The process of client engagement for design firms is evolving from a late-stage entry into the game by RFP response to a proactive approach that includes crucial due diligence factors that come before any facility design can even be conceptualized. Project development elements like site selection, master planning, and business climate analysis have become design firm buzzwords considered in the same light as blueprint, AutoCAD, and sustainability.
As the dialogue changes, so too does the level of integrated service clients are receiving from one source. This shift in thinking is the new reality design firms are embracing as industrial and manufacturing companies seek ways to shorten facility development lead times and bring their product to market more quickly than their nearest competitor.
Beth Kirkland, a career economic development professional who has served on both the private industry and community sides of the profession, talks to Brian Curtin, president of BRPH, an international architecture, engineering, and construction services firm, on the trending role of site selection in the design process, how firms can adapt to the changing landscape, and how the seamless process benefits growing companies.
Beth: While not entirely new, the concept of designers serving in some site selection capacity appears to be taking hold as a strong trend within the design industry. How did this concept evolve?
Brian: As economic development has evolved from a Department of Commerce responsibility to a public-private partnership model, AEC (architecture, engineering, construction) firms find themselves involved in project development more often and earlier in the process. We are partners at the table alongside corporate real estate executives, labor analysts, economic development officials, higher education leaders, and technology experts — all with the same goal in mind: how can we help this company create jobs in the desired location in an expeditious manner while controlling cost and mitigating risk? This is where trust is gained and relationships are formed. AEC firms are seeing their role expand from supporting economic development organizations with preliminary design concepts and cost estimates to facilitating requests directly from clients to lead their site searches and community comparison efforts.
Beth: It’s clear that this is a natural progression for design firms as site needs often come before a facility can be designed in full, but how does this impact a company’s bottom line or time constraints?
Brian: Capital-intensive projects require significant due diligence before a company can make the final decision to expand or look for a new location. Companies are risk-averse and cannot move forward without the assurance that the site is developable today, and that their transportation logistics and facility needs can be met. Zoning, permitting, wetlands delineation/mitigation, and environmental assessments are time-consuming and costly, yet companies must move at the speed of market demands. Companies are turning to trusted advisors who know their industry and have experience conducting site evaluations and facility design simultaneously, thereby controlling costs while fast-tracking the project.
Beth: So, if these integrated services are taking companies there faster and more economically, what types of services make up the most common pre-design core competencies?
Brian: This depends on the level of sophistication required from a relocating or expanding company. In some cases, there are dozens of sites to analyze or the site requirements are so specific that it becomes like finding a needle in a haystack. But a large majority of clients utilize any combination of the following services on the path to a new facility:
- Site feasibility study - Is the site shovel-ready? It should be for sale or lease. Environmental phases 1 and 2 are complete and a mitigation plan is in place. Utilities (water, wastewater, electric, gas, and fiber) are at the site or plans exist to extend them to the site with required capacity. Costs are known and are competitive. Transportation logistics are conducive to the company needs or can be addressed within the desired timeframe.
- Master planning - This process takes into consideration the long-term needs of the client (both public entities and corporate end-users) and often incorporates phased facility plans. It is a structured planning process that includes input from the right people. The master plan serves as a “roadmap” for future projects and the information required to budget the necessary funds to complete additions and upgrades. Master planning establishes the architectural theme, infrastructure systems such as water and sewer, parking concerns, traffic flow patterns, standards for all major engineering disciplines, landscape patterns, and phasing of the project.
- Program management - In this role, the entire project is managed on behalf of the client allowing them to focus on their core business. This includes scheduling and sub-contract management. This is particularly important in manufacturing when operations must continue while bringing a new facility online.
- Business climate analysis - Beyond regional and community demographics, the availability and responsiveness of state and local government decision-makers is just as important as the economic development programs and policies that they manage. Communities with a track record of successfully establishing and expanding businesses are attractive. Prospective companies are looking for ways to mitigate the cost of expansion. Free land, tax incentives, and workforce training grants are all important. However, as the saying goes, “time is money.” Thus, shovel-ready sites and fast-tracked, hassle-free permitting are critical.
- Labor market analysis - This is a critical component in the research we conduct. Not only do we look for available qualified labor, but we also take into account the future pipeline of labor in the region. Is there a training program or dedicated academy to supply the company? Are such programs linked to the middle and high schools in the area to ensure that students are aware of future employment opportunities? Are area employers engaged in curriculum development?
- Incentives negotiation - States and communities offer incentives to set themselves apart in an otherwise equal solution for the company between two locations. Companies seek incentives, both statutory and negotiated, to allow an expansion to move forward that would otherwise miss a critical shift in the market they serve. An understanding of the differences among states and countries in tax policy, as well as knowledge of geographically induced development zones, is imperative.
Brian: When services expand, the disciplines required to provide those services also expand. Having a team of professionals that understand and embrace economic development, in combination with design and planning, helps enhance the traditional seller-doer model. Competitive firms must be in tune with the economic and business development trends of the markets they serve. When speed to market is of paramount importance to a growing company, a truly diversified design firm has the ability to enhance a client’s market position. There is no greater opportunity, no greater selling point, and no greater testimonial than successfully enhancing a client’s business objectives through integrated design-led site selection services.