I often get asked if our clients really read all of the content in the proposals, and the answer is surprisingly yes. Now I know that not every team member is as thorough as others, but the committee understands that they will be held to providing comments and an opinion, which can’t be done without reviewing the documents. Some clients treat them like holy tablets, others like a yearbook with notes and stickers. But what if there wasn’t a book to review? Wember tested this approach on a recent project and presented our findings to the attendees of COAA. Before we get to that, here’s the back story.

Wember represented a client on an ambitious one-of-a-kind office/hangar/restaurant structure. It should be noted that the design was to be heavily influenced by the Concord. This particular business owner wanted a corporate headquarters “as iconic as the Eiffel Tower.” No small challenge. This Owner trusted us to run a selection process that utilized his time efficiently; we could only access him for approximately an hour a week. After working with this client, it was clear he was very visual, and the typical selection booklet would not meet his expectations. With this understanding, our team prepared a very graphic and clean RFP for the Design Teams to respond to. Below shows the outlines of approach.


The project submission was comprised of two phases. The First Phase requested the firms to prepare their Qualifications Board Submittal on a 36×48 board and submit one electronic copy to Wember. The format provided a lot of latitudes to present but did request the following items be included:

  1. Provide an introduction of the firm and team, describing your team’s values, differentiators, and interests.
  2. The proposed design team. List critical team member credentials. Provide an organizational chart and briefly define the roles and why this team member was included in the submission. Note that consultant information is not required during the selection process. (We ran a different and unique strategy to bring on the consultants as our focus was the architectural team first).
  3. Describe and demonstrate your firm’s culture of collaboration and ability to deliver designs that represent the client’s needs and goals.
  4. Demonstrate the proposed team’s ability to complete inspiring yet challenging and technically significant architectural design. Provide imagery and narratives of projects completed by the firm.
  5. Describe how your firm uses or would use technology to increase collaboration, achieve the elevated design, and simplify construction processes.
  6. This RFP shares images of what inspires this project. What inspires your team?

Wember received four responses for review. These were presented to the Owner Selection Committee, who walked around the room providing immediate opinions while asking questions. The selection committee required no prep. Check out the boards above to see what was submitted. After a short time, the selection Committee efficiently went to three firms. Did they get it right? We believe they did.

Were we done? No. Instead of a traditional interview, we opted for what we called a “Collaborative Interview Process,” a series of two meetings; the first was an introduction meeting with the firms at the design team’s office. More can be learned about a firm in its element, not the clients. Liken it to going on a movie date in someone’s house versus at the movie theater. The meeting intended to;

  1. Allow the Owner to discuss the project goals and unique vision.
  2. Discuss the program and due diligence of the site.
  3. Get to know the team and vice versa.
  4. Engage in initial design collaboration.

Outcomes: The Owner leaves with a strong understanding of the firm, its culture, and the team. The architect would leave the meeting with a better understanding of the project, client, and next steps. Some outcomes of this meeting:

  1. One of the design teams presented initial concepts that were far along, considering they had never met with the client. The client provided honest feedback and stated their design “Looked like a cruise ship and lacked any inspiration of the Concord or flight.” It was clear that the leadership team never issued the request for qualifications to their designers. That didn’t go over very well. The team took the feedback well and dove into listening and asking questions about the project.
  2. The following design team treated the meeting like an interview and presented for the entire hour, not leaving any time for the client to discuss his vision.
  3. The remaining design team ran a fluid meeting but challenged the Owner’s vision. As this was a collaborative process, the Owner gave them feedback and doubled down on his conviction of what he wanted out of the design. After the meeting, the team notified Wember that they would not pursue the project due to a lack of alignment. In many ways, this was disappointing, but also the process worked. Our client had a vision and would not waiver. The design team wisely recognized that they were not the right fit for this project.

The final phase of the process was to let the teams work for a month and then regroup with an updated design approach.

  1. The cruise ship team jumped into the presentation with a new design team, acknowledged their missteps at the first meeting, and unveiled a new team member with their revised design. The design closely followed the Owner’s vision while enhancing the approach by providing a technical solution to achieve the new structure. The process was engaging with live model updates, inspiration imagery, and honest discussion. This firm, like the last, could have easily been insulted and removed itself from the process but opted to regroup.
  2. The second remaining team again ran the meeting like an interview presenting their firm’s qualifications, team members, schedules, approach, and process for the first two hours of the meeting. When the design was finally unveiled, they engaged the client. Unfortunately, more time was spent on the presentation format, not the concept design. Although on target with the vision, the design needed to be vetted, and created some unusual/unusable spaces that were outside the program and abstracted the concept. However, I would argue that the team was equally qualified and that the design solution was more elegant, but the cultural fit was off, and both the Owner and the design team could sense it.

As you can predict, the cruise ship design team was selected. As a team, we collaboratively decided on the remaining consultants for the project. This will be addressed in a future blog. The project advanced through Schematic Design when the stock market took a turn, and the investors paused the project. We entered this project wide-eyed and excited and were very impressed that the team was able to prepare a solution to make this ambitious project fly. Here are some key takeaways from the process.

  1. The market will respond to what you ask for. We asked for creativity, ideas, and supporting qualifications. In the RFP, we provided an inspiration board to allow the design teams to understand the branding, level of quality, and ambitious nature of the project.
  2. The board was the beginning. Some firms used QR codes to link to videos outlining projects in more detail. Although effective, use caution with this approach as not all QR codes were viewed by the selection committee.
  3. This process took longer than the traditional process as we asked for concept designs and allowed a month for them to be prepared. Theoretically, you could request the board and the Collaborative Interview Process at their offices. Note that we gave each firm a stipend for the efforts related to the concept design, but this would not be required if this step was skipped.
  4. The boards were effective. The selection committee obtained a sense of the personality and culture of the firms submitting. They could put them side by side efficiently and discuss the pros and cons.
  5. The boards did lack some qualifications and experience due to limited space. When running a similar process for the General Contractors, we added a supplement packet of full resumes and portfolio sheets. This was a simple request, as most firms have them already prepared.
  6. The process was more fun and engaging than reviewing and scoring a traditional submittal packet.
  7. Overall the approach was successful. Ultimately, the Owner found the best cultural fit, complimented by the technical expertise needed to fulfill the project’s vision.

So, what did the project look like? Scroll through the photos at the top of the blog and check out the Schematic Design images. We anticipate this would have been the largest double cantilever structure ever built.

Paul Wember, President