How to win high profile public projects in NYC
Sharon McHugh meets David Burney

It’s the goal of many architects to land a high profile project in a world-class city. Whilst one may presume that opportunities like this exist only for large and established firms, think again. New York City’s Department of Design and Construction (DDC), which builds many of the civic projects in the city and manages a portfolio valued at $6bn, has a world class procurement process that is fair, easy, and open to all architects, including international firms, emerging architects, and firms as large as 500 and as small as 1. As public agencies go, the DDC’s track record for bringing about high quality buildings in the public realm is perhaps second to none, which is why we were eager to sit down and chat with Commissioner David Burney, the architect who heads the DDC, about how his department procures design services, what opportunities there are for architects there, and how one gets started. What follows is a transcript of that conversation.

Sharon: Hi David. Thanks for doing this. What advice do you have for architects looking to win commissions with your department?

David: First they have to be interested in our portfolio. We don’t do schools or housing but we pretty much do everything else. Second is to understand how public agencies work. There’s a big distinction between how public agencies and private clients procure design services. With private clients there are no rules. The process is not transparent, it’s not altogether clear, and it’s bound by crazy regulations. In the public sector you’re always interested in defending the taxpayers’ dollars. It’s the way they procure paper clips and design services. In order to get the job, you have to undercut the fee. When you do this, you lose a whole sector of designers that you want to attract.


When the fee is low, the client ends up getting incomplete documents. So it’s always a false economy. The public sector is now finally seeing the light. We do quality based selection. It’s a far better process and the way to go. We pay a fair fee. You get what you pay for.

What do you pay?

We have a fee scale based on construction value plus negotiated add-ons like LEED Certification and Historic Landmark.

What kinds of opportunities are there for architects at the DDC?

We have a variety of projects. Major projects like a $2bn police academy and smaller ones. We try to match projects to the design firms. [A sampling of projects currently underway at the DDC include the Bronx Museum of Art (Arquitectonica), Children’s Discovery Center (1100 Architect), DHS Path Family Center for homelessness (Ennead), Engine Company 227 Firehouse (STV, Inc.), Glen Oaks Library (Marble Fairbanks), and the Queens Museum of Art (Grimshaw Architects with Amman & Whitney) among others.]

Do you do any design competitions?

We do very few competitions. I have mixed feelings about them. One of the most productive parts of bringing about a high quality building is the relationship between the architect and the client. You lose a lot in the process when there’s no relationship. With most competitions there’s no dialogue. Very few competitions get built as designed so the work that led up to the winning scheme is often scrapped and the process starts over again. It winds up being wasteful and expensive. There are exceptions to this like sports stadia, where the program is pretty much fixed and not as much dialogue is required. Two stage competitions are a bit better in this regard as there is some dialogue built into the process.

How do you select architects for projects?

We are the dating agency that finally becomes the marriage counselor. We try to make sure we are looking at the whole team, including the consultants, and the chemistry. We spend a lot of time doing this. Procurement is a very long process. It can take us 6-8 months for one project. We do around a hundred projects a year.

How can a small firm or a young architect win projects in your department?

We’ve established ‘On Call’ projects where we give a contract before we even have work. Many of these projects are under $15m and are set aside for smaller firms. The contract is for 3 years. Sometimes


we renew contracts but we like to get in a few new fresh faces.

For ‘On Call’ projects how many responses do you typically get?

The last time we put out an RFP to small firms for ‘On Call’ services we had 139 responses.

You mention that you like to get a few fresh faces in the mix. As emerging architects by definition have little to no experience what are you looking for from them?

We are looking for enthusiasm and a high level of design ability.

Does one have to have experience in a particular building type to win a project? In other you have to have a portfolio of libraries to win one?

No. Prior experience is not necessary. You can have a minimum level of expertise. But you do have to be licensed in New York.

How can architects learn more about your department and the opportunities there?

We have a website. On it is a section called Doing Business with the DDC that will tell you pretty much everything you need to know.

Thanks David. This information will be most welcomed by our readers.

My pleasure.

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