Qualifications-Based Selection (QBS) for Design Professionals: What QBS Is And Why Municipalities Should Use It

William Straub, P.E., P.G. and Jonathan Halle, AIA, ASLA

The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA's legal services or your municipal attorney.

Design and construction projects can be complicated. Public and private owners make significant investments in projects of all types: buildings, site developments, utilities, transportation, infrastructure, and others. Maximizing value while maintaining project goals is often the municipality’s, or owner’s, prime objective.

Most projects require design professionals to evaluate and conceptualize alternatives, prepare preliminary and final designs, procure contractors for construction, and represent the owner during construction. Therefore, selection of the most effective and advantageous team of design professionals is critical for a successful project. The team should have experience and background needed for the project, and have good ideas and approaches to project development and completion. They should also have the ability to establish effective working relationships with the owner and other project participants, and to work in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect.

For many projects, the best way to engage a design team that will best serve the owner’s interests throughout a project, and assure the best value from a total project perspective, is Qualifications-Based Selection, or QBS.

The QBS process focuses on the professional capabilities, experience, project design approach, schedule, and responsiveness to the owner’s needs. Based on these attributes, the owner ranks firms and identifies the most preferred firm. With the preferred firm, the owner participates fully in the development of the alternatives to the approach for the design project’s scope of work, schedules, and other aspects of the project. When there is a common understanding of the design scope and process, the design firm develops costs for these services, which are negotiated. The QBS process can best balance design costs with design objectives and scopes, recognizing that the cost of design is usually a small fraction of total project and life cycle costs. If an acceptable final contract cannot be established in the owner’s interest and opinion, negotiation with the first firm ends and the owner negotiates with the next ranked firm.

A prime advantage for owners using the QBS process is that the owner maintains maximum control over the design process of the project, and the costs for design services. The costs for services are developed jointly between the owner and designer. When QBS is not used, and selection is made primarily on initial proposed costs (bids), there is often a disconnect between an owner’s expectations and the services actually received, as designers are essentially encouraged to propose the least possible design effort, rather than maximizing value over the entire project life. Again, design costs are often a small fraction of total project costs.

Key steps of the QBS process typically include:

Issuance by the owner of a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for professional design services. The RFQ will present the project, project requirements and objectives, requirements for responses, and an outline of criteria for selection;

Submittal of qualifications packages by design teams of experience, capabilities, personnel, project understanding and approach;

Interviews with most favorable firms (typically 3-4);

Ranking of firms; and

Negotiation of project elements, scope, costs, and contracts with the selected firm.

Central to the QBS approach are the interests of the owner. With this process, owners are best assured that they are provided with the right capabilities and project approach, responsiveness, good communication, mutual trust, management, quality control, and design excellence.

A common comparison to the selection of design professionals is how doctors or lawyers are chosen. If someone required major surgery, or had an important legal problem, would they send out for bids from doctors or lawyers, or would they seek a professional relationship based on capabilities, experience, and trust? Few would accept “low-bid surgery.”

The QBS process is required for many projects by federal agencies, and for many state programs that use federal funding. This is because these governmental agencies understand that QBS of design professionals results in the most favorable overall project outcomes.

In New Hampshire, organizations of design professionals participate in the NH QBS Coalition, whose mission it is to promote the use of qualifications based selection, and to educate owners, funding and regulatory agencies on the advantages of the QBS process. Visit the NH QBS Coalition website at www.NHQBS.org. The member organizations of the coalition include the American Council of Engineering Companies-NH (ACEC-NH), the American Institute of Architects –NH (AIA-NH), Granite State Landscape Architects (GSLA), the NH Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers (NH-ASCE), the NH Society of Professional Engineers (NHSPE), Structural Engineers of NH (SENH), and the NH Land Surveyors Association (NHLSA).

William Straub, P.E., P.G. (wstraub@cmaengineers.com) and Jonathan Halle, AIA, ASLA (jh@warrenstreet.coop) are co-chairs of the NH QBS Coalition.