Editors' note: In March 2014, students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison approved a $223 million referendum to overhaul the campus recreation facilities, badly in need of improvement. Since then, the recreation program has been busy planning, fundraising, vetting architects and much more. As the project progresses, Alex Peirce, UW-Madison Rec Sports Assistant Director of Marketing and Communications, will be offering an inside look at the process of coordinating such a monumental planning effort.
As someone completely new to facility construction, I have learned quite a bit about the process of selecting an architectural firm for Wisconsin state projects. For example, the actual selection committee is composed of seven members, one representative from campus, one from the UW System, and five designees from the Division of Facilities Development (DFD). Similarly, the process can vary from state to state or even from private to public organizations. As I was researching and preparing information for this article, I found information that may be helpful for both clients and architects. I hope the information I share in this post can better prepare you for your next project.
Disclaimer: With the details of our project being available to the public, I want to point out that this post is not meant to advocate for or against any specific architect or engineering firms or individuals. Rather, it is meant to capture my personal observations of how the search is narrowed down to ONE firm who will change the landscape of our campus and the future of our programs. No pressure.
Understand the players
As a division, our team is emotionally attached to this project and deeply committed to the programming capabilities of our new facilities. We are primarily concerned with the experiences we will be able to create in new buildings. As campus recreation professionals, that’s our bread and butter. Personally, I sometimes forget about “minor details” like the electricity or plumbing or mechanics that make the building actually run. Thankfully, the committee is composed of experts in a variety of areas in order to make sure that all technical building requirements are satisfied.
Our campus representative advocated for the programming interests of our division and the design priorities of campus. For example, she was able to speak to the experiences we hope to create while also representing university interests such as sustainability.
Other members of the committee offer a wealth of knowledge and experience from their work on previous state projects. As a result, they are also able to effectively evaluate the firms’ expertise in architecture and engineering.
The experience and expertise of the committee members ensure that the final firm chosen will not only meet the programming and functional expectations for the project but will also match the state and campus’s vision and technical requirements.
Understand the selection process
We began researching and engaging with architects in the months after our project passed the referendum in March 2014. We could only interact with the firms until the request for AE proposal was posted at DFD. At that point, we communicated our experiences with each firm to our campus representative on the selection committee.
Do your research
I cannot stress enough how important it is to do your research on the firms vying for your project. Even if you’re not an official part of the selection process, your insights and feedback about the firms may help the members of the selection committee in their final decision.
Site visits at peer institutions
Our team visited several facilities designed by architects on both the long and short list. We not only got ideas about design and layout, but we talked to our peers in the industry about working with the firms. We were interested in the positives and negative aspects of those relationships; how responsive and available the architect and design team were; whether the architect had issues staying on budget; and if there were any features that the architect had “pushed” but didn’t really work in practice.
We spoke with many of the architects and engineers (in the allowable period that we could) at professional conferences. This gave us the opportunity to establish rapport with the individuals who could potentially be working with us on a daily basis throughout the project.
Meet and greet with staff
We hosted a “Meet and Greet” with our entire Rec Sports team and many of the major architectural firms that were interested in our project. The architects had the opportunity to present their ideas and answer questions before the project was ever posted to the DFD website. This proved to be beneficial not only for us (we were able to determine what we liked and didn’t like about the firms or their approach to the project) but also for the architects. The interaction with our team prepared them for their interview with the selection committee by giving them the opportunity to understand exactly what we wanted.
Some of the questions our staff asked included:
- What is your (the firm and individuals working on the project) passion?
- How do you engage the students on campus?
- What is the level of involvement of the national firm?
- What other projects are you currently working on?
- Have you worked with the local firm before? What is your relationship?
- How have you used creativity and innovation in previous designs?
- Describe your understanding of health and wellness?
- How do you localize the design and make it unique to that university and community?
- How do you think outside the box when you have to build within the box? (the SERF site is restricted on all surrounding sides by parking lots, other buildings, streets, and power lines)
Enjoy the ride
Hopefully having a better understanding of what the process can look like, the potential timeline and turnaround in selecting a firm, and useful discussion topics can prepare you for your own project. It’s an important decision, but there is much to learn along the way. It is so exciting to see all of the possibilities for your facility and to dream as big as you can for as long as possible.
If you have questions about specific steps in the process or would like more information or insight into our experience, please comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.