There’s been a real stink over the past several months among architects in Springfield, Mo., over the expansion of the Westport Elementary School. The project itself isn’t the problem. The expansion plan is part of a $50 million bond issue for school construction that 65 percent of Springfield voters approved last Nov. 3; the low-cost bond was made possible by federal stimulus money.

The problem, for architects around town, is solely with the firm that the school district selected to design the $9.3 million project, which represents the biggest chunk of the new bond issue to be awarded so far: that firm is BCDM, based in Omaha, Neb. Over the years, BCDM has designed numerous schools, so its competency for the job is not in question. What rankles Springfield architects is BCDM’s home address. The fact that it is not a local firm, or even a Missouri firm, has become a glaring and, to some folks, disqualifying handicap to working on the Westport Elementary expansion.

PJ Loughran

“That is local tax money,” says Geoffrey Butler, the president of Butler, Rosenbury & Partners, an architecture and engineering firm based in Springfield. “We all, us architects, are going to be paying those bonds back, and [the school district is] just sending the money out of the state.” Butler Rosenbury was one of nine firms on a shortlist for the Westport project—BCDM was the only firm on the list from out of town—and Butler has come forward as probably the most vocal opponent of BCDM’s selection. (Robert Mabrey, the BCDM principal overseeing the Westport project, declined to comment for this article.) Butler’s firm has done some public design work away from its own home base, including a county courthouse in Boone County, Mo., and the Fulton, Mo., City Hall. Yet the selection of BCDM seems to have brought out his inner protectionist.

Butler is hardly the only person scoffing at a practice that has long been routine in architecture—namely, that of hiring architects who go beyond their own ZIP codes to compete for and win good jobs, fair and square, based primarily on their qualifications and bids. Most public procurement processes for design and construction are supposed to favor the lowest qualified bidder; honest people may, and often do, differ over who’s more qualified and even which bid is truly lowest. (The AIA, for its part, supports selection based on quality alone.) But in the current construction climate, architects who enter markets outside their own backyards run the risk of having their local peers greet them with disdain, if not outright hostility—as if their very selection had crossed an always ill-defined line, and were suddenly unethical.

In the first months of this year, as architecture billings continued to fall and firms laid off more people (or failed altogether), a number of testy situations have arisen around the country that involve public officials, public projects, and the selection of architects who aren’t considered hometowners. Hardly anybody bothers to contest the hires of private developers; that’s the developers’ business, and besides, there hasn’t been much private development since late 2008. That there aren’t many public projects, either, given the stress on state and local budgets, is making the disputes over public project awards somewhat more bitter. Some architects see the public projects that are available as potential lifelines, and the talk around them can take on a proprietary edge.

County commissioners in Allegan County, Mich., have taken flak—from architects and others—for hiring an Indianapolis firm, RQAW Corp., to design a jail inside a former Haworth chair factory for $25 million. The city council of Aspen, Colo., erred, in the view of some, by awarding a city-funded affordable housing project to an architecture firm whose sin was being based not out of state, but in a different part of the state.

And though it was mainly by coincidence, shortly after LMN Architects of Seattle took a prize project in Cleveland—a $425 million project to design a huge new medical mall downtown—a group of Cleveland architects organized a local architecture fair to reintroduce themselves to the public. But the timing was poignant.

“A lot of major jobs go to out-of-town firms,” as Bruce Jackson, an organizer of the architecture fair and the president of AIA Cleveland, told Crain’s Cleveland Business. “It’s not just a Cleveland syndrome; it’s worldwide.”

PJ Loughran

Resenting outsiders who win work—and forming grudges against those who award it to them—is not new in American business. In architecture, the very fact of licensure can be seen as a form of protectionism, though its basis is mainly to protect health, public safety, and welfare. Lenore Lucey, who is the executive vice president of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) in Washington, D.C., notes that many jurisdictions don’t allow firms to look for work speculatively in-state without being licensed in the state, or what is known as “fishing without a license.” One registration board, which Lucey declines to name, will go after architects who enter architectural competitions involving locations in its state without having the state’s license. Lucey says that NCARB is pushing jurisdictions to allow out-of-state architects to look for work, as long as they obtain a license once they get work, but before the project begins. By now, with technology making it possible to design any building for any place from any location, a lot of architects may have assumed that their colleagues have moved beyond the baser forms of protectionism. But the thankless situation into which many architects have sunk over the past couple of years has them feeling extremely nervous about survival.

“People are much more upset than they would be normally,” says Judy Nadler, a senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California. “As things contract with the economy, and as various architecture firms are drying up or consolidating, it’s very difficult and has prompted a lot of this infighting.”

Nadler, a specialist in government and contracting ethics who also is a former two-term mayor and council member of the city of Santa Clara, sees the localism syndrome as somewhat bigger than architecture and feeding on the despair the recent economy has wrought. She points to the local-hire laws that are being adopted or considered by several towns around the San Francisco Bay Area: Richmond, Calif., which had an unemployment rate of 9.2 percent in March, requires construction contractors with the city to hire Richmond residents as 20 percent of its employees—the quota is 30 percent for retail or administrative contractors. East Palo Alto requires 30 percent local hiring in designated redevelopment areas. Concord and San Pablo are mulling similar requirements.

In February, the governor of North Carolina, Bev Perdue, brought local preferences to the state level. She signed Executive Order No. 50, which gives “North Carolina resident bidders” the chance to match the low bid for the state if their price comes within 5 percent or $10,000 of the lowest bid. The order’s opening line refers to the state’s “unprecedented rate of unemployment.” This official in-state preference policy bothers Terry Yeargan, the head of business development in North Carolina for DPR Construction, in Morrisville, and not least because DPR is based in Redwood City, Calif. It also gives credence to the contentious architect-selection process he saw recently as one of eight board members on the Raleigh-Durham International (RDU) Airport Authority.

In November, the airport authority’s staff recommended hiring Fentress Architects, based in Denver, as the lead design architect for its upcoming renovation of RDU’s Terminal 1. (Cost estimates for the project have not yet been developed.) Fentress is known worldwide for airports it has designed in Denver and Seoul, among others, and it is already working on RDU’s Terminal 2, a nearly $50 million job. One airport authority staff member, Dave Powell, told the authority’s board that Fentress’ firm, over one Raleigh-based firm and another based in Durham, “had the best understanding of what this project is about.”

But at least three board members had a problem hiring Fentress again, simply because it’s in Denver. One board member, Toni Lipscomb, is reported to have said at a meeting, “My bias is toward using local firms.” The board’s chairman, Robb Teer, objected to another contract for the same reason. The award ultimately went to the architects rated second-best by the staff, Pearce Brinkley Case + Lee, based in Raleigh. (Teer did not return a call seeking comment for this article.)

Yeargan says he joined in the consensus to choose Pearce Brinkley but wasn’t entirely comfortable with the sentiment that drove the selection. “I fall back to: ‘Let’s pick what’s right for the project first, and the right team,’ ” he says. “Other members of the board drew that line a little differently. They said, ‘Let’s first look locally.’ ” Yeargan adds that an airport authority, of all entities, needs to think globally, and make the qualifying experience of the architect its imperative. “This move toward protectionism can be a little tricky, if we’re not careful.”

PJ Loughran

The controversy in Raleigh-Durham is similar to the one in Springfield in that it centered around an architect who had previously worked with the public agency in question, but, on the second round, drew a much different reaction. Regarding the localist objection to hiring Fentress for the last terminal renovation, Yeargan says: “It wasn’t raised at the time,” though he notes that Fentress took as partners on that project O’Brien/Atkins Associates and the Freelon Group, both of which have addresses in Durham. Back in Springfield, Geoffrey Butler will tell you that not much of a fuss was made a few years ago when BCDM was selected to design a brand-new $8 million school, Harrison Elementary, which opened in the fall of 2009 and was funded by a $96.5 million bond that voters passed in 2006. At that time, Butler says, “Everybody was pissed, but everybody was busy”—too busy to take a lot of time out for protesting the award.

But times have changed. Now, firms across Springfield are hurting badly for work. Butler’s firm has shrunk to 26 people, from 88 before the recession began, and he says his business has dropped by 66 percent in the past two years. Architectural employment in Springfield is said to have fallen by 30 percent since the boom of the past decade ended. Another Springfield architect, Lisa Drew-Alton, of Sapp Design Associates, notes that her firm has completed a number of successful projects for the school district. “When they said they were giving it to the most qualified [firm], that really put salt in the wound,” Drew-Alton says.

Architects in Springfield speak as if they’d been sold a bill of goods about supporting the November bond issue—as if the bonds were to be expressly earmarked for local benefit. Neither the schools superintendent Norman Ridder nor the district’s director of business operations, Scott Wendt, returned several calls seeking comment for this story. It’s not possible to learn their perspective on how they presented the potential of the bond issue, or to know the extent to which district officials may have considered the plight of local architects, or to know what exactly put BCDM of Omaha over the top for the Westport project.

In any case, architects and public officials alike should recognize that when they make a locals-only argument for assigning project awards, the contention goes far beyond whatever project is at hand, and beyond projects generally, to a larger economic argument that is simply hard to defend in a modern service economy. And almost invariably, those who care to complain conspicuously about the workings of a contracting framework that has long been in place have at some point benefited from it, too. Feelings are quite raw among architects these days, but it is unhelpful to pretend that the ethics of public procurements have changed just because architecture and construction have been upended by a lousy economy.