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AEC leaders of the pack

AEC leaders of the pack

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    Photo: Larry Evans/Black Star

    Millennium Park's Great Lawn plays host to 7000 people for events at the Priszker Pavilion, designed by Frank Gehry. This project was a combination of the Public Building Commission of Chicago and URS expertise.

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    Does your city use AEC firms to complete public works projects?The vast majority of survey respondents use AEC firms in some aspect of their public works jobs. The most respondents were from the Midwest (27%) and were from towns with a population of fewer than 50,000 people (43%).

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    What types of public works projects did the AEC firm complete for your department?Of the projects that public works departments had to complete in 2004, the vast majority were road and bridge projects. According to the survey, most departments (28%) completed six to 10 projects last year, with or without the help of an AEC firm.

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    At what level did the AEC firms you hired work on public works projects?As shown in the survey, three-fourths of public works departments do not have any architects on staff, and only 19% have one to five architects on staff. No wonder so many departments turn to AEC firms to design their projects.

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In business today outsourcing is common; public works departments are no different. No department by itself can handle all of the things that are thrown at it—from planning new parks to rebuilding outdated parking facilities to maintaining water treatment plants. Instead of hiring a full-time staff of architects, engineers, or construction managers, public works directors are turning to AEC (architecture, engineering, construction) firms to complete various projects.

To learn more about the relationship between public works departments and AEC firms, PUBLIC WORKS conducted two separate surveys. First, we approached the AEC firms across the United States that work with public entities. We asked what kind of services they provide to public works departments, what their specialties are, and how much work they did in 2004—measured both in dollars and number of projects.

Second, in an exclusive survey of PUBLIC WORKS readers (conducted in May 2005), we asked public works departments how they work with AEC firms. We also asked about the in-house staff: 75% of respondents indicated that their public works department had no architects on staff, 48% had one to five construction managers on staff, and 43% had one to five engineers. These small staffs can't handle all aspects of larger projects.

AEC firms handle a variety of tasks on public works jobs, including planning, designing, building, maintaining, operating, and even owning. Some firms can manage the entire spectrum of a project, while others specialize in just one or two parts of the process.

Our readers survey indicates that 92% of public works departments use AEC firms to complete their projects. Nearly 57% indicated that seven out of 10 of their public works projects had been worked on by an AEC firm, showing that these firms have a strong grasp on and a great stake in the public works arena. Public works departments can't live without them—and, of course, they can't live without public works projects.

But what about the AEC firms? For starters, these companies are staffed with architects, engineers, and construction managers who have expertise in completing everything from a wastewater treatment plant plan to designing a new traffic control system to constructing public buildings. And public works departments are spending money on these projects. According to the survey, 49% of respondents spent more than $500,000 on public works projects last year. The most money was spent on road and bridge construction, while the least was spent on asset management. Turning to an AEC firm to complete the design of a project was the most common use public works departments made of AEC firms (97%), while only 1% of AEC firms actually own public works facilities.

The location of the AEC firm in proximity to the public works department seemed to have little effect on whether they were selected for a project. Most survey respondents (66%) indicated that it didn't matter whether small, local firms were used or large, national firms were called upon. Most of the larger AEC firms have a corporate headquarters and several regional offices scattered around the country, which may be transparent to a public works director.

But actually determining the top firms that public works departments turned to in 2004 is a tough question, since each firm quantifies public works a little differently. We asked AEC firms in which of the following aspects of public works they provide services:

  • asset management
  • hazardous waste collection and disposal
  • homeland security
  • landscape architecture/park design
  • municipal solid waste
  • pipeline construction/rehabilitation
  • public buildings
  • road/bridge construction
  • surveying/mapping/GIS
  • traffic control
  • wastewater/stormwater/sewer treatment
  • watersheds/water resources
  • water treatment.
  • In addition, some AEC firms indicated that they also provide services in aviation, rail transportation, mass transit, power plants, or tunnels and consider those as “public works.”

    Gathering the data from the AEC firms was difficult. Some big, well-known firms, such as AMEC and Parsons, don't disclose information about revenue or number of public works jobs completed; accordingly, they're not on our list. Others don't count the number of jobs that have been completed in a particular year (we asked only about 2004), leaving us with some blanks or zeros. As a result, we didn't achieve our goal with what started out to be a list of the “top 100” firms. We give you, instead, a list—in alphabetical order—of what we feel are 75 of the most important AEC firms.

    This list is by no means comprehensive, but it will provide you with a resource for who to turn to when you have a special project coming up—since we know from our survey of readers that 57% of you are required to get more than five bids or requests for proposals for a public works project.