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An example of a project procured under an effective/balanced matrix, Monash University North West Precinct by Jackson Clements Burrows Architects.

photograph: John Gollings

Lost Architecture and Neo-Morpheus Procurement Processes

WORDS BY Jon Clements

It wasn’t long ago that us mere mortals (architects) were the one stop shop for the delivery of now recognised history. Moments of time existed when innovation prevailed (through appetite for risk) and the extraordinary was delivered – never easily but, with the benefit of hindsight, not surprisingly.

So how did we end up here? Did the world really move under our drawing boards while we were cleaning our Rotring Rapidographs? Is it really true that suddenly we are no longer the desired and celebrated profession that apparently we once were before? Firstly we might do well to ask Google what an architect is today.

If we turn to the Oxford we are informed that an architect is ‘a person who designs buildings and in many cases also supervises their construction’ (a good start) but there is a subtle hint in the recent Oxford that provides a second alternative definition; ‘a person who is responsible for inventing or realising a particular idea or project’. The intent is obvious but it could also be argued that this definition also captures an appropriate representation of the fundamental shift in the procurement of our services.

If we dare to turn to the Urban Dictionary (forgive me) we are advised that the first definition is ‘an overworked and underpaid employee – of a pretentious registered practitioner of the arts (a prat). Many years in tertiary education have left the ‘architect’ bitter and in debt – and unable to relate to the remainder of society’.

Or on the second definition, ‘a state licensed diverse designer extending themselves beyond ‘art’ to the realm of building. Blending scientific knowledge with artistic creativity to fulfil a desire to build’.

On the third hand (my preferred definition), ‘a person who works in the design field whose job is seriously underrated and underappreciated. Though they go through more schooling than most people, they earn a fraction of the pay and usually die in debt. However, the sheer joy of knowing they made a difference in the world is enough to sustain them and make every CEO, lawyer and stockbroker wish they had done something better with their lives.’

The architect of the past is clearly not forgotten (at least not within our profession) yet surely we should be focusing on where our profession is heading rather than where it has been. Or more directly, we need to adapt and innovate in response to the current procurement environment if we want to become better, more valued, architects.

Traditionally there was an understanding and appreciation of the architect’s ability to deliver a successful project through the provision of comprehensive project management services. The client would approach an architect to provide initial project advice, procure the necessary project team, prepare a brief, develop a design solution, document the design solution, procure the builder under a conventional tender process and then deliver the project through (in most cases) administration of a lump sum construction contract. The architect was in effect the single point of contact – a professional who could bring the most appropriate project team together to deliver the required objectives.

Then along came our modern government’s best friend – probity – a process which seeks to be equitable and honest but frequently demonstrates outcomes with a bias towards minimising risk cost and time. Understanding probity provides some insight into the shift in our procurement space. Probity is certainly an important part of democratic and transparent governance however the decision makers are now looking for outcomes combing a range of considerations which often blur the important distinction between cost and value.

It could be fairly argued that probity was at least one of the parents that gave birth to the project manager (the only person who is involved in the procurement of large construction projects who does not require a degree, qualification, registration or compulsory PI Insurance). In effect the project manager evolved by adapting to the procurement environment quicker than the architect and quickly took over the processes that they argued might be beneficial to probity (ie delivering outcomes focused on minimising risk, cost and time).

Project managers became internal appointments within government and it wasn’t long before the project management market had also developed in the private sector. Whether we like it or not project management has a significant impact on our profession as we know it today.

All is not lost however – or is it?

In the procurement space surrounding local government, institutional and education projects, it is reasonably commonplace for architects to be expected to submit a combined bid for a project under a single consultancy contract, with all of the secondary project consultants to be engaged directly by the architect as sub-consultants. In this space the architect is the lead consultant in the true sense (as opposed to being the lead consultant under a single consultant contract with the architect alone, where the term is generally used for the purposes of allocating responsibility for coordination of documents) and the combined bid provides the architect with an important opportunity to submit a value proposition to deliver the project in full (and in most cases without a novation process).

The upside of this model is that the architect is empowered to select the most appropriate project team and is in control of their pitch from a value perspective. On the flip side the architect needs to be aware of a number of significant negatives and risks associated with these procurement strategies including:

  • The architect becomes the single contractual link to client. This simplifies process for the project manager and client, but makes it challenging for the architect as they are responsible for managing all sub-consultant work and associated contracts.
  • Claims that may have occurred as a result of errors in sub-consultant work need to be defended by the architect first. The architect then needs to resolve claims or variations with secondary consultant directly. Increased insurance cover may be necessary.
  • Engaging sub-consultants and managing progress claims takes a lot of administrative work. The architect needs to ensure that sub-consultants’ terms and conditions match the contractual conditions that the architect is signing up for. Some subconsultants do not amend their terms and conditions, or have limitations of liability that may create problems for the architect down the track if not dealt with at the time of engagement.
  • This all means additional time and effort (cost) needs to be spent by the architect during the bid process to scrutinise subconsultant submissions in respect of fees, scope and liability.
  • The architect is required to carry a significant cash flow burden on behalf of client. For smaller practices this is a significant financial risk which may be beyond their comfort zone. The client may not be aware of this risk/burden.

