Periodic QBS Newsletters are distributed to Maine's design community as a part of the three sponsoring organization's publications. These Newsletters, written by Dick Eustis, PE, CCCA are intended to highlight specific QBS topic. Many of these topics should be of general interest to not only the design community but also to those that desire to better understand the process of retaining design professionals.
The concept of Qualification Based Selection (QBS) is not complicated, it is quite simple. This concept is that the firm selected to design a project (or portion of a project) should be the firm that is most qualified to perform the design services. However, this simple concept that qualifications are of prime importance is occasionally replaced by the idea that hiring the "low bidder" guarantees savings. This usually is far from the truth.
When acquiring design services, the client is acquiring professional talent, skill, creativity, and effort necessary to meet the client's objectives. There may be several ways to meet the client's objectives for the project. Different designers will arrive at different solutions based on the designer's experience, ingenuity, innovativeness and knowledge as well as the number of hours available for the design work. The development of the most appropriate solution may require extensive discussions with the client so that both the designer and the client fully understand not only the client's intent but also the implications of that intent. This is not the same as purchasing paper for the office photocopier or salt for winter ice control.
Project design is not like mathematics where two plus two equal four no matter who does the calculation. Project design is the culmination of a thorough understanding of the client's needs, wants, and desires integrated with the designer's creativity, experience, ingenuity, and familiarity with alternatives. The development of the most appropriate design requires not only knowledge but also time to consider alternatives. The first solution may not necessarily be the best solution. All of this requires time and resources that can not be projected based on a simple or even complex "scope of services" statement developed without the input from the design firm that will be responsible for the design work.
The QBS process allows the client to select the "most qualified" design firm and discuss with that firm the services necessary to arrive at the most appropriate design prior to attempting to determine the fees necessary for the design work. The qualifications of the designer have a major impact on the ultimate success of the project. If a slightly higher design fee results in reduced construction costs, the reduction in the ongoing maintenance and operating costs, or a better solution to the client's problem, any additional investment in design is worth every penny.
Why is QBS so difficult to sell?
The primary concept behind "Qualification Based Selection" is that the likelihood of success of any specific project is improved by having the design done by the firm that is best qualified for the specific project. A secondary concept is that it may be very difficult for an "Owner" to fully understand the amount of planning and design time required to achieve an acceptable design without consultation with the firm that will be doing the design. Every project is different, every owner is different and there may be great variations in the work required to comply with various federal, state and local regulations.
These two concepts, "qualifications" and "time" should not be difficult to understand or difficult to promote. However, as we begin this promotion, we do need to recognize that not every designer is equally qualified for every project. We must also recognize that "qualifications" may be perceived differently by the "designer" and the "owner". Many public (and private) owners do not fully understand what designers are expected to do or how they do it. Thus, if they do not understand what designers are expected to do, it is not surprising that they do not quickly grasp the value of matching "qualifications" to their specific project requirements. Owners need to understand there are many issues that may require consideration in any project design beyond what they may have considered such as future operating and maintenance costs or providing for future expansion. The extent these issues are important to the owner, does have an impact on the work of the designer.
This suggests that one of the steps we can collectively take is helping to inform "owners" of the type and quantity of serve they should expect to receive when they retain a designer for a project. There are many ways to accomplish this. One approach was recently taken when the Maine School Management Association in partnership with ACM and the Maine Dept of Education presented an all-day workshop on school construction. One part of this workshop was on selection of design professionals. There are other less formal ways to spread the message such as individual local contacts with local public officials when a local project is being considered or referring local officials to the Maine QBS Web Site or the QBS Facilitator for information.
If we are to collectively improve our profession, we need to collectively educate the "purchasers of design services" on two issues. These are: what designers should be expected to do for their client and why matching of the qualifications of the specific design team to the project requirements will substantially increase the likelihood of the project being successful. Unless "Owners" understand the first issue, they will not grasp the second.
Do things change?
