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The RFP Process: Bringing Structure and Clarity

January 21, 2016 by Jody Andres, AIA LEED AP in School Business Affairs

This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of School Business Affairs magazine and is posted online with permission of the Association of School Business Officials International (ASBO). The text herein does not necessarily represent the views or policies of ASBO International, and use of this imprint does not imply any endorsement or recognition by ASBO International and its officers or affiliates.

One of the greatest benefits of the request for proposals (RFP) process is that it brings structure and clarity to the sometimes-arduous decision-making process that comes with any new construction or remodeling project. Additionally, a well-executed RFP process increases the odds of making the best choices and bringing the greatest benefit to your school district and its students.

But, all RFPs are not alike and shouldn't be treated as such. While it's wise to consider the input of other school districts, it's not wise to copy their RFP in its entirety and consider it your own. RFPs with outdated or inaccurate information cost the proposing firms and the school district valuable time.

If you do use a template—yours or someone else's—be certain to remove any references or statements that you don't understand or that are irrelevant to your project. Even though you may have used 20 questions in a previous RFP, it may be that only 10 will get you the answers and information you need this time around. Contemplate which questions and elements are most appropriate for your current project. Critical components of this preliminary stage include:

>> Establishing a timeline.
>> Identifying the selection committee.
>> Defining your evaluation criteria.
>> Formulating the RFP.
>> Amassing a list of firms to invite to respond.

Here are some other considerations:

What is the vision?
During the initial planning stage, you're assembling information based on your vision of the project while also gathering insights about potential firms that will guide the process. As you define the project goals and needs, be clear about the specific services you are seeking. Determine your vision and project goals, expressing them simply, clearly, and in your own words.

Share as much information as possible about the project in your RFP. If you are seeking several services, inform the firms that you are open to receiving proposals for all services from the same company.

Give the responding firms adequate time to produce a comprehensive proposal in response to your RFP. A month is normally considered reasonable.

Provide a deadline by which firms must ask questions about the RFP and clearly state your point of contact. Sometimes, districts want firms to go through one person who will represent a board or committee. This may keep it simple for the school district, but it is sometimes helpful for firms to hear multiple viewpoints and opinions.

To identify appropriate firms for your RFP, seek advice from others who have completed similar projects, industry experts, and state education agencies.

Who should receive a tour?
Many RFPs for construction projects require a walkthrough for all interested parties, but this may not be the most productive use of time for either district personnel or responding firms. Instead of requiring a pre-response walkthrough of your facilities, keep track of the firms that inquire about visiting you and touring your facilities—this is an indication of their interest in the projects.

Whether you have mandatory or voluntary tours, schedule them at least two weeks prior to the proposal due date so firms can prepare their response in light of any new insights learned. Benefits of scheduling one group tour for all interested firms is that it may avoid bias and save time.

After the tour(s) are complete, prepare and distribute an FAQ document that addresses questions that were raised during the tour(s). Often, questions that are asked expose critical pieces of information that may have been left out inadvertently.

How will we evaluate?
The proposal evaluation process should be appropriate for your project, needs, and organizational culture. However, use qualifications-based selection criteria. Selecting a firm based on qualifications will give you the best chance at working with a professional who can put you in the best position for success.

Relying too heavily on cost as the primary determining factor is a mistake that many districts make. Cost does not equal value when it comes to selecting professional services. Vital factors to consider when evaluating proposals include:

>> The proposer's involvement with comparable projects.
>> The skills and experience of significant employees.
>> The expressed level of interest.
>> A clear understanding of the project and the scope of work.
>> Uniqueness and approach to design.
>> Value of support services.
>> Connection and rapport.
>> Expected project management services and approach.

Who should be part of the selection committee?
Individuals who have strong technical knowledge and experience in building design and construction, along with at least one school board member, should make up the selection committee. All selection committee members should fully understand the RFP as well as the evaluation criteria.

Keep in mind that responses can be detailed and lengthy and will require diligent review. Be certain to provide committee members with ample time to review and absorb the submitted proposals. They need time to assess each proposal, form follow-up questions, and determine initial rankings of the firms, ultimately settling on a shortlist of firms to interview based on responses to the RFP.

What about the interview process?

Providing a uniform interview evaluation form that is well understood by the committee members prior to conducting interviews is vital. Interviewing the shortlisted firms gives the committee a chance to have a side-by-side comparison of each firm's creative slant.

Prior to the interviews, communicate to the participating firms what the audiovisual accommodations will be so they can be prepared to share their visuals. A white board or large projection screen are common expectations for a participating firm. Also, provide firms with the criteria that will be used for assessment.

Many interview teams schedule all interviews on the same day (or at least within 36 hours) in order to keep the material fresh and the scoring consistent. Sixty to ninety minutes should be plenty of time for each firm's presentation and allow time for follow-up questions from the committee.

It may seem like a good idea to schedule back-to-back interviews, but that doesn't allow time for the interview team to record their conclusions, take a break, or participate in vigorous discussions after each interview.

At the conclusion of the interview, convey your timeline for selection and how the firm's representatives will learn whether they are chosen. And of course, convey your appreciation! Remember that every shortlisted firm has put in countless hours planning and preparing for your presentation.

What should we agree upon?

Once you select a firm, begin thorough discussions to establish a professional services agreement. This is the stage to refine key elements: goals, project requirements, anticipated scope of services, and fees. This is also the pivotal point when you can begin to develop the collaborative partnership that will make the experience more enjoyable and productive. Once the scope of services has been determined, the selected firm should provide a comprehensive fee proposal.

You may find that the selected firm recommends using a standard form of agreement developed by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) or the Engineers Joint Contract Document Committee (EJCDC). This is a common practice and is a sufficient solution in most circumstances.

In the rare case that you cannot agree on the scope of services and fees with the designated firm, you should negotiate with the next highest-rated firm.

What's next?
Put it all together! Use your experience, the wisdom of your peers in other districts, and the lessons learned here to create a phenomenal RFP process. If you do, you'll find the clarity that will guide the multitude of decisions that are necessary throughout the planning, design, and construction phases of your building project.

Jody Andres, AIA LEED AP, is a project architect and the K-12 market leader at Hoffman Planning, Design & Construction, Inc. He also is the immediate past president of the American Institutes of Architects (AIA) Wisconsin. Email:

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