Comment: In building our city, the cheapest price shouldn’t be mistaken for the best value

Ottawa's LRT Line 1 on hold at Bayview Station. A major criterion for bidding on LRT Line 1 was price. (Brett Delmage/The BUZZ)
Ottawa’s LRT Line 1 on hold at Bayview Station. A major criterion for bidding on LRT Line 1 was price. (Brett Delmage/The BUZZ)

Toon Dreessen

If we want a better city, creating a design culture that demands better buildings is only half the equation.

Suppose we agreed that the public wants welcoming, sustainable, accessible, and beautiful places. How do we get them? The answer is found in the hiring process.

We need to be concerned with how our government, at all levels, buys design services. That is the key word – design is a service; it isn’t a commodity.

Unlike a “thing” where you can compare three identical samples and choose the cheapest, it is harder to compare services and skills. Comparisons of services often require qualitative comparisons that can be rooted in our own bias or perceptions and don’t account for the value we might gain between different levels of service.

Through a Request for Proposal (RFP) the city will set out a standard contract and then add restrictive criteria and conditions. This usually means that a bidder has to spend countless hours wading through hundreds of pages of legal documents to prepare a response. At times, bidders have to hire their own lawyers or seek advice from insurance companies to find out if the modified contract offered is even legal or insurable.

Similar experience a barrier to new ideas

To even be considered for a project, a firm often must have previous experience. The more identical the experience, the higher the bidder scores. If you’ve worked on community centres, you might not qualify for a field house; if you’ve worked on rental apartment buildings, you might not qualify for an affordable housing project.

Even though the buildings themselves might be nearly identical, someone with more identical experience will get more points. This process effectively shuts out new firms and rewards the same firms over and over.

Why is that bad? It means we only ever get the same sort of ideas. What if the only musicians getting contracts were ones who had previously released at least five albums? How would anyone new break into the music business?

Stefan Novakovic wrote about this recently in Azure: if the problems with long term care (LTC) homes in Ontario are evident, as we see from the tragedy of deaths due to COVID-19, why is the prerequisite to design new LTC facilities based on your prior experience? It may not result in better performance if the same teams are hired. And no one new, with fresh ideas, can win the job.

Profitability through charging for extras

Suppose a bidder meets the requirements and takes a gamble on the legality of the contract. The next hurdle is winning with a low fee. Successful firms look for gaps in the project that they can exploit for changes and ensure profitability. When the RFP attempts to codify, for example, how many meetings are to occur, every extra meeting, every change in scope (no matter how small) is an avenue for extras.

Sometimes that profitability is based on using legal exemptions that allow them to not pay their staff (or not pay them fairly). Inequitable employment practices are driven by a desire to win the project with a low fee; our government rewards this unethical, but legal, behaviour through its procurement process.

Suppose we want a project to meet a sustainable goal but the RFP fails to mention it, or proposes one that is unachievable, too low, or not practical. The successful bidder can submit a low fee, expecting to make their profit by adding change orders for obvious or inevitable and predictable scope changes or schedule delays.

The city and other public sector clients will argue that, if the best firms are all equally good on technical scores, a low fee is good value because a low fee saves money. Why is this wrong?

Technical scoring is often subjective: is the person who scored 76 out of 80 points objectively different from the person who scored 74? What if there is a qualitative difference between the two firms that doesn’t show up on a checklist?

FCM: Cheapest price is not best value

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ InfraGuide, a best practices guide to choosing a professional consultant, illustrates this challenge well. As it says, “Often, cheapest price gets mistaken for best value. … A requirement to bid fees in a proposal call does not achieve the expected outcomes. Inevitably it forces the consultant to focus on ‘how to minimize fees to win the assignment’ instead of ‘how to deliver a service that will add the most value for the client.’ ”

We should invest in design because the payback can be enormous. Suppose a project costs $200,000 to design, $2 million to build, and $9 million in operational costs (for utilities and maintenance) over its lifetime. If a better design costs 10 percent more, but saved five percent of the operational cost, a city would spend $20,000 to gain $450,000 in savings. That design skill is worth something. When the difference between winning or losing a commission is two technical points that you can make up on a lower fee, the low fee can win the job. That lower fee comes at the price of service.

Since 1972, the United States has barred financial scoring in hiring architects and engineers for this reason. Since 2008, Edmonton has done the same, setting out fee expectations through a standard that values the quality of design, the skill, creativity, and ideas proposed. Recently, Toronto Community Housing has done the same.

These organizations recognize that the effort that goes into a better design makes for better places; that this means fewer change orders, better jobs, a smoother construction process, and better results overall. In 2020, the City of Edmonton received a quarter of all Governor General’s Medals in Architecture, and is routinely featured in international design press for the quality of public buildings and parks. The City of Ottawa has never won a prestigious design award and its built environment rarely features in a positive way.

Ottawa needs to recognize that opening the door to better procurement means new ideas, creative solutions and support for economic growth. It is time for the city to see that a better procurement model will improve the quality of life for the people who live and visit the nation’s capital, independent of federal projects.

We need to be our best Ottawa. Reforming procurement is the way to start.

This was the second half of Dreessen’s op-ed on the importance of design in city facilities. The first was on page 6 of the April BUZZ.

Toon Dreessen is an architect and president of Ottawa-based Architects DCA and is past president of the Ontario Association of Architects.