The Maine QBS Council has met on a quarterly basis for several years. I have been participating in these meetings since the Fall of 1998 and some of the same issues keep re-surfacing. At the last Meeting, Mike Pullen, AIA commented that he thought the advertisements from public agencies had improved over the past few years with more public owners understanding the benefits of selecting design professionals based on qualifications. Based on monthly reports provided by our "web service provider" and the requests received via the web site, we know that an increased number of people are taking advantage of information on QBS. However, not everything changes.
At the QBS Council Meeting in the Fall of 1998, a portion of the discussion was about the use of QBS to select "sub-consultants" or other providers of design services. It was noted that frequently where the "Prime Design Professional" was selected using the QBS process, it was not unusual for the "Prime Designer" to use a price based proposals when securing sub-consultants or for the obtaining of professional services in areas such as geotechnical engineering or interior design. If we believe in the value of being selected based on our qualifications, we should just as strongly believe in the value of selecting the balance of the design team through this same method. It is not intended that one should interfere with existing working relationship but if it is necessary for a "Prime Designer" to seek new members of the design team, the use of QBS should be the logical choice. This same subject was again discussed at the QBS Council Meeting in June 2004 with little indication that the issues discussed in 1998 had been eliminated.
I believe most of us agree there are benefits to the client when the best qualified design firm is selected for a design commission. If the best qualified design firm needs to retain additional professional design services to supplement the firm’s own staff, "qualification based selection" should be seen as the most appropriate selection method. Just as a "chain is no stronger than its weakest link", a design team is no stronger than it weakest team member. If design cost must be a deciding factor, it may be better to negotiate the scope of services with the most qualified firm rather than make a selection based on low price where the reason for the low price may be an unrealistically low estimate of the services that will be required.
In today climate, there are many things that can go wrong between the conception of a project and project occupancy. Having all the design team members selected based on qualifications rather than on price should reduce the potential for errors in the design phase.
QBS – Is there a cost?
One of the questions that is frequently asked is, "How much more will it cost for design fees if I use QBS?" This is a question that is impossible to answer and it also suggests the person asking the question is only considering a small piece of the total project cost. Design costs are only a very small part of the overall project cost and even if there is a slight increase in design costs, there may be other savings that offset this.
There have been studies made of the "Life Cycle Cost" of a facility that suggest an overall cost breakdown over the life of the project of: Operating and Maintenance Costs, 56%; construction costs including land, 42%; and design costs only 2%. Thus if spending a small addition amount on design results in either a reduction in the on-going maintenance and operation of the facility or in the construction of the facility, any small cost may pay dividends much greater that the initial investment. Further, if spending a little additional time on the coordination of the bidding documents or checking to be sure all of the "Owner’s" requirements have been met; the cost associated with this additional time is worth the investment as it reduces the amount of changes that are required during construction.
At the time the designer is being selected, it is nearly impossible to predict the amount of time the designer will be required to spend in meetings with the "Owner" to determine the Owner’s priorities within the project, the importance of future operating and maintenance costs as they relate to the design, time required to secure the necessary permits and approvals or many other desires of the "Owner". If a "designer" is required to "provide a financial bid" on which the selection will be made, the designer must make many assumptions as to time that will be required for each of these activities and to keep the "bid" low, assume less time than may eventually be required. If this occurs the project is "short changed" because the "low bid" did not allow for services adequate to meet the needs of the "Owner".
It is also worth noting, that for any project to be totally successful, the "Owner" must believe the most qualified designer has been hired and begin the project with full confidence in the design team. If the "Owner" does not have this high level of confidence in the designer and the process by which the designer was selected, then it can only lead to an unsatisfactory relationship. Becoming friends after the marriage is too late.
This brings us back to the initial question and why it is impossible to answer. The QBS process provides the opportunity for the "Owner" to adequately review the qualification of several design firms, check their references and interview them as a part of the selection process. It assures that the "Owner" can negotiate an appropriate design fee after the "Most Qualified Designer" has been selected based on amount of time that is mutually agree will be necessary for each phase of the design work. It also provides the opportunity to include in these negotiations, the "Owner’s concern for ongoing "life-cycle" costs and the relationship of these costs to the initial construction cost as well as many other issues that should be important to the project "Owner".
