Hiring Architects

Hiring Architects: RFQs and RFPs

Maine has a small, tight-knit population. A sense of community thrives here. Everyone helps each other. People also tend to hire their friends when hiring architects. This can be a good thing, or not so good. Architects come with varying sets of experience and skill. The industry recognizes that a residential architect may not be appropriate for a laboratory project, and vice versa. Hiring architects who are appropriate for the job is important, and that may mean hiring a stranger.

Hiring architects through the Request for Qualifications (RFQ) or Request for Proposals (RFP) method is quite common, particularly for non-residential work. The State of Maine and the University of Maine System have specific  methods and language for writing RFQs. The Jackson Laboratory has a specific method for writing RFPs.

Hiring Architects through the RFP Method

The difference between and RFQ and an RFP is that an RFQ solicits qualifications without a price, or fee proposal. An RFP typically asks for both qualifications and a fee proposal. Organizations using the RFP method generally rank firms on both qualifications and fee. A minimum level of qualification is usually required. After that, the low proposer is usually the winning firm.

Hiring Architects through the RFQ Method

Why use the RFQ method, without a fee proposal?

The RFQ process used in Maine is based on a system called Qualifications-based Selection, or QBS. There are QBS organizations around the country, and plenty of QBS literature on the web. Dick Eustis seems to be the one who most recently championed and represented QBS in Maine. QBS posits the design effort, though much smaller than the construction effort on a project, has a disproportionately large influence on project success. After all, the designers design the project. The contractor, though critical, is simply building the designer’s work. The drawings and specifications that form contract documents have a butterfly effect on the project. Seemingly small problems with the documents can have an outsize effect on the project.

From a financial point of view, the cost of the design effort might be ten percent of the cost of construction. An organization trying to save ten percent off the design effort would be saving less than 1 percent of the project cost. A good design team can easily save an owner 5 percent of the construction cost with good design decisions. Conversely, poor design team can easily cost an owner 5 percent or more through poor design. It makes sense to hire the best design team available, even if that team comes with a premium price. In the QBS process, fees are negotiated with the design team found most competent to execute the project.

Picking a Winner

Organizations using QBS will often find themselves with several qualified design teams submitting statements of qualifications (SOQs). QBS language usually typically says if an owner cannot negotiate a satisfactory fee with the most qualified firm, they will then negotiate with the next most qualified firm. In my experience, I have never heard of this happening. I think most organizations reach a successful negotiation with their favorite firm.

Does QBS guarantee a good firm? No. Several factors may come to bear. First, a selection committee may be composed of several members with no experience in choosing architects, and one who is, and that one may have a favorite who has submitted.  Second, some firms are very good at marketing, and not very good at executing. Finally, larger firms will often seem better suited because their portfolio is large, and so is their marketing department. Sometimes, a project needs a large firm’s expertise. Sometimes, a smaller firm’s service will be more consistent and beneficial.

Parts of an RFQ

What should an organization request in a request for qualifications?

The usual items are a cover letter, resumes, similar projects, experience with cost and budget, references, and projects that show a firm’s capabilities. The ‘similar projects’ and ‘projects that show a firm’s capabilities’ are meant to address two issues. Owners want firms that can show specific experience similar to the project at hand. But, there may be very good firms without specific experience. In other words, just because a firm has not done a red elementary school on a dirt road does not mean they are ill suited to renovate your red elementary school on a dirt road.

For a recent article on ways to procure a construction project, see here.

I will pick up specific questions to ask in a subsequent essay. Meanwhile, good luck with your project.

Follow Mike Sealander, Maine Licensed Architect:


Principal at Sealander Architects, Ellsworth Maine. Revit guru. Married with 3 children. Avid gardener. Lived in San Francisco for nine years. Master in Architecture from Columbia University Bachelor of arts in religious studies, Wesleyan University. Graduated Staples High School, Westport CT. Hope to spend some time in Hokkaido before all is said and done.

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