if architects get 25 percent of the work they go after, that's a good percentage, but that also means that for 75 percent of the work, someone is calling to say they didn't get it,” says David Hollenberg, AIA. Since June 2006, when he became university architect at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, that job has fallen to him. Articulating why someone lost out is tough, he says, since these are often nuanced decisions. There are complementary and competing factors—and many intangibles. “It's like marrying after a first date if there are people we've never worked with or there's a team that's not worked together before,” he says.
At Penn, each school or administrative unit initiates its own projects, which are then filtered through Hollenberg. Depending on the personality of each school, the selection committee may be as big as 17 or as small as one or two. And specific criteria determine how the invitation list is established: Is the project engineering-driven, interior design-driven, or primarily about enhancing research equipment? In the case of a residence hall rehab, an architect's project-management skills must equal his or her design strengths, since the work must be cranked out over a summer.
For new construction, the stakes get higher and competing priorities start to emerge. Hollenberg says Penn is increasingly pressured to look to A-list architects across the country and around the world. In a recent competition for a new building on a remote campus, the invited architects were asked not to show their past work but simply to talk about their approach to the project. After six presentations running from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. one Thursday, the 15 committee members were unanimous in their choice, but Hollenberg suggested they wait until Monday to be sure. They were, and it was easy to tell the competitors that there was a clear winner.
“Here's why I think the firm resonated with the board and trustees,” Hollenberg says of the experience. “Instead of talking about design, they talked about the project as a way to sharpen the goals of the institution. It was much more about organizational dynamics than about the building. They wove it really convincingly into a portrayal of how the organization was attempting to do this significant project and the other experiences the architects had working with institutions that had done this [type of] once-in-a-generation project. They gave an inspiring and substantive presentation to a very smart selection committee.”
Competition just to get on the list is tough. Of the 75 architecture and engineering firms Hollenberg has auditioned in the past year, only one firm was unqualified for some type of work with Penn. “That kind of professional urging from folks is important for me to receive, because there's a lot of good talent out there and I don't pretend to have it all at my fingertips,” he says. “Our stated goal is to have the best buildings of their time rather than trying to match old buildings, so it pushes us into not doing a lot of repeat work with firms.”