Rapid growth or obsolete facilities can cause an education institution to pursue more construction and renovation projects than ever before. How does a school know if it would be beneficial to hire an owner's representative? And how does an institution choose a firm that truly represents its point of view?
Generally, when an education institution has so much construction or remodeling that it has to add staff to manage the projects, it should consider hiring an owner's representative. Most staff members already have jobs that require at least 40 hours a week. If hiring an owner's representative will allow the school's president, superintendent or facilities manager to focus on his or her main job, it probably is worth the investment. Or, if it would be helpful to have a project supervision team hit the ground running without adding permanent overhead, an owner's representative can provide instant staffing and instant knowledge. When the projects are over, the owner's representative staff is gone and off the payroll.
This is not to say that existing staff won't spend any time on the construction or renovation project by using an owner's representative; they still will have ultimate responsibility.
Defining the role
In general, an owner's representative is a consulting firm that functions as an extension of the CEO or facilities superintendent. But the specific duties of an owner's representative may vary from firm to firm. Education institutions should look beyond the titles to ensure that the firms they hire match expectations. A company does not have to possess the experience that matches an institution's project exactly (what two projects are ever exactly alike?), but it is helpful if it has worked on similar projects. The firm needs to understand the school or university and have some technical knowledge of it.
On a “macro” level, an owner's representative should think about the big picture. It should be able to intuitively understand the institution's situation and make decisions based on data. It also should be thinking several months — or perhaps a year — ahead.
If gaining community acceptance and cooperation for a project is an issue, a school should choose a firm that knows community politics and can synthesize the community's attitude.
The owner's representative should be concerned about the school's position in the community. It should have the managerial ability to force it to think, and the loyalty to take an arrow for the school when the community has an issue.
At the business level, an owner's representative should understand architecture, construction management, building-systems design, technical details, contracts, law, financing, accounting, decisionmaking, organizational development, communications and the power of public relations.
When hiring an owner's representative, schools and universities should choose a team with multiple skill sets.
Tasks at hand
Once an education institution hires an owner's representative, it should have a serious discussion about goals and values. Because this entity will be representing the school's important transactions, it needs a strong sense of the institution's mindset about such things as energy efficiency, facility longevity, maintenance, appearance, master planning, facility standards and choosing materials for performance, as well as price.
Ultimately, the most valuable service the owner's representative will provide is setting a realistic budget and timeframe, and keeping the projects true to those decisions. In construction projects, the biggest contributor to budget increases can be a school's rising expectations. The “you may as well do it” justification quickly can throw a project's budget out of whack. The owner's representative has to be in a position to say “no” to the school's staff and decisionmakers.
This brings up an important point. Schools and universities should consider how they want a representative to provide counsel at the highest level. Education institutions want the firm to listen and respect their points of view. If the representative thinks the school's recommendation is not the right thing to do, the school wants to be notified directly — and privately. Have the firm lay out the options and tell the school the ramifications in terms of cost, time and relationships. Whatever the eventual decision, the owner's representative must be willing to honor it, support it and carry it out enthusiastically.
The owner's representative will facilitate the selection of professional teams, and help define the construction delivery approach, architect and owner's responsibilities. It should create a framework for decisionmaking that will enhance working relationships and avoid the snags and finger-pointing that can occur when lines of responsibility are not drawn clearly. These role and decisionmaking definitions should be backed up with clear and enforceable contracts.
In the next phase, the owner's representative team will prove its value as it handles the time-consuming details of pre-construction testing, land purchase, abatement, permits, coordination with city or municipal agencies, move management and other tasks.
It is tempting to think that once the decision to build or renovate has been reached, that the decision-making is done. It really is just beginning; someone must consider everything from brick and tile colors to door handles, casework finishes, and wireless vs. hard-wired technology. Using a school's initial values as a guide, the owner's representative will assume the day-to-day responsibility for hundreds of decisions, seeking guidance only for key decisions.
If an education institution operates multiple buildings or campuses, the owner's representative can help it create standards, if not already established. The standards may cover everything from criteria for selecting heating and cooling systems to room sizes, to carpet quality and paint colors. For example, if multiple buildings are involved, a school or university should not use 450 different paint colors. Taking a systemic approach to facility standards can be a great time and money saver.
Throughout the design and construction process, the owner's representative inevitably will resolve many issues having to do with different viewpoints among the various contractors or the need to coordinate the timing of their work. The proverbial “buck” for these responsibilities will be stopping at their desks, not at the school administrator's.
When the facility is up and running, the owner's representative still will have tasks to complete on a school's behalf. It will be finishing the paperwork: documenting warranties, archiving drawings and closing out contracts. Meanwhile, the only thing left on the school's “to do” list will be accepting congratulations at the grand opening.
Schmidt, FAIA, is the principal and CEO of Schmidt Strategies, an architecture and planning firm based in Indianapolis. Kunce, AIA, LEED AP, associate, is responsible for the strategic and daily coordination of the firm.