How to Win More University Projects

University architects representing four prominent institutions of higher learning tell how your firm can get the inside track on major projects.

December 21, 2010 |
Sloan School of Management

The Owner’s Perspective provides insights and advice to Building Teams from property owners and owner representatives.

The university facilities sector has remained one of the stronger construction markets for AEC firms, even in today’s rough economic climate. According to an informal panel of university architects contacted by Building Design+Construction, key aspects of the design and construction process—particularly in keeping large projects on schedule and on budget— have, by and large, improved over the past several years. But some issues, such as getting project teams to work together more cooperatively and efficiently, still leave a lot of room for improvement.

In response to these concerns, we recently spoke with four veteran university architects responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of construction at their institutions: Barbara White Bryson, FAIA, Associate Vice President for Facilities, Engineering & Planning, Rice University; Pamela Palmer Delphenich, FAIA, Director, Campus Planning and Design, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Maxwell Boone Hellmann, FAIA, Associate Vice Chancellor and Campus Architect, Facilities Design and Construction, University of California, San Diego; and Alexandria Carolyn Roe, AIA, Director of University Planning, University of Connecticut.

The four, who represent two public institutions (UConn, UCSD) and two private universities (MIT, Rice), share many of the same frustrations in working with design and construction firms. They offered plenty of advice about how AEC firms can do better and win more university business. Let’s start with what annoys them.


Poor teamwork hampers coordination

All four university architects cite poor project team communication and coordination as a major source of consternation. Bryson has devoted much time and energy to fostering more effective teamwork on projects at Rice. Her recently released book, The Owner’s Dilemma: Driving Success and Innovation in the Design and Construction Industry, is based on these experiences.

“I think that many architects and contractors today are still looking for a magic solution,” Bryson says. “They are still trying to find out whether design-build, IPD, or some other process will make the industry more efficient, help them provide better service, to solve all the problems and make everything easy. The big frustration as an owner is that they want to stay in their silos and they don’t want to engage collaboratively. They don’t want to innovate or experiment and create teams that solve problems more effectively.”

These types of problems are endemic to the industry, she says. “I believe that the industry is woefully inefficient,” says Bryson, who believes that the owner is in the best position to initiate improvements. “Architects and contractors alone really don’t have the power to change the dynamic. I believe that the owner, by creating project environments that are more collaborative, more team-oriented and value-based, can create an environment in which people feel safe to experiment, safe to project wild ideas, and in the end to create projects that are really much better and much more cost effective.”

Make sure to research the client

This recommendation sounds pretty basic. As UCSD’s Hellmann notes, however, “So many times firms come to our institution and make inquiries, and they really don’t seem to know who we are.” University architects and project steering committees, typically composed of university administrators and faculty, will quickly sour on a design firm that doesn’t seem to understand key client attributes. “Sometimes the business development people will ask us questions and we wonder, ‘Did they even do something simple as look up UC San Diego on the Web? Did they see about our federal contracts and grants?’ It just surprises me sometimes. It sort of drives me nuts.”

Stay away from cookie-cutter ‘solutions’

Another big no-no, Delphenich says, is presenting boilerplate proposals. A recent proposal by a respected firm that had done a lot of work for MIT in recent years had that fatal flaw. During the interview, the firm’s team said, “‘It’s similar to this project and this project,’” Delphenich recalls. “‘We know how to do this kind of project in our sleep.’” That approach doomed them.

“We like to think that every project is unique,” Delphenich says. “We would like to see a new perspective.” That’s the kind of fresh approach another firm took, and they won the project.

No end-runs around the university architect, please

“Another one of my pet peeves is dealing with architects that don’t know who the [real] client is,” adds Delphenich. “I’m not only the representative of the institution and the budget watchdog, quite often I’m working with end-users who aren’t financially responsible for the outcome.”

End-users—faculty members, program directors, department heads, etc.—may want features that the budget can’t support, and if the design firm believes that a certain costly feature favored by the end-user is best, that puts the campus architect in an uncomfortable position. “To play the stakeholder against the client [the institution’s architect] is a real mistake,” says Delphenich. “But I don’t see that as much as I used to. I think our role as campus architects is becoming better known, and I think people realize that they need to work with us.”

Don’t ramble on in your proposals

“More paper, more pictures, and more descriptions don’t necessarily make a proposal better,” says UConn’s Roe. “In this economic environment, we see many more submissions than we’ve seen in years.” A recent $4.6 million student center project—“a very small, modest project”—drew 35 books. “There are five people on the review committee, and that’s a lot of stuff for them to read,” says Roe. “Our best advice to you is to address the criteria and provide the necessary qualifications that we ask for.” In terms of proposals, says Roe, “Less is more.”

In addition to constructive criticism, our panel also offered a lot of positive advice that can help you win projects.


Be open-minded and inquisitive

A common complaint of our quartet of university architects is when a firm comes in for an interview with the notion that they already have all the answers to the design problems. “In the interview we don’t want a design solution,” Delphenich says. “We do want you to come in with some thought about the process that you’re going to undertake.”

“I sometimes see a rush by the firm to think that they understand what we are saying,” Hellmann says. “And there are often missteps as a result of assumptions that might be made. I think that there is a little hesitancy in the design community to ask basic and simple questions.” That reluctance could be due to the fear of appearing to be unknowledgeable.

Hellmann suggests this kind of approach: “You could say, ‘We’ve worked on laboratories, we’ve done different types. In order for us to understand what you do in your laboratory, we’d like to review it from a sort of a basic tenet and understanding, because there may be some nuances about how you accomplish your research.’ The steering committee would be fine with that approach.”

