Should you hire an engineer directly or through an architect

In last week’s article, I asserted that Architects are uniquely qualified to coordinate the various building systems of a project.  I discussed the qualifications and training that makes them better suited to this task and gave my own experience of failure when the roles were reversed.

Today I want to address a growing trend I have noted in design that could adversely affect coordination efforts.

A few years ago I began seeing owners electing to hire both engineers and architects directly.  The owner would then pair the firms together to work on their projects.

Since this trend seemed to be consistently occurring either with facilities managers who had backgrounds in engineering or with firms that had internal procurement teams, I have reasoned the following for why they chose this approach.

In the first case, I can imagine how anyone with an engineering background would be hyper-sensitive to who engineers the systems of a building they are responsible for managing.  A fact I can certainly empathize with.

In the second instance, procurement 101 suggests that flat supply chains (those that reduce layers of mark-up) are inherently more cost effective.  A mindset I often subscribe to myself.

Both cases notwithstanding, I would like to make the case for always having the architect as prime consultant with the engineer as a subconsultant.

In last week’s discussion, I made the point that the architect should be responsible for coordination.  Observing this practice avoids costly coordination issues during construction.

Some may read that and argue that you could still hire the engineer and the architect directly while writing coordination responsibilities into the architects agreement.  While that can be an effective compromise, I have brokered such arrangements and found that doing so is not as effective.

The reason for this is simple.

If your architect does not have a contractual relationship with the engineer, the architects authority over the engineer will be limited.  This may have the effect of emboldening the engineer to disregard or even challenge the architect’s direction on the project.  I have seen this happen with ill effects burdening the owner to mediate between the parties.

To counter the procurement argument, we need to consider risk in the context of how low the architect’s markup would be.  Generally a 10% to 15% fee is common.

In the context of a construction project, design services as a whole are generally 6% to 10% of the total project cost.  Effectively if the argument for directly hiring the architect is cost, consider that we are talking about 10% of 10%.

In my mind such a small fee is certainly worth empowering your architect to avoid much larger issues down the road.

To further reinforce my argument, consider the case of Hankins and Anderson Engineers who’s feud with the joint venture architecture firm of Rick Mather and SMBW has resulted in a lawsuit over $728,000.  The engineers allege that the architect failed to pay their fee and mismanaged the project.  Fortunately for this Owner (The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts) the engineer was a sub-contractor to the Architect, effectively indemnifying the Owner from this conflict.  While these two firms are at odds, the Owner has not been named in the suit.

What do you think?  Is it worth the additional mark-up for design phase coordination or would you prefer a lower design fee?

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