QBS Facilitator Services
Last issue, we discussed the Maine QBS Booth at the Maine Municipal Convention. One of the ways that has been used to create interest in QBS is to have "Think QBS" scattered around the Exhibit Hall. Many of the members of one of the Sponsoring Organizations have graciously posted one of these signs in their own booth. As a result, Convention Attendees arrive at the QBS Booth having seen several "Think QBS" signs in other booths which has created some interest.
Even those that have some familiarity with the Maine QBS Program are not familiar with the Facilitator Services that are offered as a part of this program. Many are additionally surprised to know that the "Facilitator Services" are FREE to those that desire some assistance in using the QBS method of acquiring professional services. In the event there are readers of this Newsletter who are also unfamiliar with these services, we would share the following information.
The "Facilitator Services" that are provided by the Maine QBS Program are intended to assist the owner in a variety of areas. The Facilitator is available to make presentations to governing bodies, administrators or to the public on the purpose, benefits, and procedures that are related to the use of the QBS method of selection. Frequently many of the objections to the use of this method are the result of lack of information or understanding of the benefits. The Facilitator can also provide guidance in the preparation of public advertisements or invitations to potential firms or individuals. The Facilitator does not and will not become involved in the actual selection of a professional firm or the evaluation of submissions but, if requested, the Facilitator will assist in the establishment of an evaluation process and help those that are doing the evaluations to better understand the process and what is expected to be accomplished.
The free services of the Facilitator provided by the Maine QBS Program are intended to not only supplement the "Owner Manual" that is a part of the material included in the Maine QBS Website but also help the Owner fully understand the value of the QBS Process. The published material that is on the Website is intended to be customized for specific projects and for specific applications. Frequently having some guidance on this task by an experienced Facilitator will make the work of the Owner’s Selection Committee much easier. The contact information for the Maine QBS Program Facilitator, William R. Charland, CCCA is:
William R. Charland, CCCA
22 Little John Lane
Brewer, ME 04412
Tel: (207) 944-3690
Remember there is no cost for the services of the Facilitator.
QBS, the Value Increases
Qualification Based Selection (QBS) has always been seen as a way for an owner to maximize the return on the investment in design services. Although this investment may be small when compared to the overall "Life-Cycle Cost" of the facility, this investment has a major impact on the balance of the costs over the project life-cycle. The selection of a less efficient system or a requirement for a product that will not stand up to the Owner’s expected use can add greatly to the ongoing operating and maintenance cost.
Each change in a Building Code or new mandate from a governmental agency creates requirements that have to be reviewed. New ways to solve these issues must be identified that not only meet these new requirements but also to do it in a way that recognizes the Owner’s funding limitations. The use of these new ways may also require greater education of the Owner.
With many of the causes of price escalation of building material beyond the control of either the designer or the Owner, research must be undertaken to identify new methods or materials that should be considered for a project to stay within the project budget and project "Time-line". This research must include the long-term operating and maintenance costs as the initial costs and availability should not be the sole criteria for selection. If the client is to be well-served, the designer must consider all of the factors that will be an expense to the Owner during the time ownership is retained.
These factors and many more should bring one to the conclusion that the primary factor in the selection of the design team should be "QUALIFICATIONS" but it does take some work on the part of an Owner to determine the firm that is most qualified. This is where a good understanding of the purpose of QBS and the methods used to determine qualifications is of great value.
The Maine QBS Program has established a website – www.meqbs.org that has attracted increasing interest since it was initially created. The website includes not only an explanation of the value of QBS to the Owner but also a set of forms and instructions that can easily be downloaded and modified for a specific project. In addition to the website, the QBS Program provides free services to assist Owners in better understanding the process.
Anyone that anticipates acquiring design services for any project of any size would be well served to review the material contained on the Maine QBS Program website. This may not answer all questions but it certainly will give one things to consider.
