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PURCHASING DESIGN SERVICES: An open Book (or at least it should be, says the author).

Architects, engineers and interior designers provide a necessary service that to many appears transparent. Therefore, based on faith, clients pay fees, and hope that the final product will meet their needs. In fact, building owners usually don't truly know what they have purchased until they walk into the new facility on opening day. Yet purchasing design (services doesn't have to be a blind faith exercise. By following some simple rules you can successfully "shop" without overextending your budget. To begin with, be careful when someone offers you a fee based on "x dollars per bed or y dollars per square foot." Determining the value of a design consultation is not that simple.

Occasionally we see clients pay an architect to do a complete set of contract documents ("blueprints"), only to learn that they can't afford the project. We always urge potential building owners to "test the water" by only committing to a study, master plan or schematic design. This predesign phase allows the team to examine the proposed scope of the project before major commitments are made. An item to include is a "conceptual" definition of the assumed "quality and quantity" of building systems. We have used this technique to determine project feasibility in terms of construction cost, building schedule, and budgets for furniture, fixtures and equipment (FF&E).

Often the architect will work with a contractor to assist in local pricing based on a simple "scope ofwork" described by the architect in a narrative and diagram. With this sort of preliminary information, senior care decision makers are better able to understand the merits of their visions and whether they can develop a financing plan to fulfill them.

This helps in another way: Only after the architect understands the scope of work, what the proposed building will cost, how it will be paid for, and how long the design and construction will take, can he or she propose a realistic professional design fee.

Recently we negotiated an interior design fee with a major long-term care provider. Our list of design tasks included our itemized responsibility matrix with corresponding staff-level assignments and hourly rates. Basic services included design coordination of FF&E, interior/exterior signs, artwork, color/material selections, specialty lighting design, interior detailing and location of planting materials. This "open book" approach to design service pricing allowed everyone to know what services were to be provided under the design as proposed; this gave the client some flexibility in accurately weighing the relative benefits and trade-offs among services to develop a realistic final budget. In the end, this realistic planning avoided overtaxing the architect/interior designer or having to go back to the board of directors for more money during construction.

Specific cost items to consider in purchasing design services include: pre-design, schematic design, design development, contract documents (i.e., working drawings/specifications), bidding phase services and construction administration. (For a list of all potential design service providers, see Table.)


It is very common in today's market for some design services to be delivered using a "design/build" methodology. In this scenario a subcontractor or product vendor for these specific services (Table) will offer a design service based on "performance criteria." He will compete with other service providers for the job based on price but without the benefit of full documentation or specification. The winning company will then often hire its own design professional to prepare documents for "certification" by governing agencies. We have used this technique ourselves to be competitive in establishing our fees for plumbing, mechanical, electrical, landscape, kitchen, FF&E and landscape design services.

Although we have used this process successfully on many projects, we try to make our clients aware that they are not necessarily saving any money with it, if only because the design must still be reviewed and stamped by a licensed professional, Also, by not actively bidding the entire project, the owner can lose the advantage of testing the feasibility of a final and complete design in a truly competitive market. Another danger can occur when a design/build provider underestimates either the quality and/or quantity of a building component or system about which he is not an expert. With the resulting cost overruns, the owner could end up with less of a building than he hoped for.

Often clients hire a professional design consultant based on the lowest fee without understanding what they are paying for. Usually the low-fee provider's approach will include less time for meetings, produce "tried and true" but cookie-cutter solutions, and overlook necessary services untillatein the process. The buyer then realizes how tedious and expensive it is to pay for unbudgeted "additional design service" fees.


"Potluck" purchasing of design services is no longer necessary. In today's market, building owners can truly understand with new clarity how design services are structured, the degree of flexibility in fee negotiations and the alternatives available. Meanwhile, the architect who fully informs his client has a better chance at exceeding the client's expectations rather than diminishing them. And both the owner and the architect, through detailed description of design-related roles and responsibilities upfront, can function as "partners" in the design process, sharing a clear view of the goal and full confidence in achieving it.

Peter Rauma, AIA, is an architect with Hammel, Green and Abrahamson, Inc., a national architecture, engineering and interior design firm based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Table. Design Service Providers.

Typical professional design service providers:

* architect

* civil engineer

* landscape architect

* structural engineer

* mechanical/plumbing engineer

* electrical engineer

Additional specialty consultants:

* interior designer

* gerontologist

* food service consultant

* geotechnical/soils engineer

* acoustical consultant

* traffic engineer

* surveyor

* lighting design consultant

* art/sign consultant

* security consultant

* technology/communications consultant

* owner's representative/program manager
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Publication:Nursing Homes
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Jul 1, 2001
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