Profit by Design

Local architects scramble for a piece of Knoxville's public building boom

Nobody knows where Knoxville's new convention center will go. Nobody knows how much it will cost. Beyond assurances from Mayor Victor Ashe that it is his new top priority, nobody's even sure it will be built or who will oversee its construction.

So the question of who's going to design the building seems like something no one should worry about for some time to come--not until there is at least an actual building to design.

But a few weeks ago--just weeks, in fact, after Ashe announced his new commitment to the project--reports started surfacing of various local firms angling for the job as if it were ready to go to the drawing board. Most prominently mentioned was Barber & McMurry, Inc., one of Knoxville's largest architecture companies.

"Yes, we're actively presenting our credentials for consideration for that project," confirms Bob Parrott, the firm's mild-mannered president and CEO.

They're not the only ones. Whenever a project as big and expensive as a convention

center is even mentioned by a public official, architects immediately start jockeying for the position. Or, as one local designer puts it, "There's a feeding frenzy."

Welcome to the intensely competitive world of public architecture, where firms big and small vie for a piece of projects that can mean both profits and prestige for those who land them.

It's a world where art, commerce, and politics converge, where who you know--and who knows you--really is as important as what you know. It's also a world where one month's loser can be the next month's winner, and where today's catty competitors are tomorrow's partners. With its politically active architects and Oz-like public officials--who make million-dollar decisions from behind a curtain few architects ever penetrate--it's not exactly the embodiment of "firmness, commodity, and beauty" the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius established as the touchstones of the profession. But the glad-handing and deal-making are also nothing new.

"It's a big problem, but it's not a big problem," says University of Tennessee architecture professor Mark Schimmenti (who recently received the distinguished Rome award, given to only four architects internationally each year). "It's been part of the profession forever."

Designtown

For a small city, Knoxville's a good place to be an architect. On the private sector side, there's all the residential development to the city's west and north, interspersed with malls and not a few business parks. There's also the proximity to Sevier County, which has undergone a commercial building boom of epic proportions in the past 20 years.

Public work comes in waves--or, in the case of the 1982 World's Fair, a tsunami--but between the city, county, and University of Tennessee, there's always a fair amount of capital improvement going on. There was a down period in the mid-1980s, with the aftermath of the fair, the Butcher bank collapse, and the disintegration of the city school system keeping public investment at a minimum, but things have picked up recently. The Knox County School System embarked about five years ago on a building and renovation program that Superintendent Allen Morgan calls "the largest in state history," the county is finally getting ready to build a new criminal justice center that's been bruited about for the better part of a decade, and the city is getting revved up for its convention center.

"I think there's a lot of work right now," says Doug McCarty, the wiry president of McCarty Holsaple McCarty, another of Knoxville's biggest firms. "We're hiring people, and when we call other people we work with a lot [and say], 'Are you slowing down, do you have anybody to lend us,' they don't."

But as much work as there may be on the horizon, there are even more architects vying for it. There are 65 architectural firms listed in the Knoxville yellow pages, a number some in the profession think is abnormally high for a city this size. They attribute it partly to Knoxville's low cost of living and comfortable quality of life, and partly to UT's architecture program, which turns out about 60 graduates a year. On the other hand, says Butch Robertson, an architect with the 31-year-old firm Community Tectonics, architects in all cities think they're working in a flooded market.

"I suspect you'll find the same ratio of architects everywhere," he says.

And while not all of them do public projects, most would like to, for a few simple reasons. First, public bodies pay their bills on time. They may have to raise the tax rate to do it--as County Commission did to fund its current capital plan--but they can't go bankrupt halfway through a project. Second, they're good repeat customers. While a large company might build a $40 million headquarters, they're not likely to build more than one. Governments, on the other hand, tend to build and build and build--new schools, new courthouses, new jails.

To understand what's at stake, consider this: Knox County alone has paid $9.5 million to local architects over the past three years, in contracts ranging from a few thousand dollars to more than $500,000. Consider also that the new justice center is slated at $135 million and that architects' fees generally account for 5 to 6 percent of project cost.

It's no surprise that those who can get the work are protective of it, and those who can't are often frustrated.

"It's very easy to find the private work, but the public work is something else instead," says Jennifer Martella, a UT graduate who heads Knoxville's first woman-owned architecture firm. "After 10 years, we just got our first city project and our first county project."

How it Works

In fact, even to the architects who regularly receive public contracts, how exactly they get selected is something of a mystery. Asked about the process, more than one responds, "If you figure out what it is, tell me."

There are two answers: the official one and the not-so-official one.

Officially, each contract is awarded based on the demands of the project and the particular credentials of each architect. These are usually determined by either a request for proposals (RFP) or a request for qualifications (RFQ), both of which are essentially what they sound like. An RFQ asks for a firm's resume--its experience, past jobs, references, etc. An RFP is more specific, soliciting ideas and cost estimates for the job in question. Unlike most government contracts, architectural services aren't based on a lowest-bidder process (the reasoning being that you wouldn't necessarily want an elementary school designed by whoever would do it cheapest).

"What you're wanting to do is get the best talent for the job," says Mike Edwards, administrator of Knox County's Public Building Authority, which oversees many capital projects. "In other words, you want to match the talent with the job."

If the project is highly specialized, the candidate list is usually narrowed to firms that have done similar work in the past. But, Edwards says, "Where it gets tough is when you have a project that any number of firms can do."

Architects themselves dispute the notion that work should be limited to companies that have done the same kind of thing before. Although most firms do have areas of greater experience, most also emphasize their versatility. As Robertson of Community Tectonics says, "From a practical perspective, if you put an architect in a room long enough with a problem, he's going to come up with a solution, whether he's ever done it before or not."

Who gets to make the choice varies with the project. On school contracts, the superintendent makes a recommendation that has to be approved by both the school board and County Commission (although in practice, the superintendent's choice is almost never challenged). Other jobs often have boards set up specifically to manage them, or are managed by bodies like the Public Building Authority, which is guiding the new Justice Center.

Making Connections

Here's where the not-so-official part of the process comes in, and it usually starts long before any RFPs or RFQs go out. Architects work hard to develop and maintain relationships with the people whose opinions are likely to matter when it comes to awarding contracts.

The first way to do that is to do good work.

"In my business, you're only as good as your last project, and you'd better have a happy client," says Charlie Smith, co-founder of Bullock, Smith and Partners, which spun off from McCarty Holsaple in the 1980s and is now one of Knoxville's dominant firms.

Firms that bring projects in over-budget or that develop reputations for being ornery aren't likely to get much work, whatever their qualifications.

But working in the public arena also means working with politicians, and architects are nothing if not politically astute. Their names show up regularly on the lists of political contributors filed by candidates for local offices. Parrott and his partner Ron Bomers, for example, have given money to the past campaigns of Morgan (who is now appointed, not elected), Mayor Ashe, Sheriff Tim Hutchison, and several school board members and state representatives. McCarty and his father Bruce are on many of the same lists. They're hardly the only ones.

"You can go to any fund-raiser for any candidate in Knoxville and Knox County," Robertson says. "You look around the room, and we'll often joke that it's an AIA [American Institute of Architects] convention. But you ask a contractor, and they'll say the same thing."

Architects insist there's no quid pro quo relationship between political support and contract awards. And several argue their activity arises out of a natural interest in local politics, since it's a realm they deal with daily.

"I would be surprised if you found any [donation] amounts that were big enough to buy somebody," chuckles Larry Binkley, president of Kaatz, Binkley, Jones and Morris, a firm that specializes in school design and is currently serving as Knox County's school project planner. "I think there are [school] board members that are really good board members, that I would never ask for a favor, but if they need some help, I'll be happy to help them."

But, Robertson says, being politically active is one way to let public officials know who you are.

"I don't think there's any question about it," he says. "Participating in the political process is an activity that puts you in a one-on-one relationship with the guys that may not make the decisions, but who are part of the decision-making process."

Politicians, naturally enough, say support at election time has no influence on their hirings.

"You probably only hear that from people that don't get the job," Morgan says. "I doubt you ever hear from somebody who is awarded a contract, 'I only got this because of my political affiliation.'"

Schimmenti sees the political lobbying as inevitable. "When you think about it, it's sort of the way we do things. I'm not critical of it. It's the way they have to do it."

Drawing Fire

But the system, such as it is, certainly has its detractors. It's hard to find a firm that has not complained about architect selection on one project or another.

The most common protest is that a contract has been "wired"--that is, an architect has been chosen before the selection process even starts. It happens a lot, Schimmenti says, but it's hard to prove.

A good case study is the recent design contract for a $45 million renovation and expansion of McGhee-Tyson Airport.

"My big problem with the airport selection process was they asked for proposals, and many of the committee members didn't even show up in the selection process for the interview," says Smith, whose firm was one of five short-listed for the project. "And then they were ready to vote...If you already know what you want, don't waste our time. That's all I'm asking. Because we gave them one heck of a proposal."

Not surprisingly, McCarty--whose firm got the contract, in partnership with a company specializing in airport design--calls such allegations "a real stretch."

And Bill Marrison, senior vice president of the Metropolitan Knoxville Airport Authority and a member of the committee that made the selection, says emphatically, "I had no pre-conceived notion going into the terminal project...Until those interviews, you never know what's going to happen."

