Select Appropriate Design Professionals  

by the WBDG Aesthetics Subcommittee


Design professionals play a critical role in the quality of our built environment. The capabilities of the architects and engineers (A/Es) on the integrated design team constitute the single most important factor in determining the success of the overall design—from image and attributes of the building and landscape to construction costs and life-cycle costs. Building in today's marketplace is a complex undertaking requiring many different skills and materials. Successful designs are the result of an integrated design process that addresses not only client needs and requirements, but also climate, context, and quality while complying with public health, safety, and welfare, and sustainability building requirements. Well qualified design professionals who understand these complexities can deliver thoughtful and innovative designs that satisfy the client's programmatic needs while addressing the unique characteristics of a given site and community.

Medical Clinic, McChord Air Force Base, WA

The clinic's unique design promotes efficient and cost-effective medical care, and enhances quality of life for military personnel in an environment equal to off-base civilian facilities while adhering to Air Force design standards and guidelines. Medical Clinic, McChord Air Force Base, WA.
Credits: NBBJ, Seattle District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Air Force Center for Environmental Excellence, and Air Force Surgeon General-Facilities.

Federal sites and buildings are with us for centuries. Therefore, government agencies are committed to design excellence, sustainability, accessibility, the development of a world-class workplace, and the legacy that quality federal buildings provide. A/E teams and customer agencies are encouraged to explore new technologies and foster alternative solutions to the numerous challenges of designing a facility, while expending the taxpayers' dollars effectively and efficiently. They are encouraged to address the needs of the community and to work within the context of broader issues—not just the functionality of a facility, but its appropriateness to the surrounding landscape, its responsiveness to our limited resources, and its representation of the federal government to the public.

The selection of the design team should be undertaken as early in the life of a project as possible. Every design and construction project is unique, with a variety of services required to transform the generalized concept into reality. A qualified design professional can guide an owner through the intricacies of the design process; standard phases include pre-design, programming and schematic design, design development, construction documentation, bidding and negotiations, and construction. Building design professionals can assist in defining the project at the outset in terms that provide meaningful guidance for design. Pre-design services may include site selection, existing facilities surveys, environmental studies and reports, feasibility and programming studies and commissioning. Design services, in addition to the standard phases of design, may include Building Information Modeling, LEED certification, Green Globes rating and commissioning. The design team should also be involved in the construction phase of the project to assure that the intentions of the contract documents are realized. It is important to begin the process of selecting design professionals with a consideration of delivery method, site, programmatic, schedule, and budget issues. These factors contribute to defining the scope of work for projects, which in turn inform the selection of appropriate design professionals and delivery team composition.

A. Selecting Design Professionals

When a building project is initiated by an agency representing the public, the selection of qualified building professionals becomes a reflection of how tax dollars will be spent. When selecting design professionals, a public owner's primary concerns is to conduct a fair and equitable selection process to get the best available design services. Once that selection has been made, it is then the responsibility of the agency to negotiate the best value for those services; but first, the selection panel should ensure the selection of the best available firm for the project. A building is a long-term investment, and the realized, built project will be a testament to how well thought-out the selection process is.

For public projects, there are two main methods for selecting design professionals: Qualifications-Based Selection and Design Competitions—a third method is a hybrid of the two with competitors selected by qualification, and made by selection by design proposals, often compensated efforts. In either method, the individuals responsible for selecting the design professional should have an understanding of the needs of a specific project and should be able to evaluate the achievements of the potential firms. Selection panels evaluate firms on criteria such as previous experience, past performance, portfolio review, awards and recognitions, level of commitment to project, and overall customer service.

To ensure the selection panel will make a well informed choice, it is important that any procurement for professional design services take into consideration:

  • The goals of the project. Solicitations for qualifications and requests for proposals should be specific about the goals and parameters of the project, the anticipated scope of work, and any specialty disciplines that will be required. Be clear about what will be expected of the design team and what evaluation factors will be used to select them.
  • The design team's suitability for the project. This does not mean an AE must have done the same type of project, but that his/her experience demonstrates a competency in projects of similar complexity or context. For example, if the project involves a historic building, use appropriate criteria in the evaluation and selection process to ensure that candidates have the experience and knowledge for dealing with the preservation of historic structures.
  • Who is in charge. Complex needs may be addressed by a complex team; make sure you know who is in charge and how the team is structured.
  • The resources available for the project. What have comparable projects cost, and does the budget match the project scope.

