Architect Selection Case Study – Part 2

The Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus had its official grand opening Friday, November 20th, 2015.  As we look back when we started the project on December 12, 2008 (yes, nearly seven years ago) one of the more memorable moments was the selection of the design team. In Part 2 of this two-part blog, we will focus on the interview process.

In Part 1 of the blog, I discussed how we created a unique RFP, populated with questions tailored to this specific project. This approach provided the architect selection committee the ability to quickly identify firms that clearly, based on their responses (see below), didn’t understand their culture and mission. From a “highly-qualified” stance, there were obvious front runners, but some lost ground because they did not connect with the client and the spirit of the project. Some teams brought on museum experts, which you might think would bolster your team’s strength, but it seemed to do the opposite. It left the committee wondering 1) if you feel the owner lacks the ability to be the expert, or 2) if your team lacks creative strength without the add-on staff.

When determining the short list of firms, it was brought to our attention that we scheduled the interviews Halloween week–the same time as one of their busiest events, Trick or Treat Street.  The entire staff dresses in full costume, helping with a myriad of Halloween-themed activities. We realized that the selection committee members would need to pull a “Peter Brady” and change in and out of costume to conduct the interviews (a serious burden with face paint and wigs), or feel awkward amongst the well suited architects. The idea was proposed that instead of the selection committee changing wardrobe, the design teams should interview at the museum in costume. Now, I will agree, this was a pretty radical, but so is the nature of their project. The selection committee decided to move forward, announcing teams will interview in costume. I was informed that the museum staff were dressing as Superheroes, hence, I am forever known as Captain America.

After the RFP was issued, with the dress-code requirement, it was asked “How significant of a factor are the costumes?”  Our response, “Can’t say, but consider that the entire CMD team will be in costume (Trick or Treat Street will be going on), so they’d like you to feel like you’re part of the team.” No one failed this first test of vetting out a cultural fit; many entertaining costumes were worn by some of the finest architects in town. Ultimately, the tactic helped answer the question if “you are a stiff” or if “you are a kid-at-heart, like us.”

The following firms were shortlisted after review of their packets: Semple Brown, Oz, Barker Rinker Seacat (BRS).

Off we went. The first interview was fascinating. The team caught our attention by dressing as a three-ring circus, but they were presenting their non-circus themed, slick presentation. The room felt bizarre, there was an “elephant in the room” (no, really, there was) that no one was talking about. About three minutes into the presentation, I began fully assessing the scene of Batman, Gonzo, the elephant, etc. At no fault of the design team presenting, I lost my composure and started laughing hysterically. The presenting team paused; I apologized sincerely and asked them to give me a minute. We all looked around the room at the comical situation we had created and then we all had a good laugh. It was the icebreaker we all needed and it allowed the design team to regroup, relax, and lead a solid presentation.

Semple Brown came in and lead a high-energy presentation of an eclectic collection of ideas, communicated using various mediums, including pictures flying across the room; sketches being generated; and a fully immersive design process with blocks, orange race tracks, and anything they could find. At one point, the entire selection committee was on the ground moving blocks, throwing in ideas and having in-depth construction, all while using toys in an architectural discussion. I thought they had won the project, for sure.

Costumes aside, what really came through in the interviews was each team’s ingenuity. The OZ team had the concept that they would wear paint suits and write ideas on each other, but it failed when the markers wouldn’t take well to the flexible waxy suits and they had to adjust on-the-fly . The ability to think on their feet, the ideas related to solve the client’s issues (like, visibility on I-25) and sheer personality match, were some of the reasons they pulled ahead in what was incredibly strong competition.

We don’t suspect you will be wearing costumes to an interview soon, but, every client has something that makes them unique, and, from what I’ve seen, it’s pretty important you identify it. Try to not only look at a project for what you think it should be, but work hard to genuinely understand what the owner thinks it should be. All too often design teams focus on the facility solution, spending little time articulating their process to devise the solution. We see high levels of procurement when teams engage the owner on such a level; it provides a sneak-peek of what it will feel like to work with your team. When done well, it leaves a strong, favorable impression.
~ “I’m loyal to nothing, General…except the dream” – Captain America