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It was snowing in April, in Wisconsin, and the kids were going nuts in the house. Quite frankly I was going nuts in the house. We have human instincts that react in certain scenarios that we put ourselves in. The DMV, dentist chair, airplane (middle seat), principal's office and interviews all cause our brains to react differently. The majority of people will feel nervous, annoyed and maybe even afraid when thinking about such scenarios. Another common scenario that causes us to react is an interview.
Interviews are a fascinating social exchange between two parties. One party has something the other party wants. Based on some things you've written on a piece of paper (resume/proposal), you’re brought into an office and ask some questions for a position opening or project proposal. If you smile enough and generally know what the other party is talking about, you’ll probably be hired.
I've been thinking about interviews a lot lately as my company has been involved in a lot more projects with a design assist approach. It is the last step in the hiring process for early trade partners. If the decision is made to bring on trade partners to assist with the design process, we usually go through a scoping scenario that includes some MEP narratives, proposals, shop walkthroughs and finally an in-person interview. I looked through some of my scoring sheets and in the past 4 years; I've sat through 34 of these trade partner interviews. If you’re heading into your first contractor interview, here are some of my thoughts and experiences on the whole process.
Before you go to the interview, think to yourself, these meetings will determine who I'm going to be working with for the remainder of the project. On top of that, this company will be installing the design we work on together. It should help frame your mind to begin thinking of questions to ask at the interview.
Before we get to that part, I have some initial inquiries.
First, have you written an MEP narrative that outlines and narrates your design to the contractors around the scope of the project? If you don't have at least one narrative to go with the RFP, you might as well not waste your time with an interview. We've done it and it's hard for the team to develop enough dialogue that has any value. Try to explain to your CM (construction manager) that it will be worth it to wait. There is a lot of pressure on your CM to have the budget in line and most CMs really want to get the MEP numbers from the trades. They can speculate all day about MEP, but at the end of the day the best numbers will come from those specific trades. We’ll get into pricing later.
Next, do you have a schedule for the RFP process? There’s nothing worse than not having the right team at the interview on both ends. It happens and it’s hard to judge effectively.
Are you generally close to a schematic level floor plan? Huge swings in square footage can cause the initial MEP estimates to really rise and fall. It’s ideal to have the client see the first pass at the floor plans before the trade partners are brought on.
Finally, what are the unicorns on the project? The unicorns are things that take the average $/SF number that the contractor is going to use and causes them to add more to the number. These are things like LEED, Seismic, Hospital Grade, WELL, High Rise, Clean Rooms, Asbestos, Off Hours Work, etc. Commissioning used to be on this list, but if you’re not commissioning on every project then you’re probably trying to hide something, and you should be commissioning. For each MEP discipline there are system-based unicorns that you’ll want to know causes the average $/SF increase. For plumbing, here are mine to make sure the contractor knows: stainless steel piping, PVC jacketed insulation, water management programs, BAS connections and trending, redundancy, cast iron, lab waste, grease interceptors, lift stations, HW recirculation down to the fixture, med gas outlets per FGI and cross connection control devices for owner equipment. Whatever is out of the ordinary wants to be known before the RFP and written in the narrative.
This is about a two- to three-week period during the time the RFP was released to the contractor pool and when their proposals are due. There isn’t much for you to do here except be helpful. There will likely be some questions that come in during this time. It’s better for you and the project if you can get them answered and sent out to the entire pool of bidders. If you get a phone call, it’s important that you not answer any questions and advise them to submit the questions to the CM. The last thing you want is to have one contractor more informed than the rest. This could cause a lot of problems if not handled correctly. If you’re unsure, ask your PM or call the CM and ask them directly.
Initially reviewing the proposals can look like a daunting task. The first thing you do when you open up these documents is notice that they are typically 200 pages. Let me tell you where to focus.
The sections that I usually skip over include:
These are the sections that I usually spend most of my time on:
Finally, we’re at the interview. It’s probably been about two to three weeks since you’ve written your narrative. Maybe peek at it again to brush up on your approach to the project. The CM might ask you your preferences on how the interviews are to be set up. Be prepared. These are my preferences:
If the CM has their own approach, its ok but it’s important for you to know it before the meeting so you can be prepared. The worst experience that I was a part of for trade partner interviews was when we interviewed contractors all day and at the end of the day the contractor scheduled a meeting for “final selections.” At the meeting, we had no consensus and everyone was valuing the contractors differently all day. This led to a lot of debates and we had to resume the meeting the next morning. Have a plan.
I asked Kurt Theune, a Mortenson design phase executive, about what his approach was to trade partner interviews. “It’s about relationships and the people,” Theune said. “I’ve already qualified your team and your abilities by inviting you to propose on the project. I want to make sure you understand our team and the approach to the project.” This makes a lot of sense to me. I’m guessing each CM has a unique approach, so just make sure you ask them what it is before the process begins.