Qualifications-Based Selection (QBS)

Qualifications-Based Selection—When a building project is initiated by an agency representing the public, the selection of a qualified building professional becomes even more important. When selecting a design professional, a public owner's primary concerns are to get the best available design services, and conduct a fair and equitable selection process. Federal project solicitations are announced in, a website that lists government-wide notices for all types of services.

Recognizing the need for a qualifications-based approach to procuring design services, the U.S. Congress established as federal law in 1972 (P.L. 92-582), commonly referred to as the "Brooks Act", that requires that architects and engineers be selected for projects on the basis of their qualifications subject to negotiation of fair and reasonable compensation. Selection panel members must be highly qualified professionals with experience in design and construction related fields. Most states and numerous local jurisdictions also use Brooks Act procedures.

Qualifications-Based Selection (QBS) usually involve the following steps:

  1. The owner prepares a description of the project to be built or problem to be solved, referred to as a preliminary scope of services.
  2. The owner invites design professionals to submit statements of qualifications for the project at hand.
  3. Statements of qualifications are evaluated and several individuals or firms are selected, or "short-listed," for further consideration.
  4. The individuals or firms are then interviewed and ranked according to an evaluative scoring system.

Design Competitions

A design competition is a method of awarding a design contract based on design excellence and is a permitted selection method allowed by FAR 36.602-1b. When the use of a design competition is approved by the agency head or designee, the agency may evaluate firms based on their conceptual design of a project. Design competitions are typically used for significant Federal projects, such as monuments or those of unusual national significance. Since selection of the design firm takes longer when a competition is used as the selection method, there must be sufficient time in the project schedule to produce and evaluate conceptual designs. There must also be a significant benefit to the project to use a competition as this selection vehicle also costs more.

There are two types of federal design competitions:

  • Open design competitions are open to all design professionals. These are usually design teams headed by an architectural firm with a registered architect at the helm. An example of this is the World War II Memorial Competition, won by Freidrich St. Florian.
  • Invited design competitions are competitions where a selected group of design professionals, usually highly regarded or recognized architects or architects pre-qualified by appropriate experience, are invited to submit a design on a project. This is often the last stage of a qualifications-based selection process.

Competitions are structured as a one-stage, two-stage, or in some cases, a three-stage process:

  • In a One-Stage design competition, the selected firm is chosen by a jury from all submitted entries. The winner is then awarded the design contract. Because of the nature of projects that lend themselves to Federal Design Competitions, this type of competition is not used very often.
  • A Two-Stage design competition is also open to all design professionals. The goal of the first stage is to solicit design portfolios from Design Firms and Lead Designers. Based on the jury evaluation of the submitted portfolios, a short-list of Design Firms and Lead Designers is selected to proceed to Stage II. The highest ranking competitors are then invited to form complete A/E teams, and submit additional written material on the teams for further evaluation by the agency's A/E Evaluation Board. During Stage II, team interviews are also held. A final ranking of the teams is completed by the A/E Evaluation Board, who then makes the final selection.
  • A Three-Stage competition incorporates the same components as the One- and Two-Stage competition, however final selection is made following completion of a "vision" for the project. The evaluation of the design concepts by an independent jury, as well as the evaluations of the Stage I and Stage II components, will be used by the A/E Evaluation Board to prepare the final ranking of the Stage III Teams. Because of the additional expense associated with preparing project "vision" submittals, teams are compensated with an amount that is specified in the original announcement in

For information on how to run a design competition, see WBDG Running a Design Competition.

Photo of Federal Courthouse in Las Vegas, NV

This Federal Courthouse in Las Vegas, NV was designed via GSA's Design Excellence Program.
Photo Credit: Cannon Dworski Architects

U.S. General Services Administration's (GSA) Design Excellence Program streamlines the way GSA selects architects and engineers for construction and major renovation projects. It is a qualifications-based selection process that simplifies proposal requirements, reduces GSA's evaluation time, and lowers costs for both the government and the competing private firms. Stage 1 is the selection of a short list of lead designers; stage two is completion of AE teams followed by team interviews. There is also a procedure in place for limited and full design competitions.

The Design Excellence Program recognizes the GSA's commitment to the "Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture" which states that "The policy shall be to provide requisite and adequate facilities in an architectural style and form which is distinguished and which will reflect the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American National Government. Major emphasis should be placed on the choice of designs that embody the finest contemporary American architectural thought".

