Practice: When Experience Counts

RFPs commonly ask architects to submit profiles of similar projects. Is it time to rethink the requirement?

The Schulich School of Business at York University (2003) was awarded to Hariri Pontarini Architects in joint venture with Young + Wright Architects for a submission that interpreted the client’s aspirations in forceful and realistic design concepts. Hariri Pontarini had only completed a single previous project at a university—the McKinsey & Company Headquarters, a project a quarter of the size, on the University of Toronto campus. But the York University procurement process identified the firm as the best fit for having demonstrated their “experience” was a progressive and evolutionary process—one ready for the next step, according to Monica Contreras, who was on the client side. “For me, it is still a successful process, even almost 22 years after the decision,” she says. The learning complex was awarded the 2006 Governor General’s Medal in Architecture, the OAA’s Design Excellence Award and the Toronto Construction Association’s ‘Best of the Best’ Award. Photo by Ben Rahn / A-Frame

For architects responding to Requests for Proposals (RFPs), one of the most consistent head-scratchers is detailing a firm’s portfolio: not on independent merit, but according to requirements given by an RFP. “Project Experience” is almost always a required section in proposals, with associated page limits, word counts, and necessary details. The need to submit “profiles for three similar projects completed within the past ten years” (or something very close to this) should be relatively commonplace to anybody regularly working with RFPs.

In theory, this Project Experience section is useful to both clients and architects, limiting the work of responding, and applying consistent criteria for all. But it’s more complicated than it seems. For instance, how do you evaluate a building’s aesthetic value? When contending with a truly unique project, what constitutes similar past work? How does a firm’s past portfolio measure against what they are proposing to do now? These invite another key question: are there times when it would benefit everybody involved to change how we think about Project Experience, or remove it completely from the RFP process?

Monica Contreras is an architect and project manager with experience creating and evaluating RFPs, as well as teaching Integrated Design and Project Management. For almost 20 years, she led procurement of architectural services at several Ontario universities, also working with architects on the projects that followed. Her career has provided her with insight into both the mechanics of RFPs, and the ways architects tend to respond to them.

When asked about the standard of providing three similar project profiles from the past ten years, Contreras responds: “That criteria is actually more to do with risk than anything else, because when you’re trying to find an architect—for instance, for a capital project, for a new building—you want to know that they have the capacity to do something big.”

“And sometimes […] you’re trying to get something unique, and therefore that category may mean very little, because no one’s ever done the project that you’re doing.”

Contreras says that even then, for institutions like universities, procurement procedures require the inclusion of Project Experience as a section within RFPs when seeking out new architects for a unique or large-scale project. By releasing a publicly posted RFP and stepping outside of an established Vendor of Record list for architects (if a client has such a thing), the client is ultimately saying the project needs special expertise, which should then be illustrated by respondent architects within their proposals, partially via profiles of their past work.

Despite this requirement, Project Experience is not always the most important component of a proposal to Contreras, and she ultimately finds other elements more informative: “To me, it’s more important who is going to be on the project. Who are the team members? How long have they worked together? What’s their design strategy? And what do they bring that is a value-add to the project?”

The Centre for Urban Innovation (CUI) at Toronto Metropolitan University, designed by Moriyama Teshima Architects, includes a new building tied into a restored heritage structure, on an urban infill site. It was a fast-tracked project funded by the federal Strategic Innovation Fund. Due to tight funding deadlines, the project could not follow all the regular linear procurement steps. The university was able to identify the architect that best aligned with the project needs by looking at their “experience” in successfully executing projects that had so many constraints, rather than looking for a team that had designed projects “similar” in nature. Photo by Ryan Snelling

Considered at scale, there can be industry-wide consequences to clients overvaluing the score for Project Experience in RFPs. Requiring even a few directly comparable examples within a relatively short timeframe—say, three new academic buildings within the past decade— creates a bias in favour of larger firms. Firms with multiple offices will likely have a greater portfolio of recent work to draw on for their response. Asked about whether scoring Project Experience too highly creates an unfair bias towards larger-scale firms, Contreras says it “absolutely” does.

“If you only hire the old firms, then you are never giving an opportunity to a young firm,” says Contreras. “So how does a firm get experience on university projects if no one ever hires them, because they don’t have previous experience on university projects?”

Contreras thinks there are improvements that can be made to RFPs overall. For Project Experience, she notes the importance of establishing that projects put forward within proposals were completed by the same team that is being proposed for the current project. For evaluators and architects alike, she stresses the need for careful wording, and to focus above all on the project at hand.

“I always spend some time with the evaluators saying ‘this is the purpose’, because it’s really important for everybody to understand the purpose of the project,” says Contreras. “The firm that we need is a firm that understands what you want, that has listened to everything that we put into the document for the proposal call. And that firm has to demonstrate that they can get us there.”

“The mistakes that architects make is that they read all this, they put it aside, and they don’t actually create a checklist […] looking at how it’s being evaluated and seeing where the weights are.”

Contreras says it’s important to remember an RFP can represent the culmination of years of work within an institution, perhaps the realization of a person’s career. She stresses the importance of responding to specifics and emphasizes the need to not “throw marketing at it” and bombard clients with inapplicable material.

In general, says Contreras, “architectural firms don’t respond very well to RFPs. They just don’t do a good job. And it’s so hard.” She adds: “What you’re trying to find is really an alignment between the firm and your project.”

Clients, for their part, also need to understand how architects establish a record of their own Project Experience. It takes an agonizing amount of money and effort to maintain a portfolio for use in proposals. At a minimum, you need writing (somebody’s time) and pictures (money for a photographer) that can be quickly re-purposed into proposals (once again, somebody’s time). The likelihood of success in any single pursuit is never strong, but RFPs are still a necessity for many firms. It can become incredibly frustrating when something akin to a lack of nuance stands in the way of success, or even qualification.

Take, for example, the question of when Project Experience becomes stale-dated. Say a client is seeking a designer for a renovation and requires similar project examples from the past 10 years, but your team designed two successful projects in other areas of the same building 11 years ago. Then suppose the RFP forbids these older projects, and the client has doubled down in an addendum where you asked that question. Do you still submit your otherwise excellent experience? As a client, how would you score this if it crossed your desk? At what point does age matter less than applicability, and how does this all become a numbered score? There are different cases to be made here. Speaking generally on how Project Experience ages, Contreras points out how significantly the world can change within ten years. But this is still a series of questions where the answers have potential to win or lose everybody involved tens of thousands of dollars: and they are the type of questions that come up repeatedly when firms respond to RFPs.

It is the ability of this whole process to accommodate and evaluate nuance that really matters. Architects want to avoid unnecessary overhead and to have their Project Experience—as well as other information about their practice—assessed on merit. Clients should think carefully about what this means. Get it right, and it will help to find a stellar candidate at the end of the process.

Jake Nicholson is a writer based in London, Ontario, with extensive experience working on proposals for architectural and engineering firms.