Finding an Advocate in an Architect

by Dennis M. Young

While many aspects of school design have changed over the years, unfortunately the process to find the best architect is the same in many ways today as it was 20 years ago. Design teams announce how many schools they’ve designed, show lots of pretty photographs and list what each team member will do on the project.

When you begin a construction or major renovation project in a school district, you need an advocate, not just an architect. This means you must ask potential designers some problem-solving questions to find the best project partner. The way you interview has to change.

Most school architects are selected to interview for a particular project based on their response to a request for proposal or request for qualifications. Most firms are adept at responding to these queries.

The interview allows school administrators and selection committee members to identify the right architect for the job. To do this, the questions that are posed to each team must relate to how they solve problems, which will help you confirm the team’s depth of experience. The number of schools they have designed is important. But the ability to deal with challenging issues sets stellar firms apart from the pack.

Education is a business and the stellar architect must truly understand your business. Asking problem-solving questions enables school administrators to find the right advocate, someone with outstanding design credentials who understands the myriad of issues that must be addressed on a project. The ideal partner has tools to achieve knowledge-based decision making, knows how to build consensus and quickly resolves project issues.

The importance of fully understanding the experience of key design team personnel and their support staff cannot be stressed enough. Asking targeted questions during the interview brings to light the depth of experience for each individual and the team as a whole. Weak links are easily identified.

The design team must understand the business of education.

Four Areas

Questions should be posed in the following areas: planning, design, construction and risk management. Each carries different concerns throughout the course of a project.

The best architect/advocate will respond to these questions in several ways. The best response involves sound, succinct answers to the question, evidence the architect understands the issues and has successfully dealt with similar situations. The architect may claim they’ve never encountered the situation posed, which may be suspect. Some may beat around the bush and never really answer the question.

Prior to an interview, school administrators should think back to their last project or two. What went right and what went wrong? What situations caused project delays? Was the management method successful? Reviewing previous projects will help to frame questions to help find the right advocate. What are the important decisions that have an impact on education?

I offer the following problem-solving scenarios as a starting point.

Our school board is polarized as to whether we should build a new middle school or a new high school first. How can you help get us off dead center?

We want to put in place a districtwide facility management plan. Where should we start and what are the factors that we need to take into account when developing our plan?

What are the differences in design between a facility for 7th and 8th graders and a facility for 5th and 6th graders?

We have a nine-month schedule right now but may move to a year-round block schedule in the future. How will this impact our space utilization?

What are the most important design elements to help facilitate learning for students with a hearing disability?

How do you plan for separation between buses and cars? What are some basic recommendations to handle overflow parking?

Our district has had difficulties with some project delivery methods. How would you go about determining which method is the most appropriate for our upcoming project?

On our last project we had nine percent in change orders—a third that we requested, a third involving unforeseen circumstances and a third that were required due to coordination. How do we reduce this number, giving specifics that we need to consider for each area?

Risk Management.
We already have our site but we’ve found out that we have a wetlands area within the property. How will you help us work with governmental authorities and how can we use this feature to benefit our school? How will this impact our schedule and budget?

What is your approach when you discover the following during construction: (1) the project may not finish on time, and (2) the project may require substitutions of critical products.

It’s one year after our school opened and our asphalt is falling apart. Who do I go to?

Easier Differentiation

The difference is striking in the insights you will glean from an interview. School administrators who go from asking how many schools a firm has designed to questions similar to the above will easily separate the stellar firm from the good firms. The architect who comprehensively answers such questions has the tools, experience and personnel to stand in partnership with the school district to deliver the project as successfully and painlessly as possible.

Asking problem-solving questions enables school administrators to find a partner with the personnel, experience and tools to fulfill the call as architect and advocate for the business of education.

Dennis Young is president and CEO of William B. Ittner Architects and Planners, 611 N. 10th St., Suite 200, St. Louis, MO 63101. E-mail: