What you learn from an RFP site meeting

Attending a site meeting during a Request for Proposals can be sometimes surreal—and often revealing—about the state of the profession.

Graphic by Roy Gaiot

There’s a quiet tension that often comes from getting a bunch of candidates together for a site meeting during a Request for Proposals. Competing architects, project managers, technologists, proposal editors, all suddenly spend an afternoon together, wandering through an existing building, a built-up urban lot, or maybe some empty field. People arrive, form a little circle, wait for the client, sign the sign-in sheet. They wait quietly again for the start of the event. The walkthrough happens, people take their notes and pictures. The visit ends. Everybody goes home. 

This quiet tension isn’t coming from unfamiliarity. People at these visits often know each other, or know of each other, but site visits still aren’t talkative events—and not just in the moments where everybody is listening to the host. The surreality of the quiet can get downright striking, everybody wandering through the back access corridors of some academic building or museum with a bunch of people that they have absolutely everything in common with, even down to their notepads, and the fact that they’re taking pictures of an HVAC system on their smartphones. 

What really drives this tension is two things, potentially three. The first thing is the inherent social ickiness that comes from running into other competing candidates at a job interview. You’re suddenly forced into seeing the other people around you as both personal foils and professional threats, keeping a little mental tally of who exactly you’re competing against. You may well read the names on the sign-in sheet, noting people that you recognize from other pursuits. The second driving factor of the tension is the fact that there are real stakes involved in this process, and information is a valuable commodity here. That includes information volunteered by your competitors, or potentially by you. Asking questions or proposing design ideas may be necessary for clarification, but it might hurt your chances of winning the project. If you share your great design notion with the whole class, it might lose you a competitive advantage. Even asking the wrong question can show your hand. So, some questions go unasked, some ideas go unexplored, and everybody just deals with it. 

The potential third thing keeping things a little tense is that maybe—just maybe—some of the people there have been sent at the last minute because the site visit is mandatory, and they were the only person in the office who was available to go. Several of the attendees may have barely learned anything about the project. It’s a real possibility that a couple haven’t read the RFP. But you can’t submit a proposal if you don’t attend. Make sure your name is on the sign-in sheet, other than that, polite and quiet listening will have to do. 

From a distance, all these little awkward tensions are stunning features for an event where the spirit is to openly provide information and ensure transparency and fairness. Clients are often highly invested in running a fantastic site visit, in order to enrich the procurement process, build understanding among all potential proponents, and clearly define their expectations—all so that they get a good candidate to design their project. A lot of people on the client’s side can be pulled into these meetings, because the project represents something significant in their life and work. Think of what this experience is like for them: suddenly surrounded by a bunch of quiet design professionals who sometimes leave a beat of silence after being asked, “Any questions?” Imagine that room looking back at you through so many very deliberate eyewear choices. 

On RFPs for high-profile or high-value projects, the scene can be quite different—but equally revealing. These site visits tend to draw a crowd, bringing out many firm owners and significant designers from near and far. This type of visit is typically better attended, more talkative. It puts the makeup of architectural leadership in Canada on sample-size display, including the most likely type of person to lead the design for the project at hand. You get a ballpark answer to the question: who, generally, gets to design the built environment around us?

It should surprise nobody reading this to learn the architectural leaders at those meetings—and those in Canada at large—are generally older, white, and male (obviously not because of any innate design talent, but because we live in a patriarchal society which, for centuries, has been wrongly structured to benefit this one group of people, providing them easier access to both professions and positions of leadership). According to a 2022 Stratcom Demographics Survey of more than 1,000 members of the Ontario Association of Architects—which, critically, is only about OAA membership and not firm leadership—69% of respondents identify as White / Caucasian, 56% identify as male, and 32% have childcare responsibilities. Most (62%) were over 40 years old, with 41% identifying themselves as over 51 years old. (For the sake of transparency, these statistics include some clarifications: “a response rate of approximately 15.5% and the margin of error for a sample of this size is +/- 2.6%, 19 times out of 20”.) It’s one thing to know about this information. It’s another to see this imbalance on display in front of you at a big site meeting, and to remember that the projects that result from this type of large-scale RFP process can have an outsized influence on their surrounding communities and user groups. Because it’s an activity done by people, design can be rife with unconscious bias. Even a talented designer doesn’t know to think about the biases they don’t know they have. Consider this idea in the context of a major cultural project or a school. Think about it in the context of a multi-purpose building with a daycare.  

Of course, there are gradations to what RFP site meetings are, just as there are gradations to what projects are. If at one end of the spectrum, a site meeting might serve as a summit for architectural leadership with millions of dollars on the line, at the other, a site visit can be nothing, the very definition of “this could have been an email.” RFPs for tiny little projects can have site visits too; and then there is the prickly question of what is implied to be necessary when the client has given a date for a site visit that is described as being voluntary. The good-hearted intent to put in effort and attend a non-mandatory visit may add significant extra cost to the whole process. And most of the time, this money will be for nothing, returning only an employee with a slight theatre-of-the-absurd type experience. (As an example, in response to a non-mandatory site meeting scheduled within an RFP, I once drove for 90 minutes, then suited up in a required hard-hat, safety glasses, high-vis vest, and steel toes, only to wander around an empty building alone, while the client’s representative waited outside. He declared at the outset that the purpose of the meeting was for me to “see the building.” He would be answering no questions, and he would be providing no information beyond what was given in the RFP. This was for a smaller pursuit that was eventually lost on fee to somebody who was smart enough not to attend. The thing that was running through my unnecessarily PPE-covered head at the time was something like: “You were the one who called this meeting.” Shortly after, I had another 90-minute drive back to the office.) 

At even the best of times, RFPs have the potential to burn time and money, but within this sub-section of pursuit-related overhead, site visits can stand out as a uniquely useless way to set fire to thousands of dollars. Depending on the expanse of the region where a firm chooses to chase work, attending a site visit can include airfare, hotels, food, time, and mileage. This is not to say that these visits cannot add anything important to the process, but that value comes from forethought, planning, and the intent of all parties involved to make the finished project better.

Mandatory or not, if a site meeting is included as part of an RFP, it should have a purpose. It should be conducted with the spirit of adding value, and it should allow for an exchange that enriches the process. Without meeting at least one of these criteria, there is something else you can learn from attending enough of these events: sometimes it would be okay if some of them were never planned in the first place.

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