Sep 13, 2016
11:47 am


Design Firm

With the Calgary CARWACS show just around the corner… you might have a chance to speak with a design firm or two. This article will arm you with some useful questions to ask.

Whether you are opening a nationally branded fuel outlet or restaurant franchise location that follows architectural standards provided by the head office – or are building your own independent offering – you will need the services of a design and engineering company to bring the plans all together.

So how do you go about choosing the right firm to work with? Here are 8 basic questions that will give you a sense of their capabilities and whether or not the firm is compatible with your needs.

  1. What experience do you have with the type of business I’m opening?

Some design firms are great at creating magnificent libraries or multi-floor office spaces, but are out of their element when it comes to gas stations and quick service restaurants. It is a very specialized field that requires detailed understanding of not only design – but also the business processes involved in running a successful operation.

A few secondary questions to ask include:

  • How many projects of this nature have you built?
  • Have you ever worked with the fuel/qsr brand I am affiliated with?
  • Are you familiar with all aspects of my build? (Car washes, fueling systems, hot food service, drive-thru, etc.)
  1. What services do you have in-house (and which would you need to “contract out”)?

Depending on the complexity of your new build, retrofit or renovation – there are a number of design services you may require. Almost every project will require professional input and signoff from electrical, mechanical and structural engineers. In green field developments, you’ll need a civil engineer to help plan utilities and access points. Interior design expertise is often essential. And in cases where you are designing the building from the ground up, you’ll need a capable architect.

You will find that the fewer companies involved – and the more centralized the chain of command – the easier and more efficient your build will be. By choosing a full-service design firm, you will also have greater accountability – as there is no one to “pass the buck” to.

  1. Have you worked in my city/municipality?

 Building codes can vary dramatically from one province to the next. And each town or city has its own unique bylaws. The process will go much smoother if you work with a design firm that is familiar with your jurisdiction and has worked on other projects in the area. After all, you don’t want to pay someone to learn on the job – and potentially overlook an important design detail as a result.

  1. What relationships do you have that can be leveraged on my project?

You may have experience operating a c-store or gas bar, but if you’ve never built or refurbished one – you are on unfamiliar ground. An experienced design firm will have developed a number of important connections to a variety of contractors and suppliers over the years – from walk-in coolers to fuel dispensers to carwash payment systems. This knowledge can help you pick reputable/proven suppliers and save you time and money.

  1. Can you oversee the permitting and approval process?

Lengthy permitting delays can significantly impact the timing of your project schedule and push back your opening. It can also cost you money if things were not done correctly and you need to rectify the situation!

Experienced design professionals know how to successfully navigate the detailed permitting and approval processes in your municipality. If required they can help you in special circumstances that may arise, be it environmental approvals, community consultations and even archeological approvals. Their active involvement will take a great deal of work and responsibility off of your shoulders and help ensure you’ve dotted all of your I’s and crossed all of your T’s.

  1. What advanced design tools do they have at their disposal?

The days of sitting at the drafting table with a pencil and t-square are a thing of the past. Today’s design firms rely on AutoCAD (Computer Assisted Drafting) software and other advanced design platforms. Larger firms have access to systems created to ensure greater efficiency in the design and construction of your building/lot. Here are just a few:

REVIT is an example of a Building Information Modelling application that allows you to see your building in 3-D layers. You can peel it back like an onion to look at the surface finishes and go right down to the studs. If something doesn’t feel right, you can address it before you build! It also provides tools such as 3D rendering, bill of materials, project costing, maintenance scheduling and more.

AUTOTURN is a software package used to model traffic flow onto your property. It can help you avoid tight bottlenecks, conduct a sweep path analysis and optimize parking and site access. It can even be used to test drive-thru layout using vehicles of all shapes and sizes.

There is money in the dirt. On larger projects requiring site development, earth movement and preparation represents a significant budget line. CIVIL 3D is a cool piece of software that can be used to provide a detailed cut and fill analysis – and represent the “civil package” as a 3D model. It helps provide an understanding of the scope (and projected cost) of work, and discover cost efficiencies

  1. Are you able to offer Management/ Administrative Support?

A design firm’s job is not necessarily over once they have handed over the drawings. With their intimate knowledge of the design details, the design firm can play a valuable role helping you with Construction Support and Construction Administration.

The good firms can aid with the tendering process – and can assess contractor bids and costs, procure and manage contracts, oversee construction, handle change orders, manage inspections and more.

  1. What processes do you have in place to ensure my build is done right?

Whether we’re talking about a design firm – or any contractor involved in the building process – your main concern is that your project is done on time, on budget, as promised.

Smart processes help you avoid dumb mistakes. They also hold the company accountable and ensure greater transparency. Because design projects can be complex and can have many components, you will want to choose a firm that has a proven structure in place and is led by an experienced project manager who follows the standards set forth by the Project Management Institute.

At the end of the day, do your homework. Take the time to look at the firm’s website, read its case studies. Ask if they have references. Equally important, get to know their people. Do they give you a good feeling? Do they know what they are talking about? Are they asking questions of you and expressing a genuine interest in your project?

Choosing the right design firm will ensure your business gets off on the right foot and will set you up for success.