How to Think Like an Architect: 101

ACEC/MW Virginia Municipal Committee Chair Erin Donovan of T3 Design discusses lessons learned from her committee's recent Architects' Roundtable.

Over 40 attendees representing four ACEC/MW committees tuned in to hear from four local architects and learn more about their projects, teaming, and how the engineering community can best position itself for facilities project work with Northern Virginia municipalities. The roundtable discussion was led by Virginia Municipal committee chair, Erin Donovan, and Chris Ley, a member of both the Small Business and Virginia Municipal committees.  Joining the discussion were four esteemed architects: 
  • Al Rubeling, FAIA, Senior Vice President, Architecture Practice Leader, JMT
  • Braden Field, AIA, LEED AP, Associate Principal, MTFA Architecture
  • Jeannie Gasper, AIA, LEED AP, Senior Associate, Project Manager, AECOM
  • Jim Polhamus, AIA, Associate Vice President, HGA Architects and Engineers
Three main topics were covered with a series of questions, including pre-award and teaming strategies, post-award and project execution strategies and upcoming municipal project opportunities. The roundtable wrapped up with questions from the audience. 

Pre-Award and Teaming Strategies

Our panelists all stressed the importance of relationships in teaming, all seeking to build and maintain long term relationships. Having familiarity with the agency is also a key factor as the learning curves can be steep. Minority business certifications are key if there is a DBE requirement on the contract and/or project. On design build contracts, the teaming partners are sometimes decided by the contractor. Most of the time, the architect chooses which engineers to work with on a project. Some architectural firms have engineers in house, but they almost always bring on the civil engineer and the geotechnical engineer as a subconsultant. As one example, Jeannie mentioned that AECOM brings on subs for specialty areas like traffic studies, acoustics, civil and commissioning. Al noted that it depends on the market and type of project, such as higher education where the engineer is always a subconsultant. The best type of marketing comes from prior relationships with both the architect and the client. Good performance is key and being on IDIQ (Indefinite Delivery, Indefinite Quantity) contracts helps build those relationships for future projects and teaming. 

Post-Award and Project Execution

Communication is the key to success, as is the case with many engineering projects and clients. Another key to success is thinking holistically rather than focusing on the area of the project that your firm is delivering. Providing regular reports on project progress and action items, as well as identifying risks to mitigate as the project progresses, is very helpful to the panelists. As with engineering projects, the projects are deadline driven and keeping your word is key – honoring the commitments made in terms of schedule, and if something comes up letting them know as far in advance as possible. Another key to project success is understanding the contractual terms specified, such as the scope and not expanding services beyond the approved scope, which can put the architect in a difficult situation with the client. 

Upcoming Opportunities 

While our panelists were tracking a number of upcoming projects, no specific opportunities were mentioned. If an engineer sees a potential opportunity, it is always helpful to let the architect know.  The panelists mentioned that they have regularly scheduled marketing meetings and make go-no go decisions as is common in the engineering industry. They recommended looking at the municipality's capital improvement plans (CIP) to see what is upcoming and being added to mailing lists to be notified of impending requests for proposals.  The consensus among the four panelists is that their business development staff is the key to finding projects to team up on, as they are tracking upcoming opportunities. The best way for member firms to introduce themselves to the architectural firms is an in-person introduction that is geared specifically towards the architectural firm. The panel suggested reaching out to business development and marketing staff and stressed the importance of having a great website. Relationships are a long game that can take years to build, but they will pay off and lead to successful teams and projects!

Thanks to all of our panelists, as well as to Chris for helping me moderate a successful event. We hope this is just the beginning of the conversations between our member firms and our friends at AIA as we learn how to best position ourselves for work on facilities projects throughout the DMV region. If you're interested in learning more about the ACEC/MW Virginia Municipal Committee or its efforts, please contact ACEC/MW.

Erin Donovan is Director of Engineering at T3 Design, a woman-owned engineering consulting firm located in Fairfax, Virginia. Erin earned a B.S. in Civil Engineering from The Catholic University of American in Washington, DC and a M.S. in Civil Engineering from Virginia Tech. Erin is responsible for managing a staff of engineers with a business practice that includes Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Erin has been active in many professional organizations including holding leadership roles in ASCE and TRB as well as WTS-DC. Erin is an ACEC/MW member and currently serves as Chair of the Virginia Municipal Committee.


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