On the other hand, McCarty was among those who loudly protested a 1995 selection process for three new Knox County library branches. Those selections ended up being tossed out, partly because the Library Board voted with written ballots, in violation of the state's open meetings law.

"I think the problem was it had been like 30 years since the library had built buildings and selected architects," library director Patricia Watson says. She promises future selections will be much smoother.

One of the beneficiaries of the second round of library selections was Jennifer Martella, whose firm won the contract to design the Carter branch in East Knox County.

It was a gratifying win for Martella, whose efforts to get public work are a good illustration of how the bureaucratic tendency to stick with who you know affects up-and-coming companies.

With four architects and one interior designer, her firm is relatively small and young--some of her competitors have staffs five times larger and track records that go back decades. Small commercial and residential work has been the company's bread and butter since Martella formed it in 1987. But she's never shied away from pursuing big-budget public work, even when it shied away from her.

Seated in her office--an elegantly off-beat converted restaurant downtown that, like most architects' headquarters, reflects the personality of the firm--Martella admits that being a woman probably has made it harder for her to crack Knox County's power circles. She recalls an early visit to make a pitch to a local public official.

"I had gone and called on a guy, and I saw he was a bubba and I was wasting my time," she says. "So I left."

But the good-natured architect seems more bemused than bitter about her setbacks. She says she's never even used whatever federal leverage she might have to pressure local governments to use a woman-owned firm. Echoing a sentiment voiced by many other local architects, she insists she wants to be hired for her skills, not any external factor.

"The reason I'm an architect isn't because I'm a woman," she says. "The reason I'm an architect is because I want to be an architect."

But it's not only smaller firms that can have problems landing public work. Over in the museum-like renovated train station that houses Bullock, Smith and Partners, company president Smith says he encounters some of the same obstacles.

Despite the company's 38 staff members and wide-ranging experience--they designed the Coca-Cola pavilion at the 1996 Olympics and the new Lee Greenwood Theater in Sevierville--Smith says it's hard to get respect close to home. The firm's done a fair amount of work for UT but hasn't been lucky with landing county or school work.

"What we try to do is blend our international work with our local work, but in most cases I find it's easier to get international work than local work," he says. "It's sad, but it's true...We'd like to be a stronger part of this community, if somebody would let us."

Smith's biggest objection to local architect selection is the lack of a clear process.

"Set up a system," he says. "It's taxpayer money that's paying for it, and it ought to be a system and not just a couple of good ol' boys making a decision."

Across town, Smith's former colleague McCarty acknowledges there have been rough spots over the years. But he thinks most local agencies have gotten more professional over time, an assertion just about everyone agrees with.

"It's been my experience here recently, not just Knox County but other governmental entities as well, they have defined the process," Robertson says.

What About Art?

For all the focus on who gets to do what, Schimmenti thinks there's a larger issue at stake in the selection process, one that tends to get forgotten: the quality of the architecture.

Not quality in the mundane sense--whether a building is big enough and durable enough to serve its purpose--but quality in the sense of artistry.

Too often, Schimmenti says, public architecture emphasizes functionality to the exclusion of other concerns. This is mostly the fault, he thinks, of the bureaucracies that pay for the projects.

"The RFP/RFQ is not written in such a way to get the best building from the best architect," he says. "It's written to get other things."

Specifically, he says public agencies look for legal indemnity--whether a firm can insure its own work--and quantitative experience.

"So if you've built 35 hospitals, you're eminently qualified to build a hospital, even if they're 35 of the ugliest, most stupid buildings ever built."

Martella agrees the process doesn't always produce aesthetically interesting work. "There are architects and then there are businessmen," she says, diplomatically leaving it at that.

Other architects working in the public sector are a little skeptical of such criticisms. Although they are all quick to emphasize the attractiveness of their buildings, they know penny-pinching public bodies are more impressed with low dollar figures than high art.

"I don't know whether you can get a better education in a Frank Lloyd Wright school versus a somebody-else school," Binkley says. "Money ought to be spent on function, not [beauty]."

But Schimmenti, who has helped several public agencies write RFPs and RFQs, says it's possible to do both. On major projects, he suggests an advisory board of architects (preferably from out of town, to avoid conflict-of-interest problems) could help evaluate proposals.

In the meantime, the lobbying for work goes on. And if the city's convention center, or the Justice Center, or any other big-ticket project, ends up going to the firm that campaigns hardest with the right people, Schimmenti says that's only natural. Even the idealistic Vitruvius, he notes, had connections--he was the emperor's architect.

"This whole tradition is not new," he says. "The process now is probably more fair than it's ever been."

© 1997 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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