What should "Owners" Expect?
We occasionally see a public advertisement or a "Request for Qualifications" issued by a public entity where it appears the "Owner" expects the design professional to provide a lot of free services to demonstrate their qualification as a part of the selection process. Free services is not an appropriate way to demonstrate qualifications nor should the design professional be expected to know enough about the future client’s wants, needs, desires or preferences to provide these services. Further, there is the issue of "Intellectual Property" where the product of these "free services" still belongs to the individual that produced them.
Even though the term "School", "Museum" or "Library" may suggest a certain type of structure, each building in a general category is different based on the specific requirements of the individual project. Each client is different, each community is different and each "Project Program" is different. For the design professional to fully understand the specific requirements for any specific project requires not only a good "Program" but also extensive meetings with the Owner (Client) so that the information contained in the "Program" can be properly understood and alternatives can be explored.
In selecting a Design Professional, the Client needs to understand that good design is the culmination of extensive communication and the proper understanding by the deign professional of the unique requirements of the specific project.
Yes, the "Qualifications" of the design professional are of prime importance but the important qualifications are the ones that give the design professional the ability to convert the Client’s dream into a useable facility within the Client’s budget including appropriate consideration for the ongoing operating and maintenance costs.
Although the Client may think they have developed a good "Program" for the facility prior to hiring a design profession, in most cases the Program still needs work. Further, there is the question of interpretation and priorities. Did the "Reader" of the Program have the same vision that the "Writer" of the Program intended.
The selection of a Design Professional requires a great amount of work and the evaluation of the designer’s qualifications including how well the Designer will work with the Client. The design of any facility is really a joint venture with both the Designer and the Client contributing their best efforts towards to completion of a successful project. Without this cooperative activity, the chances of success are greatly reduced.
University study confirms value of QBS
Recently a report was released of a study done jointly by the University of Colorado and Georgia Institute of Technology. This study looked at approximately 200 public and private construction projects in 23 states to determine how the design procurement method contributed to the success of the projects. The projects that were a part of the study ranged in size from relatively small projects to ones costing multi-millions of dollars.
The study compared Qualification Based Selection (QBS), Best Value, Low Bid and Sole Source procurement methods to see their impact on factors such as project cost, project quality, life-cycle cost and project schedule. This study done by two respected academic institutions showed that the projects where the design professional was selected using the “Qualification Based Selection Process” had lower overall costs, a reduced number of Change Orders, better project results and more highly satisfied project owners. It is clear that the “qualifications” of the design team are a major factor in the success of any project. For those of us that have been promoting QBS, these results were not surprising.
Qualification Based Selection is not a new concept, it has been used for over a quarter century. In 1972, the Federal Government adopted the Brooks Act requiring QBS to be used on Federally Funded Projects. The University of Maine System began using QBS at about the same time as the Brooks Act was passed and not long after, the Maine Legislature adopted a law requiring the use of QBS for Public School construction and some other State projects.
When using QBS as the design procurement method, the intent is to evaluate the qualifications of various design teams and identify the firm that is the most qualified for the specific project. Once the firm has been identified, cost negotiations are undertaken to secure a fair and reasonable price for the level of services that are required for the specific project. If the client and “most qualified design firm” cannot agree on a price, negotiations are undertaken with the second-ranked firm. The QBS process recognizes that every project has unique characteristics, a unique set of requirements and that all clients are not the same.
This process also recognizes that the actual design costs are a very small percentage of the total project cost and even less if the long-term costs of the facility are considered. Because the long-term operating and maintenances costs far exceed the initial investment, any savings that can be achieved in reducing maintenance or annual operating costs are well worth any difference in the design fee for the initial construction.
WHY IS IT HARD TO UNDERSTAND?
Why is so difficult to understand the basic issue of “Qualification Based Selection”? It appears to be a simple concept, compare the qualifications that are necessary for the project with the qualifications of those that want to provide the service and find the most appropriate match. The match of desired qualification to available qualifications should result in the highest level of confidence in success, the best results and the most satisfied client.
