Friday, March 28, 2008

Architects’ loyality is to the owner, not contractor

The general public might think an architect is only a person who draws and designs buildings. But a licensed professional architect is really an advocate for the client with a building project. Traditionally, an architect serves as the client’s agent on all matters surrounding construction. He or she resolves disputes that may occur, designs to a budget, analyzes costs that a contractor may propose and implements many other administrative and legal functions connected with construction.

In the case of the new plans for ISD 709, the Duluth Public Schools, Johnson Controls is the contractor and project manager. Instead of having state licensed architects represent the school district, Johnson Controls is in charge of hiring the architects and engineers to represent—who?— Johnson Controls. This is highly unusual for any public entity to allow this.

This multinational corporation is not in the business of guiding and protecting owners from the pitfalls related to construction, as is a licensed architect. The people of Duluth need to know how serious this is. The architect is licensed by the state to represent owners of building projects, not a contractor, especially one who is a big multinational corporation.

I believe there is a huge conflict of interest in this arrangement, which creates a disservice to the school district and our city. There is also little value in having the architects represent the contractor. It is similar to asking the fox to guard the chicken coop. Or asking your butcher to recommend a vegetarian diet. It’s just not smart.

The Red Plan is, perhaps, the most expensive fix to the situation with the least amount of accountability and return we could have imagined. This scenario will be disastrous for the community and the Duluth Public School District. It is an unwise plan.

We have all these really great architecture firms in Duluth, and rather than selecting licensed architects to represent the district, they are going to a big multinational corporation. How is this big multinational qualified to represent the school district in this regard, or any regard for that matter? And then there is this incredible price tag.

Like so many Duluthians, I have a job, kids, and very little extra time in my life. Well, I am also an Architect in charge of his own firm. On a fateful Friday in February of this year, I received a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) from Johnson Controls, Inc. There was nothing too unusual about this RFQ, except I noticed that they seemed to be asking that I represent them rather than the Duluth Public School District. I must have misunderstood, because no school district, or public entity for that matter, requires the Architect to represent the Contractor—at least none that I, or any of my colleagues that I have spoken to, have ever heard about.

So, I then asked for more information about this RFQ.

What I discovered led me to write a very strong letter to the Duluth Public School Board, where I indicated the following major points:

• Johnson Controls is asking that the Architects turn over full ownership of their documents to them, the Contractor, Johnson Controls. This is a big no-no for Architects because it potentially compromises their service and raises safety concerns.

• The Architects are required to hold Johnson Controls legally harmless.

• The Architects are required to defend Johnson Controls.

• Johnson Controls dictates what can and cannot be discussed about the project, even to the school board, or to anyone.

• The Duluth Public School District hired Johnson Controls, the Contractor, to tell them what they think should be built, and then the Contractor is hiring the Architects to represent them and to justify this wish list to the school district.

• Because the Architect works for the Contractor and not the school district, the Contractor would be allowed to charge whatever he wants and provide less than was agreed upon -- essentially being given the green light to greatly increase the scope and cost of the project. There is really no upper limit to what could be charged, and no one to report abuse. We would be at a legal disadvantage.

I think what we need to do as a community is to realistically and smartly take an assessment of the situation. Then we all need to take just a few precious moments, each of us, to get involved and to democratically voice our opinions. Let’s act like true Americans.

What would be better and far less expensive would be for the school district to hire an architect or two in-house. From there they could create a staff that could manage the situation and select local firms who really care about this community, and who could represent the school district directly. We need to build consensus and to stop allowing this situation to tear the community apart.

Yes, something needs to be done, there is no doubt about that; but not in the way it is currently progressing. We need to find a better way that will not bankrupt the district and create unreasonable tax burdens. We need to think about finding a cost-effective way to solve some very important issues for our community, our schools and for our children.

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