For the questions portion of the interview, it’s important to be direct. You don’t have a lot of time and you don’t want to waste their valuable time either. These are some of my favorite questions to ask:
1. With our team being EOR, how will you handle a difference of opinion on the design of the mechanical system?
Commentary: You want to make sure egos are being set aside and that the EOR has the oversite of the design that they are expected to uphold by their PE licensure.
2. This is our expected meeting cadence; can you confirm that you will be present at these meetings in person?
Commentary: This question never gets answered truthfully. I appreciate the realist that says, “We’re going to do everything in our power to be at every scheduled meeting.” Rather than someone guaranteeing they’ll be at every meeting because you know that’s just not practical.
3. What’s your experience in (fill in market sector here), and can you give us an example of a challenging project and how you resolved the issue?
Commentary: Looking for some insight if they’ve worked in that particular field. If they truly know health care work for example, maybe they’ll say the biggest challenge is infection control.
4. What other projects do you have going on right now?
Commentary: This will help you with question 7 below. It kind of sets them up because nobody is working on nothing. You can almost guarantee you will hear, “This project fits in really nice with our work load for 2018.”
5. Do you understand the client’s close out/warranty period and how do you plan on completing those tasks?
Commentary: This is helping to avoid a very awkward situation for the client during the closeout. Always remind your client that it’s better to ask for these things in the interview than after you signed a contract. They’re usually free during the interview.
6. Did you notice there will be seismic restraints on this project?
Commentary: This is where we pull out those unicorns on the project. If they look down the table at their estimator or start dancing in their chair…. They don’t have it in their bid.
7. How fast can you begin working on this project?
Commentary: Usually there’s some overlap from their last project. You just want to know that they have a plan.
8. Do you perform your BIM in house or is it outsourced?
Commentary: Outsourcing BIM seems to be getting popular. This can be an issue if your project is extremely complicated from a BIM stand point.
9. How will you be able to deal with floor plan changes?
Commentary: It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when the floor plans change. Another softball, but you can use this in three months when the floor plans change and you can start your e-mail, “Remember in your interview when I said there was going to be changes….”
10. Do you have any value-added alternates that you could propose that would provide value to the project and save money?
Commentary: No this is not a VE opportunity. Hopefully they know the difference.
11. What is the number one commissioning problem with your scope of work? Why?
Commentary: They typically bash controls here….and I’m okay with that, they’re not wrong.
12. Did you read the RFP?
Commentary: I’ve only used this once and it was in one of the worst interviews where they didn’t really know the project at all. Funny thing is the contractor actually wore jeans, used profanity in their interview, and won the project!!! Trust me, this baffles me to this day.
13. All of these proposals are generally very close and very good, what sets your company apart from the rest?
Commentary: This is a hardball, but you might get some insight on how they’re going to react to tough questions on your project.
14. What level of commitment and production do you plan on giving to the design?
Commentary: Write this answer down.
The final review and recap meeting can be interesting. I’ve had it go as smooth as 25 minutes where everyone had scored the exact same for each discipline. I’ve also had it take two to three weeks because there just wasn’t anyone who stood out and we needed more scoping. My advice is to make sure your opinions are professional, and you can recite specific reasons for your scores and answers. It’s easy to get into politics and speculation. Keep it simple and to the point. I also think if you are there with your team that you huddle or excuse yourselves to have a consistent vote. I think this is very important. I want my team to all be on the same page. The last thing you want is one person on your team having regrets.
When pricing comes up, and it will, make sure you’re always thinking about what it’s based on. If it’s only based on your schematic narrative, then you really want to make sure the team’s perspective is in line. Remind them that we don’t even have a locked floor plan and that it makes sense that the numbers are a little spread right now. What are we doing with the estimates? I pray that they’re not considering this your GMP, for your sake. Finally, in my first interview, a construction foreman told me that when you review 3 or more bids, it’s been his 40 years of experience that the low team is usually not right. So far, based on my 34 interviews, I totally agree with him.
Once the team has finished deliberation and the decision has been made, it’s important that you let the CM handle the award process. The last thing you want to do is have your team break the news over a text message and handle it incorrectly. This is incredibly important in today’s world where word can travel so fast and be incorrectly delivered. The message should be unified and not scrambled from multiple sources.
For larger projects, the client could be spending more than $100 million dollars on these trades alone. Your team must get this decision right. The success of the project depends on it. The other thing to remember is that these teams have spent a lot of time, energy and money putting these proposals and interviews together. You want to give them the respect and time they deserve. You never know when you might be on the other side in the hot seat. Interviews shouldn’t be compared with going to the dentist, just long as both parties are prepared.