In our other activities we find this type of comparison, common place. If we need surgery, we search for someone that we have confidence is well qualified. If we need an attorney, we look for someone with the right qualifications to meet our needs. Even if we are just looking for someone to service our lawnmower, we match what we need with the available services, we would never go to “Jiffy Lube” to change the oil in our walk-behind power mower.
Possibly the reason it is so difficult to convey the value of QBS to Public Owners is that some Owners do not understand they are acquiring a “Professional Service” and that acquiring a “service” is much different than purchasing a commodity or a very well defined service. Most public entities have well-defined purchasing practices that are easy to follow when buying a commodity such as heating oil, paper for the photocopier or road salt. These purchasing practices do not work when one is acquiring “Professional Services”, especially where creativity or the study of alternatives is required.
If a lack of understanding of the services that are to be provided by a “Design Professional” is a factor in failure of a public entity to select the QBS Process, then we have an educational issue to address. Those of us that provide design services or have years of experience acquiring design services, may not appreciate that our understanding of this issue is not universal. We may be so close to the forest that our view is blocked by the trees.
I remember in my earlier days working with “Building Committees” in the selection of design professionals, we used to spend at least 1 hour prior to the interview process in discussing the “Role and Responsibilities” of the designer in the project. At times, it was very surprising how little well-educated people knew about the services that were expected to be provided by a design professional or how the design professional was expected to interact with the Committee or the larger community.
Qualification Based Selection of design professionals is a well tested method that has a long history of success. It has been almost 40 years since the Federal Government passed the Brooks Act that first established legal requirements to use QBS. Even with this long history, many still do not understand why this is important because they may not understand the services that are required to convert a “good idea” into an operating facility.
The Other Side of the Story
In our last Newsletter, we discussed the need for some better understanding of the value of the QBS to project clients but this may be only part of the story. Early in our childhood, we were told, “There are two sides to every story”. If this is the case, what is the other side of the story about the value of QBS?
It is relatively easy to demonstrate and explain the value of the QBS Process to knowledgeable clients and to public officials that have an understanding of what design professionals are expected to do, the process that is normally used to transform a “good idea” into the facility that the client expects while meeting all of the budget and time constraints as well as building code, ADA and energy efficiency requirements. But what about clients that are not knowledgeable of the services that are normally provided or the process that is normally used to bring the “good idea” into reality? Even the best of intentions and the appropriate use of QBS may not overcome some very basic lack of understanding on the part of the Client.
From my experience, few members of “Building Committees” on publicly financed projects are selected based on their knowledge of the design or construction process. They are selected because they are influential Community Leaders. Their service on the Building Committee is frequently to give the local taxpayers confidence that their interests are being considered and protected. Most Building Committee Members get “high marks” for serving in this capacity and the taxpayers have a sense of confidence in the process.
However, the QBS Process which is dependent upon a clear understanding of “QUALIFICATIONS” may suffer if the Design Firm and the Client are not speaking the same language or one is using terminology that is not fully understood by the other. We all use acronyms or phases that are understood by those in our own fields but may not be understood by those in a different profession. I used to become upset when my computer would “freeze” and my IT guy would come in and quickly fix the problem and then explain what had gone wrong using IT terms that I had no idea what they meant. I didn’t ask for an explanation as I knew that the explanation would include many more terms that I did not understand, so I quit only to repeat the problem again a few weeks later.
As design professionals making presentations to clients about the firm’s qualification, do we consider the knowledge and understanding of the design process by the Committee that is holding the interview? Even the best presentation may not be successful if it is not understood. Communications has two parts, not only must the message be sent, it also has to be received with the “receiver” having the same understanding of content as the person that sent the message. A misunderstood message may be of less value than no message. Unfortunately, low bids are easy to understand but understanding qualifications may be more difficult.
This may be the “Other side of the Story” if a good presentation is not well received.