After much turmoil, Fire Station 21 design decision finalized
As published in the Daily Journal Of Commerce, Wednesday, August 24, 2011
BY: Angela Webber

A five-month search by the city of Portland for a firm to design Fire Station 21 appears to be over. The city last week said it intends to negotiate a contract with Whelton Architecture to handle architecture and engineering for the project.

This is the second contract award for Whelton to design Fire Station 21. The city’s procurement services department in the Office of Management and Finance admits that the facilities department, which managed the first award, made some mistakes. The procurement services department says it addressed the errors by restarting the evaluation process. However, a competing firm’s owner, who brought to light the problems with the first award, says he still is concerned.

“It wasn’t a transparent process,” Carleton Hart Architecture’s William Hart said.

In April, 10 architecture firms submitted proposals to design a new fire station to replace an aging building near the Hawthorne Bridge. The existing station is the last in Portland not seismically upgraded – when a bond was passed to upgrade all city stations, Fire Station 21 was out of commission. It was brought online recently to replace a station in a different location that will be taken out of commission because of nearby Portland-Milwaukie light-rail construction nearby.

The Office of Management and Finance’s facilities department, which managed the request for proposals process, decided that of the 10 firms that applied, those with the four highest scores would qualify for oral interviews. The winner would then be selected based on the results of the oral interviews.

In a protest letter to the city, Hart wrote that the facilities department did not follow that outlined RFP process. The overall scores used to calculate the winning firm consisted of scores from the evaluation of written proposals and from the oral interviews. But not all firms were asked the same questions, according to Hart, which caused led some firms to score higher than others.

Hart pointed out that a representative of the city’s facilities department told firms during a mandatory pre-application conference that short-listed firms would “start from zero” during the interview process. According to Hart’s calculations, if the city had indeed “started from zero” and excluded the issues not discussed in their oral interviews, Carleton Hart would have won the contract.

Procurement Supervisor Barb Gibson called the problem a “process issue.”

“The Chief Procurement Officer agreed … that Carleton Hart had a point that there was a ‘process problem,’ ” Gibson said.

So the city rescinded Whelton’s award from the original RFP round, and the process was moved from the facilities department to the procurement services department. In a June 15 interview with the Daily Journal of Commerce, OMF management analyst Abby Coppick said that the city would re-interview the shortlisted firms.

On July 17, Gibson told the DJC that the city would return to evaluations of the original 10 written proposals and convene an entirely new evaluation committee. It was the first time in memory that the clock had been turned back so far on the process, Gibson said in that interview.

Written proposal scores in round one and oral interview scores in round one were based on a maximum score of 500. Written proposal scores in round two were based on a maximum score of 600.

“As we started working, it became clear that we needed to back it up one more step,” Gibson said. “We really wanted it to be a clean process.”

The new committee evaluated the 10 written proposals, and Whelton Architecture came out on top. On Aug. 12, the city once again issued a notice that Whelton Architecture would get the contract.

Aaron Whelton, owner of the winning architecture firm, said he believes procurement services took the right action. “I think it was the right decision to take a step back,” Whelton said. “By going back in the process, it strengthens the decision and removes it from potential scrutiny.”

But Hart doesn’t believe the time for scrutiny has passed. He said his main question at this point is why the city didn’t call firms back in for oral interviews for the second process.

“The interviews were important the first time around; I don’t see why they were excluded this time,” Hart said. “Usually things are more transparent. Given as much scrutiny that this (process) has had, it would seem that (the city) would have at least had oral interviews.”

Gibson said her office had the option of conducting oral interviews in the second process, but decided that doing so was unlikely to change the outcome because of the disparity in points between the top two firms.

In the first round, the top two candidates were separated by a distance of 10 points out of 500; in the second round, the distance was 13 points out of 600. Both of those represent a margin of about 2 percent.

“A lot of times, we use the orals when there’s just one or two points between. But when there’s a larger gap it’s not normal that we go to (interviews),” Gibson said.

Hart did not submit a protest letter after Whelton was awarded the contract in the second round. Even if the process had gone to oral interviews in the second round, his firm would not have made the cut. In the second round, Whelton Architecture was a front-runner with 502 points, and Carleton Hart had the second lowest score at 428. The firms received the same score when their written proposals were scored in the first round – and both were in third place.

The five-member committee for the first process and the six-member committee for the second process both included representatives from the city fire bureau and from the committee that oversees the bond that will pay for construction. Community members, one city staffer and one Multnomah County staffer also participated.

The scores were created by the evaluation committees assigning numerical values to subjective areas, like “project approach and understanding” and “proposer’s capabilities.”

Portland Fire & Rescue’s new Deputy Chief of Logistics Marco Benetti was a member of the committee for the second process. He said it was “pretty straightforward.”

“Everyone has their own subjectivity about how their scores are,” Benetti said. “But (the scores) all seemed to come out pretty close among all the scoring people.

“I’m looking forward to the project going forward,” he added.


Breakout Box:
Whelton Architecture will negotiate a contract for the design of Fire Station 21. Its proposed contract amount for the project was $607,075. The architecture team will be Aaron Whelton of Whelton Architecture, and architect David Suttle. The consulting team includes:
• TCA Architecture & Planning, consulting architecture
• KPFF, structural and civil engineering
• Interface Engineering: mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineering, and lighting design
• Flowing Solutions, waterfront planning and permitting
• Green Building Services, LEED project management, energy modeling and building analysis, and commissioning
• Studio, landscape architecture
• JMB Consulting Group, cost estimation
• Evergreen Engineering, code analysis

Breakout Box:
Round 1 written | Round 1 interview | Round 2 written
Whelton Architecture 452 464 502
Carleton Hart Architecture 452 461 428
Hennebery Eddy Architects 454 460 481
Peck Smiley Ettlin Architects 464 456 482
Architecture Building Culture 419 445
Group Mackenzie 435 481
MCA Architects 447 447 489
MWA Architects 435 470
Wilson Associates 258 301
Yost Grube Hall Architecture 442 447