When Uncle Sam awards design and construction contracts for government buildings, he’s missing out on a golden opportunity to make his buildings more efficient, safer and a better value to the taxpayer. My professional society, the American Institute of Architects, is working hard on Capitol Hill to reform the outmoded government procurement process that awards these contracts.

Federal procurement policy often discourages the best architecture firms from ever competing for Uncle Sam’s business. Why? Between 2007 and 2011, architecture firms in teams that competed for public-sector design-build projects spent a median of $260,000 making detailed plans, models and other materials. That may not sound like a lot of money, except that more than 70 percent of my fellow member firms are actually small businesses that make less than $1 million a year. 


As a result, these small architecture and design firms face the dilemma of ‘betting it all’ on a contract they may not win, or self-selecting out of the federal design-build market altogether. As I testified in 2013 before the House of Representatives Small Business Committee, in recent years the average number of short-listed firms for federal design-build projects has grown from an industry best practice of having three to five firms on a short list to as many as 10 or more firms short-listed. Faced with a choice of spending a quarter of a million dollars with only a 10-percent chance of winning, many of fellow architect/design colleagues simply stay on the sideline.

There’s another, hidden cost to taxpayers: the additional time it takes for contracting officers to review so many complicated design proposals. The longer it takes to review final proposals, the longer it takes Uncle Sam to pick out and evaluate the winning team.  This practice does not help either the construction industry or the government. It’s wasteful for both.

Hoping to solve this problem, Rep. Sam GravesSamuel (Sam) Bruce GravesRepublicans spend more than million at Trump properties Acting FAA chief defends agency's Boeing 737 Max safety certification Thirty-four GOP members buck Trump on disaster bill MORE (R-Mo.) introduced the bi-partisan Design-Build Efficiency and Jobs Act of 2013 (H.R. 2750). In July, Sen. Deb. Fischer (R-Neb.) introduced a companion bill (S.2652) in the Senate. Both bills address the issue by requiring contracting officers to provide a written justification to the head of an agency for requiring more than five finalists in the second stage of a design-build solicitation and agency approval of such justification. These bills would provide more certainty and opportunities for design firms of all sizes who wish to enter the federal marketplace. It will ensure that agencies have the ability to select the most qualified design-build teams who will deliver the best buildings for agencies and the public. Finally, it will limit federal agencies’ burdens in reviewing a large number of proposals.

And, thanks to Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), Graves’ bill is also included in the House’s defense authorization bill.

At a time when federal agencies have failed to reach their targets for small business participation in the past six years, it is incumbent on Congress to remove barriers that prevent small entrepreneurs from taking part. One way for Congress to do that is to pass design-build reform legislation - now.  

Dreiling, FAIA, is president of the American Institute of Architects, based in Washington, D.C.