Stellar recommendations speak volumes

“The university architecture community is a very small community,” Bryson says. “We all talk to each other. Recommendations from other university professionals are very important. It is really important that each of an architect’s and contractor’s experiences have been good.


If your firm is invited in for an interview, that’s a good indication that the university already believes you’re technically qualified to do the work, says Roe. The interview is largely for assessing the interpersonal dynamics and skills of the team. That’s when the questions come up that separate the wheat from the chaff, says Roe: “Do they have the right team for the project? Do the members have the requisite experience for the project type? How well does the team work together? What have they done in the past? For an architecture firm, what experience does your engineering partner have?”

Roe recalls an interview with a firm that had recently worked on a major project for UConn. “We worked well with them, and we liked them,” she Roe. But the firm squandered that advantage with a poor interview. “They brought nine people to the interview and only one person talked!” Roe exclaims. “How was I supposed to evaluate how the team works together? How the dynamics work among the team members? They had such a good reputation here, but we were appalled at how the interview was managed.”

Roe’s advice: “We would encourage firms to look at their case studies of previous work to make us understand that they have seen the issue at hand before, and talk about the strategies that they have employed to make similar projects work,” she says. “It is as important to hear the questions that a firm asks as to hear the answers that they give. Don’t be afraid to ask us questions. It shows that you are not only going to bring your knowledge and expertise, but also those skills necessary to work with us—that you can pull out the information from us that you need to do the project.”

It’s also critical for a firm to show a steering committee that they understand some key characteristics of the project. “We are a research institution,” Hellmann explains. “There is a distinction in how research laboratories are designed compared to teaching laboratories.” When a design team doesn’t seem to understand that distinction, the steering committee takes note, and the firm could be shut out right there. “I think the architects definitely know the difference, but the business development people may not be familiar with those kinds of nuances.” That’s why a principal with specific knowledge of the project type should certainly be present at the interview, and review the proposal before sending in the RFP.

IPDs may be optional, but BIM isn’t

None of the four universities discussed in this article engage in integrated project delivery contracts with specific financial risk-sharing clauses, but all four want the collaborative teamwork that IPDs are supposed to foster. This includes getting key subcontractors on board early in the design phase on major projects.

Rice’s Barbara White Bryson wants to see demonstrated collaborative ability based on previous projects. For firms that are deficient in that area, here’s her advice: “Start looking for opportunities to work within collaborative environments. During an interview, talk to us about the collaborative experiences that you’ve had. Demonstrate the value-based work that you’ve done. Provide references that can support that experience.”

BIM is firmly implanted at all four institutions, which have seen impressive results from the use of the technology on recent projects. They all either require BIM for the design of major projects now, or say that they will require it soon.

“We have been using BIM for the past three years with increased implementation and frequency,” says UCSD’s Maxwell Boone Hellmann, who says it started with the mechanical design teams and has progressed to the construction side. “Personally, I think that BIM is going to transform the way projects are undertaken in the next five years, certainly in 10 years,” he says.

The power of BIM was especially notable on a recent cardiovascular center project at the new UCSD Medical Center. The BIM model identified conflicts between structural and HVAC ductwork and utility conduits so that they could be corrected before construction. “It has allowed the fabrication and installation of the components to be very well coordinated with the contractor,” Hellmann says. “And it has, on that particular project, paid enormous dividends.”

The University of Connecticut’s Alexandria Roe says BIM is not as prevalent in the construction industry in Connecticut as it is in other areas, such as the West Coast. “However, on a pair of construction projects that are now under way, all of the steel drawings were done in BIM,” she notes. “All of our architects and engineering firms are preparing drawings in BIM, but we have not crossed the line where we have told our CMs that they have to bid it in BIM.”

Bryson emphasizes that, at Rice University, BIM must be a part of the collaborative project team concept. “Our goal is that before the first BIM line is created, all of the key team members including major subcontractors participate in the discussion about how the model will be built,” she says. After a six-month review that produced guidelines on how the school will use the technology, she says, Rice has committed to being “BIM-aggressive.”

Universities set high sustainability goals

Each of the four universities canvassed here is strongly committed to sustainable design and construction. All four now require a minimum LEED Silver rating on major new projects, and UCSD, MIT, and Rice have LEED Gold projects.

“I can see us raising our standard to Gold,” says MIT’s Pamela Palmer Delphenich. The cost premium for upgrading a design from Silver to Gold is not that much, she says, but “I think a much bigger cost is moving from Gold to Platinum.”

While LEED-level design is an important benchmark, it is not the end-goal for these architects. “I want to use the LEED process, but I don’t want to just have a checklist,” says Rice University’s Barbara White Bryson. “We think creatively about sustainability in a variety of ways that may not be contained or limited to a checklist environment. The checklist is great for leading us to explore a variety of ideas, but I’m more interested in what is the right decision for our project, not just complying with a checklist.”

New buildings at the University of Connecticut must be at least LEED Silver by order of the state Board of Higher Education, but a new state law further mandates a 30% energy savings improvement over ASHRAE 90.1, according to UConn’s Alexandria Roe.

Each of the campuses has already installed some advanced green features, including green roofs, PV panels, solar hot water, geothermal wells, and recycled water for landscaping. They’re all in the process of evaluating payback and seeing what works best for their specific climates.

The University of California, San Diego, is considering a dynamic sun shading system. “Sustainability is essentially a given for us,” says university architect Boone Hellmann, echoing the sentiments of the other three campus architects interviewed for this article. “If the payback period is seven years or less for a sustainable system, we will very typically move toward that.”

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