In an environment where architects have been constantly pressured to lower their fees to remain competitive, the additional scope associated with this procurement method (and the associated administrative cost) should be removed from the project manager and returned to the architect. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that a 5% increase in the total professional fees should be included in favour of the architect in such bids to cover the significant additional administration costs of managing sub-consultancies with associated risk and liability.

An example of a project procured under an effective/balanced matrix, Jackson Clements Burrows’ design for Dendy Street Pavilion.

image: Jackson Clements Burrows

System Failure’ by devfactory.

available at https://www.flickr.com/photos/51181475@N00/47453849 under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0. Full terms at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0

In 1999 the Wachowskis introduced us to Neo and Morpheus (not forgetting Trinity and The Oracle) and the assessment matrix was born: something that constitutes the place or point from which something else originates, takes form or develops.

An assessment matrix will evaluate a bid against a series of criteria such as cost, previous experience, quality assurance implementation, OH&S implementation, etc. In the procurement process outlined above, the assessment matrix contains the proverbial key to the project door for the architect and bid team in terms of evaluation criteria and their weighting. However the assessment of the submitted material (the bids) against the individual criteria may be less predictable and will be the ultimate test of where value is measured against risk, cost and time.

In some cases the assessment matrix has proven to be an effective pathway to excellent outcomes which emerge from recognisable value and effective probity. To achieve these outcomes there needs to be clear evaluation criteria, balanced weighting of evaluation criteria (often in favour of capability/value rather than experience) and an effective evaluation process from a suitably experienced assessment panel. Fortunately a number of leading government and education departments are improving their procurement processes and establishing assessment matrices that are built on these principles which provide important opportunities for emerging practices.

On the other hand poorly defined assessment matrices can lead to lost opportunities where probity may have been prioritised over value. In this case there may be cloudy or irrelevant criteria, an unnecessary bias towards lowest fees and/or relevant project experience (often not stated transparently), and in some cases undefined evaluation weighting.

Architects who are submitting combined/team bids under a poorly defined assessment matrix should be aware of a number of the following risks:

  • The matrix as an evaluation method may be black and white leaving little room for subjectivity. A team that is potentially the best fit may simply be overlooked due to an error in the submission or poor score in a specific criterion.
  • The requirement to include consultants within fee bids can undermine the architect’s own bid (eg consultant fees, client past relationships with services consultants etc).
  • Assessment using the matrix tends to look for errors and omissions to score down the submission. The assessment panel may act in a similar way to exam markers trying to avoid probity issues.
  • Matrix evaluation is more often than not geared towards fee value and project experience. Project understanding and design approach tend to carry less weight than they should in the majority of assessment matrices.
  • Generally the highest score wins. Little discretion available in the selection system.
  • There is often no perceived value in the assessment criteria (due to probity issues) for an incumbent firm who has been asked to retender for provision of ongoing services following feasibility and/or concept work.

So how does an emerging practice with limited project experience win a bid under an assessment matrix? Unfortunately I can’t answer that question clearly but a few of following tips may help:

  • The Oracle would tell you to try to understand the science behind the Matrix. Government probity procedures generally provide for questions in tender processes and the answers generally have to be provided to all registrants. If you need to know more about the assessment criteria simply ask.
  • In combined or team bids under one consultant agreement, you may need to get two or three fee submissions from each project consultant category to improve your total value offer, especially where fees are weighted highly in the assessment matrix.
  • Make sure your subconsultants have relevant project experience where possible.
  • Do your due diligence – make sure your secondary consultants have a good relationship with the client if they have worked together in the past.
  • Stating the obvious, but put most of your effort into the areas of assessment criteria that are highly weighted.
  • Your selected internal project team is important. You may have an architect working in your office with extensive past experience on a particular project type even though your practice doesn’t have relevant experience.
  • Consider a joint submission with another architect where you might be able to combine your design credibility with their relevant project experience.

 

Every bid your practice submits comes with a cost and the one thing the procurement space can almost guarantee is that you will lose many more bids than you will win. Competitive tenders and bids, and EOI submissions are an expensive exercise and they need to be given careful consideration before you jump in head first. The choice for an architect or team to submit a bid comes down to a simple assessment of calculated risk, ie opportunity verses cost.

Perhaps it’s a good time to remind ourselves (and our clients) that a human being walked on the moon in 1969 after arriving in the Apollo Lunar Excursion Module, which was controlled by a suite of electronics that were more basic than those included in modern toasters with computer controlled stop, start and defrost buttons. The so-called Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) used a real time operating system, which enabled astronauts to enter simple commands by typing in pairs of nouns and verbs, to control the spacecraft. It had approximately 64Kbyte of memory and operated at 0.043MHz.

Architects must focus on communicating the value of our services rather than the cost of our services and we must encourage our clients to understand the inherent opportunities that exist through a healthy appetite for risk. In this sense, we would all do well to avoid competitive bids with an assessment matrix that fails to support these fundamentals.