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How to Choose the Right Design Partner for Your Next Project

A suitable design firm will demonstrate laboratory expertise and contribute to post-construction work

Lori Ambrusch, MAUD

Lori Ambrusch, MAUD is the studio manager, science & technology at Ware Malcomb. She studied architecture and urban design at The Pennsylvania State University and Harvard Graduate School of Design....

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One of the most exciting facets of the science and technology (S&T) sector is the constant innovation. As new research, therapies, and medicines are discovered and produced, scientists require state-of-the-art facilities to align with their groundbreaking work. To ensure a smooth, efficient, and successful design experience for either the renovation of an existing space or creation of a new space to facilitate these needs, it is important for end-users and facility management teams to connect with a design partner who is the best fit for the task at hand. When considering what a “design partner” is, it can be helpful to think of it as the “A&E team,” otherwise known as the “architecture and engineering team.”

Given the complex nature of S&T projects, it is crucial that the design partner consists of a knowledgeable architecture firm with a qualified lab planner, as well as an experienced MEP team (mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineers) that are intimately familiar with the intricacies of building systems and utilities required for these highly technical and critical spaces. While technology projects do not always necessitate a lab planner, most science scopes would benefit from involving one. Lab planners should have a firm understanding of both best practices and code requirements within laboratory settings, as well as knowledge regarding the processes that end-users will be performing in the completed space. Without a lab planner, the lack of experience in this product type may lead to difficulties during design, as well as extended design schedules and construction conflicts. Below continues the discussion around how to select the right design partner to avoid these pitfalls, how to collaborate with them during design, as well as what happens once the project has been completed.

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How and when to select a design partner

While choosing the right design team for the project is important, knowing when to get them involved is equally crucial. Some clients may find it beneficial to issue a request for proposal (RFP) once they have developed an idea of what the scope of the work will be. RFPs can be issued publicly if the team does not have experience working with any specific design partners, or they can be sent to a select group of A&E firms based either on past experience or word of mouth from other clients who have had a favorable experience working with them.

While technology projects do no always necessitate a lab planner, most science scopes would benefit from involving one.

One of the risks of issuing a public RFP is the possibility of receiving responses from firms without the appropriate qualifications or experience, so vetting the firms during the interview stage will be exceptionally important in that case. When discussing what makes a design partner qualified, it is not only necessary to look at what types of projects are listed on a firm’s resume, but also to get a sense of the individual expertise of each member of the architecture and MEP firms. While an architect may have extensive experience in BSL-2 wet lab design, she may not have experience in semiconductor manufacturing, but both of those spaces would fall under the S&T umbrella. As such, vetting the full team, and not just the firm, is crucial in finding the partner who is the right fit for a specific scope of work. Furthermore, looking at project experience locations, size, and date of completion are all helpful metrics to evaluate in addition to project type. In order to have the best sense of the above vetting points of a design partner, perhaps the best way of engaging one is to bring one on board ahead of an RFP process as a “pre-design” partner. Many firms will offer free services to walk a site and discuss the scope of work with a client, providing feedback and opinions on the design challenges, timelines, and potential construction costs or difficulties. Not only is this valuable intel to the client, but it can also help them get a sense for whether or not that design partner is a qualified fit for that specific scope of work. If so, they could move forward with getting a design proposal from that team and avoid the RFP process or move forward with an open bid if the firm does not seem to be the right fit. Ultimately, though there is no “one size fits all” approach to a design project, the above methods can help a client feel confident in their selected design partner.

The design process overview

Once a team has been selected, it is time to dive into the design process. If performing a renovation on an existing space or building, providing any existing drawings or building data up front to the design team can help cut down on the design timeline, since a less extensive building survey would be required. After establishing the existing conditions of the building, the design partner will want to set up programming meetings with the client. Programming is potentially the most important part of the entire process, as it allows the designers and engineers to fully understand the client’s processes, equipment needs, building performance preferences, and any other input they are hoping to see manifested in the final design. If the team does not mention programming methodology during the RFP or interview process, that would be a sign that perhaps they are not the right fit for the project. When the client has a user requirement specification to provide, that greatly helps this programming effort. Without completing the programming phase thoroughly, the project is not set up well for success. 

There are many more aspects that can be discussed in terms of the design phasing and processes, one of which being the issuance of “early release packages” due to the current construction conditions of long lead times and expensive equipment alternatives. If the client selects a contractor during the design process to work alongside the design partner as council (the design team can help the client with the contractor selection), this will allow them to procure long-lead items with the early release packages, ultimately reducing the overall construction timeline; in some cases, this could move up the completion date by months. A qualified design partner will discuss these and other time- and cost-saving tips with the client throughout the lifespan of a project.

Design partner engagement post-construction

After construction is complete, the relationship with the design partner does not need to end. They can help with building commissioning, additional tenant improvement projects (if applicable), creating as-built drawings, and a variety of other services that can help the client and building management group use their new space most effectively. Sometimes a client will only require one new build or renovation, and they therefore would not necessarily need to build relationships with a team of different design partners. However, for buildings and end-users who participate in somewhat frequent design projects, building a team of several design partners who specialize in a variety of project types that cover the specific requirements of that building or team will be advantageous in creating a high likelihood of continued successful project delivery.

The client should feel comfortable asking many questions during the interview phase of selecting a design partner and gain confidence in their abilities before moving into formal design. While there are many other factors that can also be considered during this important decision, using the above criteria will provide a solid start for moving in the right direction.