B. Design Recognition

Architecture has a robust tradition of awards and recognition for design. Each year, many of the periodicals, journals, and organizations affiliated with the profession hold open competitions under which firms anonymously compete for architecture, planning, urban design, and research awards and recognition.

Design Award Programs

Design award programs serve as the vehicle to honor the creative strengths of building design professionals and to publicize the enduring results of their efforts. For more information and a listing of agency and industry-sponsored design awards, see WBDG Aesthetics—Design Awards.

Participation in Design Competitions

Design competitions can bring many different design ideas, innovations, and publicity to a project, an issue, or to the designer/design team. They broaden the field of opportunity for client and architect alike and can often be a means for younger, less established architects to gain acclaim and win projects that they might not have been awarded under a qualifications-based selection process. Examples of this are the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC, awarded to Maya Ying Lin, a 21-year old undergraduate architecture student at Yale University, and the Evanston Public Library Competition, an international design competition won in 1991 by 28-year old Joseph Powell. See Section on Design Competitions (above).


Winners of design awards and competitions are often published in professional journals and architectural periodicals where they receive additional publicity and recognition. In addition, some publishing houses routinely publish monographs or reviews of architectural design, practice, and theory. They include:


Mass market and trade periodicals present articles and photographs of current projects and current issues. Often they present the latest in contemporary theory, design, and technologies—from urban planning principles to smart buildings and materials—as well insights on specific building types. These articles can be a useful tool in gaining an understanding of contemporary architectural practices and practitioners. See the Periodical list below.

C. Professional Organizations

The involvement of many building professionals has an impact on aesthetic decisions throughout the design and construction process. This may include architects, landscape architects, urban designers, interior designers, lighting designers, engineers, and representatives from throughout the construction industry. In part to help define the boundaries of professional responsibility, each of these professions is represented by a national trade association. In most cases, the trade association or organization publishes industry guidelines about the legal, ethical, and aesthetic role of their members in the building design and construction process.

Profession Association
Architects The American Institute of Architects (AIA)

Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA)

National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB)

Society of American Registered Architects
Landscape Architects American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)
Interior Designers American Society of Interior Designers (ASID)

Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA)

International Interior Design Association (IIDA)

National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ)
Lighting Designers Illuminating Engineering Society (IES)

International Association of Lighting Designers (IALD)
Professional Engineers American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)

American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE)

American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME)

American Society of Plumbing Engineers (ASPE)

American Society of Sanitary Engineering (ASSE)

Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)

National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)

National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE)

Society of American Military Engineers (SAME)

Structural Engineers Association International (SEA)
Planners American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP)

American Planning Association (APA)
Others Building Commissioning Association (BCxA)

Construction Specifications Institute (CSI)

Sustainable Buildings Industry Council (SBIC)


Major Resources

Federal Agencies/Organizations


Architecture/Engineering Periodicals

Design Competitions

Selecting Design Professionals

  • The American Institute of Architects, AIA Architect Finder
  • AIA Issue Briefs: Qualifications-Based Selection in the Federal Sector, January 2001, and Qualifications-Based Selection in the Public Sector by The American Institute of Architects. The American Institute of Architects, State and Local Government Affairs, January 2003.
  • Architects USA
  • Qualifications-Based Selection: A Process for the Selection of Architects by Public Owners by The American Institute of Architects. The American Institute of Architects, State and Local Government Affairs, January 1992.
  • Questions and Answers on the Procurement of A/E Services by Public Owners. Professional Engineers in Private Practice, National Society Professional Engineers, and The American Institute of Architects. NSPE Publication Number 1976.
  • Selecting Architects and Engineers for Public Building Projects: An Analysis and Comparison of the Maryland and Florida Systems. The American Institute of Architects.
  • Standard Form 330, Architect-Engineer Qualifications—Architects and engineers use this form to present their qualifications and experience when seeking federal projects and emphasizes qualifications-based selection for the procurement of A/E services. This form replaces SF 254/255.
  • You and Your Architect by The American Institute of Architects. Resource booklet to selecting an architect.

Publications on the Sociology and Structure of the Architecture Profession

  • Architects and Firms: A Sociological Perspective on Architectural Practice by Judith R. Blau. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1984.
  • Architectural Practice: A Critical View by Robert Gutman. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton Architectural Press, 1988.
  • Architecture: The Story of Practice by Dana Cuff. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1991.