QBS: qualifications- versus cost-based selection

Qualifications-based selection (QBS) avoids the pitfalls of low-bid and other cost-based selection methods by focusing on the owner’s vision and scope, and negotiating price based on a comprehensive understanding of project scope and deliverables. QBS makes it easier to bring in projects on time, within budget, with a minimum of changes and discordance during design and construction. Commissioning professionals are getting on board, learning the process, and educating clients.


Learning objectives

  • Prepare for the application and process of qualifications-based selection (QBS) contract development
  • Choose recognized resources to develop qualifications for the selection process.
  • Make use of QBS to work with owners collaboratively to refine project deliverables and costs.

Qualifications-based selection (QBS) is a competitive evaluation, scoring, and selection process established 42 years ago for building owners to use when hiring professional service providers. It encourages owners to solicit—and project consultants to submit—proposals for specific scopes of work that are evaluated based on qualifications first. Consultants are then shortlisted and selected for budget negotiations after preliminary selection, but before contracts are signed.

QBS was approved for architectural and engineering design services on Federal construction projects by Congress on Oct. 27, 1972, through the Brooks Act (H.R. 12807, Public Law 92-582). The Brooks Act amended the first Federal Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949 regarding selection of building design professionals. It was intended for publicly funded owners “to negotiate contracts for architectural and engineering services on the basis of demonstrated competence and qualification for the type of professional services required and at fair and reasonable prices.” Under the Brooks Act, QBS is not universally applied—or often recognized—as a tool for private-sector projects.

The Brooks Act was passed to discourage federal property owners and managers from contracting large building design services based exclusively on price. Although not a mandate for the private sector, QBS is gaining ground among building-related professionals, like commissioning providers, well beyond the architectural and engineering practices for whom it was established.

Since 1972, QBS has been adapted into “mini-Brooks Acts” by 46 states and many local governments. Two states without QBS legislation—Iowa and Wisconsin—offer guidelines and QBS-type facilitation services. Vermont requires both qualifications and price for state-funded projects. South Dakota’s Bureau of Administration describes a process that begins like QBS and results in best and final offer (BAFO) selection.

Beyond legislation for public owners, numerous professional organizations recommend QBS and have developed internal policies and guidelines for its use. The QBS framework is endorsed by many architectural and engineering associations in the U.S. and Canada. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) support QBS on behalf of their members. The Association of General Contractors of America is a strong proponent of QBS. Recently, the Building Commissioning Association has become first in its profession to initiate and adopt a QBS position paper and is actively advocating for QBS on behalf of building-commissioning professionals.

How owners should prepare for QBS

QBS is a decision-making methodology. It describes neither work practices nor specific qualifications for project services, but is rather an evaluation process for owners to seek and identify the most qualified provider for their project. QBS is not a uniform process; expectations vary from state to state, and project to project. QBS documentation is typically written only as a guide for owners to ensure their procurement practices are conducted in accordance with the Brooks Act (per Federal Acquisition Regulations Section 36).

The owner’s request for qualifications (RFQ) should contain a well-defined description of the project, including its requirements and goals, so responses can be evaluated by matching skills and experience to project criteria. With a detailed scope of work, proposers also can arrange teams and qualifications that meet the project requirements. At minimum, the project description should include:

  • Project name and location
  • Project outline (building type, use, size, occupancy, other facility characteristics)
  • Description of functional and space needs (e.g., medical, mission critical, technical, research, or other specialized facilities; environmental requirements, energy efficiency, etc.)
  • Budget estimate and schedule, including phases and completion requirements
  • Description or copies of work done on the project to date, if any
  • Description of specific services requested
  • List of expected deliverables and/or outcomes.

How commissioning providers should prepare for QBS

Commissioning is not specified as a professional service in the Brooks Act, but it is referenced in some state policy definitions of “related services.” U.S. Federal Acquisition Regulations define services within the QBS framework as “… including studies, investigations … evaluations, consultations … construction phase services … drawing reviews, preparation of operating and maintenance manuals, and other related services.” Given that these services are components of the commissioning practice, and that building owners and jurisdictions increasingly consider commissioning a professional service, it’s time to align QBS, commissioning providers, building owners, and the buildings industry.

The time has come to revisit QBS in relation to building commissioning services. It should be regarded by owners as one of the most important services to be hired based on qualifications. QBS is a tool that owners and commissioning providers should both rely on to ensure that capabilities meet expectations.

To respond to a QBS-based RFQ, commissioning providers must understand that it is a points- or percentage-based competitive rating process. They must be able to show experience, capabilities, similar project successes, and relevant work factors in a way that differentiates their proposed (unpriced) solution from others.

A key—and often overlooked—initial step is to recognize and state an understanding of the client’s project drivers and expectations. It is not just a mechanical, electrical, plumbing (MEP), and fire protection engineering systems approach to getting the work done, but one that shows an understanding of the owner’s “vision” for occupancy and the project’s long-term performance (not your vision, but theirs).

You, the commissioning provider, should write down the owner’s critical success factors. Use them as a guide to describe your value proposition. Describe how you plan to perform the work, and list programmatic, technical, and management components. Identify who will do the work, resources that will be required, and, importantly, how you will mitigate risks. Points are generally awarded for being local, and for demonstrating relevant experience, reliability, and commitment by key team members.

In some cases, you may not be submitting a proposal directly to the owner, but rather through a design or design-build team where your qualifications will be added to theirs. At minimum, you can significantly improve the team’s qualifications by providing the quality assurance and qualifications information they should have—but likely had not—requested from you.

Properly performed, commissioning is the continuous quality assurance link across disciplines and schedule, from predesign through turnover and occupied building operation. The link that is not well-documented is the approach that commissioning providers and other professional services should take so that owners know how to prepare RFQs and requests for proposal that solicit high-value, project-specific quality assurance capabilities, so providers know how to respond. When owners learn how to solicit robust qualifications, they will ask for them.

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