With a huge building stock at their disposal, state and local governments can be attractive clients, especially in these difficult economic times.
The nation’s 90,740 state and local governments provide office space and support facilities for 16.6 million full-time equivalent employees. By comparison, the General Services Administration, the nation’s largest civilian landlord, provides workspace for roughly a million federal workers.
The obvious difference between working with a single agency like the GSA and working in the state and local government sector is that the latter encompasses tens of thousands of units with an immense variety of political, social, and economic frameworks. Moreover, state and local governments typically have their own legislative mandates, regulations, and policies when it comes to engaging the services of architects, engineers, and contractors.
To take the pulse of this diverse market, we contacted capital facilities officials at state and local government agencies, as well as AEC professionals whose firms do work with such public-sector clients. Here’s what they advised.
1. Bring your best game to the party
“I am intrigued by how much things vary from state to state,” said Tim Mason, Administrator of Idaho’s Division of Public Works. “We all do things a little differently.”
Mason’s office has responsibility for capital construction and upkeep of existing facilities for all state agencies in Idaho. But in his role as president of the National Association of State Facilities Managers, he also has a unique perspective on the ways in which states operate with regard to capital projects.
Despite their differences, states are looking for designers to bring more to the table, says Mason. “We look to the design community to be on top of what’s happening so they can come to us with innovative ideas, such as in areas like energy efficiency,” he says. “We don’t want to just keep building the same thing year after year.” He points to the new College of Business and Economics Building at Boise State University, where local firm Hummel Architects specified chilled-beam technology—“the first one of those we’ve done, and it was the design team that suggested it.”
What state and local government clients want from you:
1. Bring your best game to the party.
2. Reduce client risk, establish ironclad trust.
3. Be patient, but be prepared for delays.
4. Learn to work within regulatory constraints.
5. Help state and local government clients solve their funding problems.
6. Be open to using new alternative delivery methods.
7. Be wary about fees, but don’t assume you’ll be exploited.
8. Push the right local hot buttons.
9. Go for the dough—“essential services.”
To Mason’s point, Peter Conway, market leader for campus and institutional sectors for Albany, N.Y.-based CHA Companies, says his firm has become more of a partner with the state and local municipalities because of the financial constraints they’re under. “With budget cuts and staff reductions, they’re relying more and more on the design community to come up with innovative, cost-effective solutions to their problems,” he says. “We’re much more engaged now than we ever have been, right from the initial concept through completion.”
CHA Companies, which works in roughly 20 states, is also doing a lot more these days to help municipal clients save energy on their building portfolios. “In some cases, it’s a substantial amount of money,” says CHA president and COO Rodney J. Bascom. “In many cases, state and local programs are helping to fund those initiatives.”
2. Reduce risk, establish ironclad trust
Relationships between AEC firms and state and local government clients are evolving rapidly, says Bascom. “A lot of firms can do facility engineering, like when the client says, ‘We need to fix a boiler.’ Now it’s more a collaborative approach to problem-solving. Clients have a lot of questions: ‘How can we afford these improvements? How do we initiate them? Can we phase them?’ We pride ourselves on having become engineering consultants rather than just engineers, bringing in the right expertise and working together as a team to solve the problems the municipalities face.”
That approach is playing well in other parts of the country, too. “More than anything, these clients want attentiveness and the peace of mind that they will be taken care of,” says Michael Brack, PE, president of Datum Engineers, with offices in Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio, Texas. “They tend to be risk-averse, and they want to be certain that all the angles have been considered. They don’t want to be embarrassed by surprises or blunders. We walk our public clients through the decisions we are making, or that need to be made, so they are a part of the process.”
Robert Utsey, a senior vice president in the Orlando, Fla., office of Skanska USA Building, says, “There’s got to be a level of trust established and maintained, and everybody at the table has to be cognizant of that. It’s how you behave, how you deal with people, how you communicate, and how transparent you are—all the basic things that are required to establish trust.”
3. Be patient, but be prepared for delays
Building Teams are also reporting that public-sector clients are still stretching out the decision-making process. “When clients are slow to make decisions and complete reviews, it creates gaps in our workflow, which are especially challenging when projects go on hold for a period of time,” says Datum’s Brack. Delays of this kind are more frequent these days, he says, forcing Building Team member firms to move on to other projects. “Of course, those owners are going to want us to be ready to jump when they’re ready,” he says.
The chief cause of these backups? Staff reductions at state and local agencies. But that’s not the only reason. “In most cases, we are the enemy when it comes to breaking promises,” says Bruce Bockstael, FAIA, chief architect for the State of Connecticut Department of Public Works. “We seldom can meet our own deadlines, due to low staff, and have difficulty performing up to the level we expect of our vendors.”
Bockstael notes, however, that legislative mandates regarding the timing of project advertising, oversight reviews, and multiple levels of review on certain contracts (three, in the case of Connecticut) are also impediments to timeliness. Moreover, at any moment, state legislators may pass a law that directly or indirectly affects building codes and practices, from which there may be no appeal.
“We recognize these problems, and admit them to our design and construction partners,” says Bockstael. “They generally play along, but for the most part, the enemy is us.”