is that a firm is going to eat their fee up fast if they have to travel. It depends a lot on how the end user works and if there are going to be times when they want to pick up the phone and be able to meet with you in an hour—versus three hours.

Kim: It really depends on the scope of the project as much as we know it—and $1 million to $5 million projects are in that amorphous range. For projects with a budget less than $1 million, chances are there is a lot of field investigation and you’re not going to be traveling across the state. And when a budget is above $10 million, there are going to be regular meetings anyway. My best sense is that if a $1 million to $5 million across the state requires a lot of construction administration, then it’s probably not your project.

Does a firm need to be headquartered locally?

Kim: We weigh these things differently. If the Boston office has impressive credentials but can also draw on national resources, that’s good. But if it’s just a satellite office and the principal in Boston is not particularly impressive, we are going to wonder if, when he or she calls the national office for support, they really are going to get it.

That said, in the last couple of months, we’ve been seeing more local firms being bought out by national companies—particularly by larger A/E/C companies making that investment in anticipation of a period, maybe five years from now, when there will be a shortage of architects and architectural services, given our decimated ranks. We had one firm that applied as “Firm X” and now is actually a “Subsidiary of Firm Y.”

Many national companies get rejected by the DSB because they don’t have the legal entities set up in Massachusetts. That also applies to neighboring-state firms. And all things being equal if Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire firms apply for a project, the Massachusetts firm has the advantage.

Can my firm bring in out-of-state experts?

Williams: Yes, sometimes you really want that national experience and expertise, particularly when it comes to a highly specialized type of work. However, for less-complicated projects it will work against you to go outside the area for expertise.

Do you keep a running tally of which subconsultants are being used on all the jobs so you can keep them from being overloaded? And if a subconsultant is over-committed, can a firm substitute another? Or do you have to use who was on the proposal?

Williams: An official tally? No. But I do keep a tally in my mind, as there are some firms that seem to be always getting this work because everyone wants them to carry them. In an all-things-being-equal scenario, I will consider, for example, that maybe another engineering firm needs a chance here. The DSB wasn’t meant to be anybody’s project pipeline. It was meant to spread the work around.

Can the architect substitute another subconsultant later? No. Whoever you come to the party with is your team.

Kim: The switching of team members is very highly discouraged.

Can you apply for another DSB project before another project you have won has come to an end?

Kim: It depends of the size of the firm. If you are a 300-person firm and have gotten one job over the last two years, that’s not a big load. If you’re a four-person shop that’s received $1 million in DSB work, that’s a lot. That said, if you’re coming to the end of a job, certainly everyone will know you and, if you’ve done a wonderful job, certainly don’t wait to apply.

If a firm was awarded contracts but those never turned into work, does that hurt its chances with winning new work?

Kim: If the DSB previously had the good sense to select your firm, it carries a lot of weight in future applications, even if a contract didn’t pan out.

Williams: Yes, sometimes that happens because of anticipation of funding. When the stimulus funding was first announced, the state expected us to be meeting weekly or even daily. They geared up for it: selecting eight firms to be the owner’s project manager, approving two or three different projects and selecting five to 10 firms each project. We thought funding would go to civic buildings and schools, but it just never happened.

Does the DSB follow awarded projects?

Williams: DCAM does, and that’s where the performance evaluations come from.

Kim: We do hear short presentations on how jobs went.

If you were awarded a project, does it still make sense to keep applying for other projects to keep your name in front of the DSB?

Kim: If that’s the only reason you are doing it, don’t bother. It’s a competitive process, and you can bet on good competition. So if you are lukewarm on it, it may be better to pass. You can be at the DSB too often.

But if you are especially qualified for a project, do it. If you just got a job, that will be taken into account. But if you really shine, you might not get that project, but you might get something down the line.

Williams: The flipside to that question is there are probably about 5 or 6 firms that only apply for the projects that are perfect projects for them—and then you don’t see them again for another 9 or 14 months. They pursue projects that fit with their skillset and plays to their strengths. Those firms aren’t out there chasing every single project. They are very strategic in knowing the right projects for them, and it is very clear that they are thoughtful and have what we are looking for.

Find more information on the designer selection process for public building construction—including the DSB listings, forms, evaluations and guidance for municipalities—visit their website.