How to pick an Structural Engineer?

When preparing to start a construction project, the selection of an architect and engineering team is one of the most important choices to be made. That's because these firm's performance determines the entire course of the project and has a significant impact on the construction, operation, and maintenance costs during the facility's lifetime. The design team is retained at the beginning of a project, long before ground is broken and construction begins. Professional engineers and architects translate your needs and concepts into the reality of detailed construction plans.

You may be uncertain about the best way to select a design team, what selection criteria to use, how to interview the design team, and what the work that engineers and architects do really is. Hopefully the questions and answers below will answer some of your questions.

Q What are the general services engineers and architects provide?

A The basic phases of service on a typical design-bid-build project are feasibility study, preliminary design, final design, construction bid evaluation, and construction observation. Architectural projects often include a detailed programming phase that would precede actual design work. Your design team will take your ideas and plans and transform them into construction documents that a contractor can use to build the actual physical construction.

Q What does the term "scope of work" mean?

A The scope of work is a definition of the project and the services to be provided to secure its execution, including specific tasks necessary for completion. Negotiation of the scope also involves an evaluation of alternative solutions or approaches to the project.

Q How are architectural and engineering firms retained?

A The traditional method of hiring engineering and architectural firms for public work is through a process known as negotiated procurement or qualifications-based selection. The basic goal of this selection procedure is finding the best qualified firm or individual to perform the work. There are six major elements to this procurement procedure: public notice, submittals of qualifications, review of submittals, interviews, ranking respondents, and negotiation of a contract. The benefits of using this method have been recognized for many years and are required by federal law (1972 - The Brooks Act) for US government projects and by forty-seven states for state projects.

Most often in the private sector fee-based selection is used (or a of qualifications-based and fee-based selection). Fee-based selection is a method where an owner requests fee estimates from the design team and makes a selection based on fees.

Q What qualifications should I seek in a design team?

A Consideration should include the engineer/architect's experience with projects of a similar size and scope as well as experience with the product. Examples: if you are building a church, the architect should be experienced in church layout and design; if you are building a three story steel framed office you would want to chose a structural engineer with steel framing experience rather than one that focuses on concrete parking garages. Consideration should also be given to the size of the firm. If you are undertaking a large project it may overload a firm that is too small and lead to problems with the schedule. On the other hand, if you have a small project, selecting a firm used to handling large projects may lead to too elaborate a design approach that would incur unneeded cost. As you consider the design team, qualified firms will always be willing to provide you with references and project lists of past projects that demonstrate their abilities. Lastly, ask what professional associations the firms and their design professionals belong to. The best firms are readily involved with these associations (such as SEAoO) who work to promote quality in the profession.

Q How does qualifications-based selection work?

A An announcement is made that architectural or engineering services are needed for a particular project and firms are invited to submit information about their qualifications and their experience. The owner then reviews and evaluates the submissions and selects a "short list" of three to five firms. Personal interviews are usually conducted with these firms to discuss each firm's qualifications, philosophies and overall approach to the project. Once these interviews are completed, the owner ranks the firms. The top-ranked firm is then invited to negotiate a formal agreement. This includes a discussion of your concepts and goals, the alternatives that might be considered, a specific scope of work, the general approach of the firm to the scope of work, and the firm's compensation for the project.

Q Can qualifications-based selection be used with Design/Build projects?

A Yes, it can. Design/build is an alternative delivery process. When design/build is utilized, QBS should be used to select the design/build team. Some organizations advocate a two-step process where 1) selects an owner representative and 2) selects a design/build team.

Q Why is qualifications-based selection the preferred method of selection for public projects?

A As stated in the American Bar Association's "Model Procurement Code for State and Local Governments": "The principal reasons supporting this selection procedure for architect-engineer and land surveying services are the lack of a definitive scope of work for such services at the time the selection is made and the importance of selecting the best qualified firm. In general, the architect, engineer, or land surveyor is engaged to represent the State's interests and is, therefore, in a different relationship with the State from that normally existing in a buyer-seller situation. For these reasons, the qualifications, competence, and availability of the most qualified architect-engineer or land surveying firm is considered initially, and price negotiated later."

Q Is price a factor in a qualifications-based selection process?

A Certainly. But until you, and the architects and engineers you are considering, know in some detail what professional services you need, price discussion can't be meaningful. If you focus first on qualifications, you will be assured that the professionals you hire will have the technical ability and professional judgment to turn your vision into an efficient, effective and economical reality.

Q If fee-based selection is used for contractors, why wouldn't it work well for design firms?

A The process for selection of a contractor to construct a project differs from that used in the selection of a design team to design the same project. A construction contract can be awarded to the lowest responsible bidder because all major aspects of the project are defined, including the type and amount of construction materials required to complete the project. On the other hand, you retain architects and engineers to turn your undefined concept into a set of plans and specifications. The engineers and architects take an idea and give it definition. After that definition it is much more straightforward for the contractor to take that definition and turn it into a physical reality.

Q How do I know I'm getting a fair price?

A A detailed discussion of the project scope and your expectations will enable the architect or engineer to develop as accurate a professional service budget as possible. Budget comparisons can then be made with past successful projects of a similar nature that you or others have undertaken.