Harry Campbell

Since Congress passed the Brooks Act in 1972, all federally funded architecture projects have been governed by the qualifications-based selection (QBS) process. QBS requires that public clients select architects based solely on their qualifications and technical ability—not on proposal costs—and prohibits clients from discussing bid prices at all until the most qualified firm has been selected. If the client and most qualified designer can’t come to an agreement on price, clients begin negotiations with the next-most qualified firm.

In the years since the federal mandate, most states have adopted “mini-Brooks” laws that require the same selection criteria for state-funded projects, as have some local municipalities. The result? A patchwork of laws that lose uniformity the further they get from federal laws, but are all meant to safeguard the quality of work architects do for public clients.

But today, QBS is under threat from state legislators and insti­tutional procurement officers who don’t understand the process, or question it, creating a need to reeducate clients and civic leaders about QBS’s value—all this coming at a time when many states and municipalities are looking to cut costs and see QBS as an added expense.

In Florida, state legislators Mike Bennett and Fred Costello introduced bills that would roll back QBS for all state entities. In West Virginia, State House Delegate John Doyle and others introduced a bill that would repeal QBS requirements for state institutions of higher education. Exempted from its state’s QBS law, the University of New Mexico began asking architects for price estimates a year ago. And in Wisconsin, state legislator Rich Zipperer sponsored a bill allowing counties to continue using cost for a quarter of all evaluations, but it died in Assembly committee.

Some municipal leaders object to QBS regardless of the current economic climate. Some architects report that civic leaders in charge of procurement aren’t aware of the value or purpose of QBS and will ignore it—even if it’s the law. “They don’t understand that professional design services are not like bidding pencils,” says Sue Bertram of QBSColorado, a multidisciplinary industry advocacy and watchdog group that works with industry partners such as AIA Colorado.

Other architects report that their clients object to QBS because of its cost. Richard Logan, AIA, of MPA Architects in West Palm Beach, Fla., says that by jettisoning QBS, clients are looking to leverage the depressed design and construction economy to drive prices down. “They think that there’s very little work out there, and a lot of qualified firms that will take the work no matter what the price,” he says.

Similarly, University of New Mexico chief procurement officer Bruce Cherrin says that he asks each architecture firm up front for pricing and level of effort. Even though this information is a small percentage of each firm’s proposal, “It gives us better understanding and potential leverage,” Cherrin says.

Norman Cummings, one of the Waukesha County officials who supported the bill that would have allowed Wisconsin counties to continue using QBS for only 75 percent of the evaluation for local projects, says that using a pure QBS process would cost his county an additional $250,000 per year. “If that’s what it cost, we’d be doing less projects,” he says.“The 25 percent cost quotes, which are not known by evaluators until the 75 percent technical scoring is completed, allow us to know what the market is for the services we seek. Under pure QBS, we would have to negotiate blindly.”

Can municipalities afford to ignore QBS? A 2009 study by researchers from the University of Colorado and Georgia Tech found that projects using QBS averaged a 3 percent increase in construction cost growth, while non-QBS projects saw a 10 percent increase. The study also found that construction-schedule growth with QBS averaged 8.7 percent, but without it schedules grew by 10 percent.

Architects say that instead of trying to come up with a minimum-cost proposal based on just a few paragraphs in an RFP, QBS allows them to learn from clients exactly what a project needs. Without QBS, clients are cut out of the design process, and architects are pressured to make the cheapest possible bid with incomplete project information.

According to Joe Brawley, AIA, of Brawley and Company in Albu­querque, N.M., this is a recipe for change-orders (by contractors) and additional service requests (by the design team) and complications. He’s seen QBS from both sides, having directed capital projects for universities in the past. “The owner is hiring the architect not to solve the problem, though that’s part of it, but to first help define the problem,” Brawley says. “When you’re bidding a project, you have to assume the project is already defined, and there lies the rub: It isn’t defined.”

Written by Zach Mortice.