A/E/C firm leaders need to embrace an alternative methodology for assembling teams to meet the challenges of today’s building.

Owners and developers are setting ever-higher standards for new buildings as they work to meet demands for sophisticated structures that accommodate complex programs, incorporate sustainablability and provide productive work environments. Industry leaders have responded with improved design processes, new building technologies and advanced project delivery systems. One area remains unchanged: team formation.

While building information modeling (or BIM), building performance software and Internet communications advance the building process on a daily basis, the methodology for selecting design teams has not evolved. The prevalent selection methodology relies on bundling teams whose members are often selected based on the politics surrounding a project rather than capabilities of individuals and the requirements of the proposed facility.

The scenario begins with a request for qualifications or proposal. Firms submit pre-assembled teams to meet the potential client’s project criteria. For high-profile projects, the process creates a frenzy of teaming commitments, driven first by getting the job, and only then by the alignment of skills and values.

Great teams are characterized by qualified professionals who share a sense of mission, mutual respect and reciprocal trust. That is difficult to achieve with a teambuilding process that overemphasizes expediency, at the risk of compromised or unpredictable outcomes. The demand for increasingly complex buildings raises the need for innovation, compressed schedules and tight budgets. Such outcomes are impossible without exceptional communication and collaboration among teams.

Teams capable of producing value for the owner possess a range of qualities including:

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Compatibility of firm cultures, missions and values; alignment of business practice procedures and ethics; compatibility of key team member personalities and communication styles; complementary and comprehensive qualifications and skill sets; parallel scope of work divisions with minimal duplication; fair balance between scope of work and compensation; technical compatibility of practice tools and methodology; shared definition of and commitment to a successful project

This callas for thoughtful and deliberate selection and sequential team building, not frenzied bundling of disciplines. Yes, value-based teaming requires additional effort. But the potential for improved performance, a higher quality product and less risk is worth it.

The first step is selection of a keystone professional—a firm with the skill sets and specialties of highest priority. Admitting my prejudice as an architect, I recognize that might be a program manager, contractor or engineer.

Once selected, the keystone professional takes the lead in the sequential selection of the remaining team. A complete list of required consultants is reviewed with the owner to create two groups: those the owner does not believe require participation for selection, and those the owner believes to be of particular importance to the project, warranting full involvement in their selection.

This brings the keystone professional’s extensive experience in design, construction and team leadership to the earliest phases of the building process. The advantages include:

Empowering the owner to directly influence the selection of all team disciplines based on best-of-class qualifications and anticipated value; Minimizing the political environment that, too often, influences selections. Minimizing the influence of major market players that may limit access to engineers and other consultants with exclusive or preferred marketing commitments. Leveling the playing field among professional service providers, better illustrating the importance of each provider to the owner. Assuring that negotiations with major disciplines are fee competitive and professionals are adequately compensated for their scope of services and quality of effort.

Two potential caveats:

1) Sequential team building takes four to six weeks longer than the traditional method. However, a powerful team structure and is in the longer-term interest of the project. The phrase is, “Start slow to go fast.” 2) Some suggest selecting professional services on an a la carte basis results in higher compensation. My experience doesn’t necessarily confirm that.

Ken Ross, FAIA, FACHA, is senior principal at WHR Architects in Houston. He may be reached at 713-665-5665 or kross@whrarchitects.com.