At a presentation to a school board, I ran into an interesting situation. One of the school board members said, “It is extremely important that we bid this project out.” He was inferring that if they selected a Monolithic Dome they wouldn’t be able to bid it.
I explained that there were several people who could bid the Monolithic Dome and that every single piece of the construction of any school building had to be bid.
A fickle process
On further reflection, I realized how fickle the bid process is. For instance, if an architect specifies a certain type of roof, say a metal roof, that instantly eliminates everyone who sells built-up roofs, single-ply roof membranes, foam and coating roofing and leaves it in the purview of only a few, local metal roofers. But a roof project certainly isn’t something people will travel thousands of miles to do.
Then the architect further specifies the actual steel by grade and number, the coating by grade and number, and the paint by grade and number. In effect, things get limited to one manufacturer, who has no one bidding against him.
This is true for the myriad of other items that go into a building. If a brick is specified by color and the color is actually one of a sample, there will be only one brick company that will make that particular color. Even though there may be several brick layers, they automatically settle on one brick company. So even the decision to use brick eliminates anyone who wants to bid siding or metal or any other wall covering.
The same thing applies to the structure. If the architect specifies concrete blocks, only one or two companies near the project will be able to afford to bid the project. This type of specifying immediately obviates any metal frame builders or any other structural component builders from bidding on the walls of the building in place.
This can even carry down to doorknobs. Many architects specify a doorknob and then allow an approved equal. So if you want to bid using another type of doorknob, you must go through the hassle of getting the architect to approve it, which may or may not be a major project.
In general, permission to use equals are only sometimes used. Mostly, it is easier to go with the flow and use specified products. This is especially true for major products, such as air conditioning units. Architects have their own ideas about which units are better and they specify those units. Whether they are better or not is often open to debate. The decision to use one brand versus another is automatically made. That automatically eliminates most of the competition and brings it down to one or two dealers for that particular brand.
The bidding process for schools
We see this all through the bidding process for schools. For instance, if school officials want a new bus, they look at four or five bus manufacturers and pick the bus they like. Then they write up a narrow bid specification so only that particular bus qualifies. This process is used for copiers, printers, computers and all sorts of things whose purchase requires bidding.
Ironically, architectural services are never bid. In fact, in most cases fees are not allowed to be discussed until after an architect has been selected.
I have always thought it very interesting that an architect, the person who can make the most difference in the cost of a school, is selected without bidding. In fact, the system is designed so the board picks the architect who, in effect, tells the school to spend the maximum amount of money possible.
That is the way some architects get the maximum fee. The only price constraint architects may feel is that of their own conscience.
It is extremely difficult to expect some architects to spend serious amounts of time cutting a building’s cost. By doing so, they would essentially be cutting their own fees.
Perhaps one day architecture will be charged a fixed fee or – better yet – more people will begin utilizing the design/build option.
The design/build option
The federal government is now turning loose many of its projects on what is known as design/build.
Here’s how it works: In general terms, a purchasing body specifies what it wants, such as a 50,000-square-foot building with so many offices, etc. Then those biding are allowed to bid what they have that fits.
This process promotes team work. The architect and builder begin working as a team, since it behooves them to get the most effective, least expensive alternative. It also allows those in the metal building industry to bid against those in the concrete block industry, etc.
This is not a very popular system with schools yet, but we are seeing it done. It has enormous, positive ramifications for the purchasing body (i.e. the school). If competitive pricing is one of the goals, design/build is probably the most competitive system of all.
Note: This article was originally published in April 2004 and updated in March 2011.