After the getting work post, I got the funniest and yet most poignant email from a marketing coordinator at an architecture firm in Canada. Ontario, as we’ll call this poor, beleaguered marketing person, had some really interesting insights about getting work, many of which explain why architects drink. Ontario summed up the problem with RFPs as they are these days as “…a highly politicized process and more of a formality than an actual adequate and fair means of gauging one firm’s qualifications against another.” Very well put—it is indeed hard to separate oneself from the pack when all the firms are sending you different cover versions of the same song, which is “Pick Us Because We Are Experienced In Your Building Type And A Great Group Of People To Work With, and We Care About Your Company And Its Vision For the Future.”
Proposal calls from clients can often be downright ludicrous. One example of this is a medical system just saying “We’re planning to do a patient tower addition to our downtown campus. In the RFP, provide experience with healthcare facilities and sustainable construction. “ Okay, well, first off, are you adding up or out to your downtown facility’s patient tower? And which of your three patient towers are you doing this to? What’s your timeline? What’s your budget? Are you going after any unusual sources of funding, like stimulus money, CMS or FQHC grants, fundraising? How big of a patient tower? Are you going to have to keep the existing tower (whichever of their three towers it is) operational during construction? These are examples of information that helps a firm decide if it has the experience it needs to do the project right. Sometimes, when firms email or call for this info, the client will respond that they don’t have that info right now and really, it’s not material, we just want your qualifications right now. Well, I’d call that assertion retarded, but that would be an insult to all the wonderful, heroic participants of the Special Olympics. Of course it’s material to the RFP! It helps us tailor the info we give you to something that will actually be of use to you, so you can compare apples to apples! There are lots of healthcare firms all over any state that would be glad to go after that work for you, but if it’s under $20 million, some firms will bow out. If it’s over 100,000sf, some smaller firms may want to partner with another firm so that they’ll have the resources and manpower to get the job done. It makes all the difference in the world, punkin. Tell a Shorty.
The next thing is the format of the RFP. The description of a few of the RFPs that have gone out of Ontario’s firm lately made me spit coffee onto my monitor. One RFP wanted the firms to cover project understanding, project approach, workplan, schedule, and resumes of all the project team members…in five pages. FIVE?! How the hell do you judge anything in five pages? Moreover, how thehell do you pack in al of that info into five pages?! You’d be lucky if you could do it any justice in 20! As Ontario says, “Might as well of just asked for a sticky note.” On the other end of the spectrum, an RFP Ontario worked on required, essentially, that the firms provide in nauseating detail everything they’d do. Ontario says it best here:
“At the other end of the spectrum, some clients request that we provide CVs for each and every member of our team and his mother, and sister, and long-lost relative…..And they want us to describe every nauseating detail about how we’ll hold their hand throughout the entire process, from project kick-start to final occupancy. One proposal I did exceeded 100 pages! No RFP response should ever exceed a Master’s thesis; that should be criminal. What do they think? That paper grows on trees?”
Another ridiculous requirement is asking us to describe what our subconsultants will be doing on the project. Again, Ontario puts it best: “Well, what do they think Structural Engineers do? Teach Kung Fu?”
The worst part of RFPs, really, is the lack of transparency regarding final selection. We see this happen with public and private institutions alike. An institution (.com, .gov, or .org, whatever) will send out a proposal request to a bunch of architects or even publicly post it where anyone can see it and answer it. But when it’s all said and done, everyone can tell that they already had the winner picked; the RFP process was a formality, and any interviews (if there were any) were just about going through the motions. When other firms call to ask why they didn’t get it, the client’s reply is often some variation on “So-N-So Architects brought more to the table/really seemed to click with our selection committee, and they’ve done work with us before/are familiar with our campus due to previous work here.” Ontario has pressed these people for further elaboration and asked what could be done to make Ontario Architects better in future endeavors, and I know at our office Veronica has done the same thing. Even with this pressing, the refrain is, “So-N-So Architects is more familiar with our facility.” Fair enough, but then you knew that going in, so why dangle the carrot in front of the rest of us if there’s no chance? Just sign a contract with So-N-So Architects to be your architectural services provider for the next 2/3/6 years and make them your go-to group.
Now, my firm will sometimes do these RFPs and do interviews when they make the shortlist for these lost causes, and the partners’ reasoning is that if the client ever gets annoyed with So-N-So Architects, maybe they’ll remember us. Again, fair enough, but even our office does about 80% repeat business. The RFP process has become a lot of unnecessary work most of the time, but occasionally we’ll get a job out of it, like Wheatlands or FCH. Psychologists call this the law of intermittent rewards. It’s the same principle that gambling addiction is based on.