Selecting a Design Team Qualify or Quantify?

Design team selection for nearly every project starts out the same way. The client describes his dream team for the project with the following requirements: the project MUST have consultants who are highly experienced in hospitality design, are knowledgeable about local codes, are very creative and have a track record of outstanding documentation. But most of all, they must be team players. All these attributes, of course, are excellent starting points in the process of selecting an architect or designer or any member of your design team.

With these criteria in mind the next step usually is a detailed request for proposal that is sent out to designers who appear to meet the criteria. Designers then spend hours writing a lengthy response that expounds on their experience, expertise, quality of documentation, their ability to meet the budget and schedule and the obligatory acknowledgment that this project will be their most important.

With great anticipation, the client opens the proposal, turns to the fee proposal page, gasps, clutches at his heart and falls on the floor in shock. Upon recovery, he selects the low-bid firm (who may or may not have ever designed a hotel before). All the good intentions, hard work and time spent finding the right match between consultant, client and project are wasted.

Why is this system so flawed? It's because of the age-old concept of reverting to fee-based selection of a design team. Don't get me wrong — you, as the owner, should get value for your money. It's just how you go about it that makes all the difference in the world as to whether or not your project will be successful and you will be happy.

So how should you go about the selection of a consultant team? The best way, but not necessarily the most common is Qualification Based Selection. This method of designer selection is based on a comprehensive review of experience and expertise first and fees last. You evaluate the quality of the designer relative to the requirements of your design project and then qualify one or more consultants to provide a fee proposal. Your perspective on the ability of your design team to produce the desired result will change dramatically when you apply this approach. You will better understand the value of the services and creativity provided and the design team will have a better understanding of your project scope and methodology.

The ability of the consultants to work together as a team will also become evident as you focus on their abilities first. A face-to-face interview with the candidate is also generally part of the qualification-based selection process. We advocate holding an interview in the consultant's office in order to get an understanding of how the shop really works. If you are concerned whether or not the firm can handle a large or complicated project, what better way to find out than to visit the home turf.

Utilize the interview process to ensure that the consultant understands the scope of work you want. Don't be shy about asking him or her to discuss design concepts and the design process relative to your project. Your meeting can help you determine if you're dealing with a team-oriented firm or a dictatorship with a prima donna at the helm. Make sure you meet the second in command and the people actually doing the work in the firm. The principal may be the rainmaker and the “face,” but it's the staff below the principal that draws, details and executes the design. Once you feel comfortable with your pre-qualified design consultants, ask for a fee. By now, both sides should be more comfortable having a frank discussion on what fees the consultant wants and what fees the owner feels he should and can pay. By the time the design phase starts, the designers and client should be going down the same path with a common goal in sight.

Jonathan C. Nehmer, AIA, NCARB, ISHC is the president and founder of JN+A, an Architecture and Project Management firm, and also a Principal in HVScompass Interior Design. A licensed architect, Mr. Nehmer has more than 25 years of hospitality experience and has written articles and spoken extensively at hospitality industry conferences on all aspects of hospitality design and construction. He can be reached at 301-670-1635 or

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