Following the guest blog from James Heugas, “Spooky Buildings– Don’t go in Alone”, we have a related blog from Ann Drummie about ways to bring an architect on to the team early on.

So you are imagining a facility project for your charter school and are keen to get rolling? That’s great! An architect is one of the first people you’ll want to get on board.

Whether you feel like it’s no big deal or you’re in over your head, here is your relationship guide for getting an architect to build your new charter school building.

1. Meet a few people: When you’re just starting, you aren’t making any commitments. Keep things simple. Have some casual conversations with a few candidates referred by other schools and people in the design and construction industry. (Here’s what to ask your referrers).

Get to know the architects and let them get to know you. Here are a few conversation starters:

  • What do you like most about your work?
  • What do you know about this part of town?

2. Ask about past experiences: Yes, all architects have a common set of skills and could, in theory, design a school. In reality, an architect of amazing opera houses is not a strong a partner for navigating the pressures of a school project.

Find out what types of projects they’ve done before:

  • How do grade levels and teaching methodologies affect school design?
  • How many school projects have you been a part of? Can I see them?
  • How long did it take your last school project in this city to go from idea to opening?
  • What are some challenges for school projects these days, and how might I mitigate them?

3. Share views on money: All architects can design to a budget. But an architect used to budgets that accommodate high-end finishes and building materials may need time you do not have to adjust their mindset and baseline options for a lower budget. Down the road, you will be weighing a lot of choices of how to stretch your budget and where to make long term investments versus short term compromises.

It can be comforting to know that you’re getting advice from someone with a similar approach to budgeting and who respects that money is going to be tight, so ask them about money:

  • What was the range of cost for your last few projects? Is that something you think I can afford?
  • What have other clients prioritized their spend on?
  • If you were in my shoes, how would you answer my board member who asks if we should spend more on the building or hire a music teacher?

4. Trust your gut: While you could just get candidates to complete a survey of the above questions, you aren’t just looking for expertise. You’re looking for a partner.

They should have lots of questions for you. They should ask about your target enrollment, budget, timeline, site, decision-making structure, and more. They’ve been on this path before and might use a lot of terms that you don’t know or bring up issues you aren’t familiar with.

How do you feel when they ask you questions and when they take in your answers? When you ask for clarification? Do their questions lead to dialogue? Try asking a question specifically to observe your interaction, more than to get information. Here’s a sample question:

  • What do you think is the biggest risk in design related to information technology?

5. Focus on what you need right now, not next year: You are just looking for short term help in this interview process to get started. Eventually, when more stars align, a big commitment will be made with an architect—complete with detailed legal documents. That commitment will outline an agreement to pay a broad design team to provide a hefty amount of services on specific deadlines, like design committee workshops, permit and construction drawings, value engineering, governing agency meetings, parent and neighborhood presentations, and responses to questions and issues during construction.

But that’s all later and could even be a different architect.

Right now, you are talking with a few people to help you make your idea feasible and compelling over a period of maybe a month. That doesn’t need a big contract, though you probably want something more than a handshake. You might be asking them to:

  • Check the feasibility of a site for your desired operation (e.g. can it accommodate a big enough building?)
  • Set some expectations for milestones and phasing within your schedule
  • Expose you to recent developments and products in educational design to consider (including sustainability and technology)
  • Draft a list of indoor and outdoor spaces that will be needed for your desired operation
  • Offer advice on development structures, like partnering with a developer, and delivery methods like Construction-Manager-at-Risk or Design-Build
  • Do a “back of the napkin” sketch to help others visualize and support the idea

6. Talk about who is paying for lunch: When a candidate starts doing some of the work on your list, you’ll need to talk about their fee. Sometimes architecture firms will work for free in this early stage, considering it as part of their marketing and business development. Keep in mind the phrase, “You get what you pay for.”

A “Going Dutch” option would be negotiating a fee that you can afford, for services that they feel they can offer. If you’re hoping for 10 hours of their time and it’s in the range of $200/hour, then you might be looking at $2,000. Remember that you aren’t “going steady” with anyone. Getting more than one opinion may be worth it.

Overall as you start looking for a relationship with an architect, think of it as finding a project vision partner who brings the skills of an architect to help you at the beginning, with no guarantees or expectations beyond that. They are not your permanent partner.

Go out, meet some people, and get recommendations. The time will come when you’ll have the mandate to select a long-term design team with a Request for Proposal and interview process. So just focus on enjoying the exploratory phase you’re in now.