Find Your Design Match


With changing trends and an expanding student population, recreation centers are in a constant state of evolution. Whether it is a large project like constructing an entirely new building or a smaller endeavor like an addition, as a recreation professional dealing with a renovation or expansion project is probably something you have had to manage over the course of your career.

Of course one of the most crucial elements when beginning the renovation process is choosing an architecture and design firm. With hundreds of companies across the nation to consider, this can be a daunting challenge. To help, a few architecture experts share their advice on making the selection process a little easier.

Step One: Send a Request for Proposal (RFP)

Once you have the all clear from the university to begin the renovation or expansion process, the first step is to issue a Request for Proposal or Request for Qualifications. By doing so, firms will submit a proposal consisting of a letter of interest, resume, qualifications, portfolio and other relevant items. This way you can begin narrowing down the best possible match.

“At a public institution, it is a public process, so anyone can submit their qualifications,” explained Colleen McKenna, principal and sports practice leader at CannonDesign. “Private institutions have the opportunity to selectively release the RFP to firms they would like to work with. They don’t have to go through the open forum.”

Step Two: Review Proposals

When it comes to reviewing proposals, there are a few key elements that should always be on your checklist. First is experience. McKenna explained it is beneficial to find a firm that has experience in the recreation industry. “Recreation is a mature typology now, but it has evolved,” she said. “And it continues to evolve with new programs, new operational requirements, and so I would recommend looking for a firm that has done several of these building types in similar circumstances. This is not the time to hire a firm that has only done it once or twice. You really want to look for a firm that has done several facilities.”

Quick Tip: If there is not a firm in your city or state with the right experience, McKenna suggested encouraging local architects to partner with other firms that have the expertise. “You might have a local firm that has done a lot of work on campus, but they have never done a sports facility, so you want to make sure they partner with another firm that has experience in this typology,” she added. 

Step Three: Conduct Interviews 

Next, the selection committee, which may consist of students, vice chancellors, faculty and campus architects, narrow it down to three or four firms that will be brought in for an interview. According to James Braam, a director of sports, recreation and entertainment practice at HOK, at this point in the process all firms will boast fantastic qualifications, so it is essential to find the best relationship.

“That is what’s really gratifying, because at that point everyone is qualified and now it is more about finding that perfect partnership and the best relationship,” said Braam. “All three or four teams will have great credentials, but you need to make sure to find the right fit for your project and process and who would work best as part of your team.”

The word relationship is key. It is crucial to find a firm that understands this is a partnership, not a dictatorship. Braam explained in order for it to be a good match the architects must listen and grasp the values of the project. “At the end of the day we need to recognize it is not about us, the architects, it is about them,” he said. “What can we do to help them with their project? That really includes a lot of listening. The interview should feel like it is tailored for the client. We never want to go into a project with a pre-conceived notion, we want to design the project together. We believe in this idea that we are not going to design a project for you, we are going to design it together with you.”

Quick Tip:  McKenna suggested conducting all of the interviews in one day. While it might be hectic, it is best to keep all firms top of mind while making the decision, instead of letting time pass between each interview. “I know this is very difficult at an institution where you have multiple parties involved, but it is really important,” she added. “You interview a firm one week and another the next and another the following week, you won’t remember what the first firm said three weeks ago. You lose momentum. You want to have a fair and balanced selection process.” 

Step Four: Sign on the Dotted Line

This process will take time. According to McKenna, since there are a lot of variables at play, the process of choosing an architect can happen in as quickly as six weeks or it may take months. “It really just depends on the scale of the project, the client’s schedule, their ability to establish a selection committee and have that committee available during the process to meet and review the proposals, then interview,” she explained.

But once everything is finalized and you have found the perfect match, the final steps involve negotiating contracts and fee for services. After negotiations are complete, the fun of the actual renovation begins.

Quick Tip: With managing a facility, staff, programming and other operations, taking on a renovation project is a hefty undertaking. Don’t be afraid to delegate. “Recreation directors have a full-time job and going through the selection process adds pressure onto their day jobs,” said McKenna. “It is like a whole other project they are taking on in addition to what they do on a day-to-day basis. We always advise them to be prepared from a time commitment standpoint. It can be overwhelming when you already have a full schedule, so they have to look at ways to delegate some of those responsibilities.”  


Emily Harbourne was a previous editor for Campus Rec Magazine.

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