Choosing the right consultants for office projects is never easy, and it's only getting harder as specialisms and Building Regulations multiply. Mark Leftly asked some developers for their expert advice, then got a consultant to outline what not to do…

Stick to those you know

Many developers like to stick to consultants that are tried and tested, so that they can ensure consistent quality of work.

Gerald Kaye is one of these guys. He is development director at Helical Bar, one of Britain's best developers whose forthcoming schemes include projects with the BBC in White City.

Kaye advises that new consultants should only be brought in if word-of-mouth is really reliable. He says this is particularly important with services specialists. "It's always difficult finding good services specialists. There are good cost consultants and great architects, but services is tricky," he says.

The problem is that services specialists are dealing with the moving parts of a building, where there are many different interpretations of what works well. So, the key is identifying and retaining those firms that understand the way you require these parts of the building to work and are able to meet the brief.

Not all concur, however. John Mark Di Ciacca, director of property at Edinburgh-based EDI Group, says: "It is very important to refresh your teams because you can get insular and develop a monoculture."

EDI often puts more than one architect on a scheme to ensure that there is a tension that will produce innovative ideas. At its 500,000 ft2 Haymarket scheme in Edinburgh, for example, the firm has three architects: Reiach & Hall, Page & Park and Allan Murray.

However, Di Ciacca often avoids architects that are based too far from Scotland - the firm's core market - as this can delay a project.

He says: "Going outside of a local network can be cumbersome. With European architects there is the travelling time, which can mean that it takes two days to meet face-to-face, so then you start to lose control of the delivery process."

Avoid the snake-oil salesman

The past decade has seen the development of a number of specialist disciplines, with many consultants focusing on just one element of the job, such as lighting or facades. Many of these specialisms are in their infancy, and this has made it difficult for developers to select these consultants on their track record.

Julian Barwick, the joint managing director of Paddington Central developer Development Securities, says that picking the more general consultants, such as an architect remains simple: "You ask: ‘Have you done this before?' You don't want people on a learning curve."

But the newer consultants will invariably lack experience: "A lot of these new types of consultant are working in uncharted territory. The trick is to avoid the snake-oil salesman."

Development Securities gets around this by asking the large project management consultants with which it has worked on many projects, such as Faber Maunsell and AYH, to manage the process of selecting the more specialist subconsultants. These project managers have more regular contact with the smaller specialists and are better judges of the quality of their work. As Barwick puts it: "Managing the interface [between everyone on a job] is the secret to success."

Another type of salesman to avoid is the one that promises it can handle a large-scale job, but in fact doesn't have the manpower. Joey Forristal, project director of London-based Rutland Group, says his company got stung when it found out that its project architect did not have the 12 to 15 designers it would expect to have on a £40m office project. To ensure that it can keep an eye on the resources that its consultants provide, Rutland now has a design office on site, that can house up to 60 people, including QSs, architects and engineers.

Unearth the little guys

Stanhope is one of the most high-profile developers in the UK today, even though its founder, Sir Stuart Lipton, has left and it is now under the direction of his protegé, David Camp.

I always ask, Have you done this before? You don’t want people on a learning curve

Julian Barwick

Key to its role as a developer is attention to detail, and Stanhope prides itself on being able to identify excellent smaller consultants that could easily be overlooked.

Ron German, director of the Stratford City development in east London that will host the Olympic Village, says he makes sure that one-fifth of the consultants he employs are one-to-ten man bands. This is a big percentage, given that E E the size of Stanhope's schemes means that German often has to hire large consultancies that have the capacity to deliver them - Arup, for example, had to masterplan its famous Broadgate scheme in the 1980s because it was 325,000m².

But the problem, as German sees it, with only using the larger consultancies is that specialisms can be subsumed and drowned within these organisations.

To get round this, he tracks talented individuals that have worked in large consultants, but have gone on to set up on their own. For example, he has just hired i-Transport to work on the traffic infrastructure for Bucklersbury House, a £300m redevelopment of an 8000 m² site in the City with Legal & General. German explains: "It is only a three-person company, but we knew the guy [who founded i-Transport] from his previous company, so we've seen how he works."

Allied London Properties construction director Graham Skinner follows a similar principle, identifying individuals within companies rather than simply looking at the reputation of the firms. At its £1.5bn Spinningfields business district scheme in Manchester, for example, it invited architects to compete for the various parts of the scheme on the basis of the specialists that they employed.

Skinner warns, though, that it is difficult to follow the moves of quality people in the M&E world: "You get a key director at an M&E firm talking clearly, and a couple of years later you find that he has been whisked off somewhere else."

What not to do

What not to do

Having looked at the developers' advice on what to look for, here's a consultant's take on the tell-tale signs of a firm that might not be up to scratch.

Clive Lucking is managing director of Area Sq, a Surrey-based office fit-out and design consultant. The company's highbrow clients include airports operator BAA, computer giant Microsoft and Helical Bar. It is one of the few fit-out companies that is doing well in the office market, with turnover soaring in 2005 from £12m to £21m. Lucking says you should avoid the following:

A. Not meeting the project leader

Consultants that don't take the client to meet the person who would head the project should be avoided. Most consultants have good track records, so the key is to look at the work of the person in charge of the project from their end. For example, if the client wants a whacky design, make sure the consultant's lead person does not have a conservative style.

B. Firms on a steep learning curve

Make sure the building type is selected before the consultant. Area Sq once undertook a part new-build, part fit-out scheme because it was for a regular client. Managers soon realised that they needed greater experience in new build to take it on effectively and have since stuck to the firm's office fit-out roots. Conversely, it is working at Luton airport for easyJet and doing a good job, because Area Sq is one of the few fit-out firms that has worked on airside office schemes.

C. Cheap firms

This should be obvious, but Lucking says the practice of hiring on price is still commonplace. "I pay top dollar for my lawyers and taxation advisers and I get what I pay for," he says. It could also save you money - a cheap architect could draw you eye-catching designs but may not have the skills to design something that can actually be built, adding to the costs at a later date.