Professional Development: How To Hire A Design Firm

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By Jeffrey S. Weil, MCR.h, CCIM, SIOR
Published in the February 2006 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Proper facility design can set the overall tone of the organization. When executed successfully, it tells clients, competitors, financial analysts, and vendors who a company is, what statement it is trying to make, and how much it thinks of its employees. For instance, a video game software firm might want a wild, creative space to attract and retain cutting-edge software programmers. On the other hand, an old line insurance company might have its corporate color and layout mandatory per corporate standards.

When it comes to complex matters of space planning, it’s important for facility managers to understand the decision making processes within their organizations. This action can run all the way from a single owner to four executive board members to seven partners to an entire corporate real estate department (including the facility manager).

When there are multiple decision makers in the space planning process, it is vital to gain mutual consensus from the beginning. It can be extremely costly to assume tacit approval from those who were out of town when the initial meetings were held, only to have expensive change orders made later in the working drawing stage—or worse yet, during actual construction.

There are a great number of questions facility professionals must ask before initiating contact with a design firm. Is the organization planning a remodel of existing space, relocating to a leased facility, subleasing, or redesigning a building it owns or plans to purchase? Is this a 3,000 square foot project or is it a 300,000 square foot endeavor? Is it typically customary to engage and compensate for space planning as part of the project marketing? Is this a local branch of a national or multinational firm that has in-house design service established within its headquarters? If so, will the facility manager be required to use those resources instead of hiring an outside firm? Does the organization have an ongoing relationship with a national or international design firm? Is the company part of a stable, predictable industry where clients expect the norm? Or is it a cutting edge organization where creativity and abstraction rule the day? How extensive will the project be? How much lead time is there? In an attempt to answer these questions, many facility managers could raise additional issues that, by being brought to the surface early in the process, may save the company time, money, and stress.

First of all, it’s important to recognize the difference between space planners and design firms. A few simple definitions may assist facility professionals in their understanding of the distinctions.

Space planners put the client’s collected thoughts together in a floor plan. These professionals are essential when facility managers don’t have the capability to create a complete set of documents themselves. Space planners may not be architects, but they may have one registered architect in-house who can sign and stamp drawings. Typically, space planners represent developers rather than end users and facility managers.

Design firms typically get brought on board at the very early stages of the project as the client is going through a due diligence and internal analysis of how the business is growing or shrinking. In this scenario, firms of this kind take on a partnership role with the business owner and assume an advisory position to help the team make the best business decisions. A full service firm should bring a solution to meet its client’s specific needs or challenges.

Design consultants range in size from a one person “boutique” to large international companies with thousands of employees and dozens of offices. They may also offer specialization whereby the firm is known for its work in a particular niche (i.e., biotech, hospitality, education, and so on). This depth of knowledge can be beneficial, particularly in areas where there’s a high concentration of expensive equipment with complex demands. For instance, the designer with vast call center expertise may not do justice to laboratory design, if that’s what the facility requires.

How does a facility manager make the right choice when it comes to space planning/design firms? The natural reaction is to ask industry peers whom they have used and find out how satisfied they were with the results. However, the scope and location of a project may dictate the universe of potential design firms, as smaller, more generic assignments may be well-served by a local design firm intimate with the local planning regulations through established relationships.

Another issue is confidentiality. While some firms are honored when their layout is showcased by the design firm or entered for architectural awards, in other industries, the design itself may divulge competitive secrets about how the firm runs its business. If confidentiality is an issue, disclose this upfront as part of the contract.

Interviewing potential firms will depend on the size and scope of assignment. For smaller projects, space planning services may be provided. Things become much more complicated on larger projects, especially when the organization owns the facility it is planning to renovate. (At this point, some facility managers actually hire project managers who can prepare a scope of services, assist with recommendations, handle architectural contract negotiations, and interface with the designer and the general contractor throughout the process.)

For the chosen firm, space planning translates into programming needs, putting together a block (or preliminary space) plan, getting feedback, revising the plan, then perhaps getting rough preliminary cost estimates before proceeding to the formal working drawings and construction documents. For a smaller space requirement, the planner may ask for a list of employees, what they do, whom they interface with, the approximate size of their offices or work stations, and the type, sizes, and dimensions of auxiliary rooms (such as the lunch room, the telephone server room, storage/file room, reception areas, and conference rooms).

At this stage, a detailed list of the equipment and furniture that accompanies each employee is also helpful. Will the employee have a flat screen monitor or a personal printer? Does the copier need a dedicated circuit? Will the server room require 24/7 HVAC? How large a conference table does the company have (particularly important if the company plans on using existing furniture)?

As for the greater scope of the project, will facility managers just be contracting for a specific portion of the overall project? Or might the scope entail additional design work, finish selection, or furniture recommendations? Many space planners are willing to interface with the general contractor, if necessary, while others have project management specialists to handle these functions.

Clearly, the design firm selection process presents its challenges. However, a harmonious partnership between designer and facility manager can deliver satisfying results.

Weil is a senior vice president in the Walnut Creek, CA office of Colliers International.

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