Ten steps, over the next year, to improve architectural competition culture in Europe

Conference ‘Competition Culture in Europe’, group portrait. Sept. ’17;  Photo: Eva Kasbergen

|Palazzo Widmann at the Venice Biennale, May 24, 2018|

Last week Architectuur Lokaal with Project Compass organised the first, two-day conference on Competition Culture in Europe in Amsterdam. The results of a comparative research study of 17 countries was presented and extended with knowledge from other countries. The conference represents the start of a four-year project to improve the accessibility and transparency of competitions in Europe. The conference concluded with agreement being reached by representatives from over 25 countries to embark on the following programme over the next year.

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Heart of the matter: Why architects need a key role in the construction process

(This article was originally published in Planning & Building Control Today).

To find an architect lamenting the erosion of the profession’s role within the construction process may elicit from many little more than crocodile tears, and to others, smack of a futile act of self-preservation when faced with challenging financial targets, shrinking capital budgets and the avoidance of risk. But whilst architects’ railing at the demotion of quality in favour of ‘certainty’ is hardly new, events of the last year have suddenly thrust our concerns into the spotlight.

It is still far too early to apportion culpability for the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower in June, but it is possible that this may emerge as the latest, and most tragic, manifestation decreasing oversight that architects have been warning about for so long. At the very least, there is clear evidence that a lack of professional, independent scrutiny has resulted directly in catastrophic failures elsewhere which could — had circumstances been only very slightly different — have resulted in tragedies of their own.

One example is the Edinburgh Schools fiasco, where Professor John Cole’s extensive inquiry into the collapse of a masonry wall at Oxgangs School in Edinburgh identified clear areas where a lack of oversight during the construction phase allowed poor workmanship to creep, unchecked, into the works. Crucially, it became apparent that this was not an isolated incident, but one which was found to be endemic in the wider schools delivery programme, with a further four collapses directly attributed to workmanship not in accordance with the consultant’s designs. Professor Cole determined that independent scrutiny would likely have prevented such incidents occurring. As well as the obvious risk to life, such events have had a dramatic financial and personal impact, with hugely expensive rectification work and extensive disruption to the education of students the new buildings were supposed to enhance.

There are innumerable, less spectacular, examples to be found throughout the country, many resulting in minor irritations but others which dramatically affect the enjoyment of buildings by those who inhabit them; in some cases, such as the Orchard Estate in east London, where the result of poor quality construction and a lack of oversight has had a detrimental effect on residents’ quality of life (2).

It is a criticism often levelled at architects (and one not entirely without merit) that we have allowed ourselves to be pushed to the margins of the construction process, becoming adept at piloting complex schemes through an increasingly tortuous planning process, but superfluous when it comes to putting the thing together on site. One consequence of a decade of austerity is the presence of many young architects rising through the ranks of the profession for whom an understanding of construction techniques remains an abstract concept; lines on a drawing which have no analogue on a muddy building site. Whilst there’s some truth in this, in reality our marginalisation extends back far further than the recent financial crisis, with our traditional role at the heart of the construction process having diminished gradually as contractors, and other professionals, stepped into a void that we only had a small part in creating.

A shift away from what came to be known as ‘traditional’ contracting, and the adoption of so-called ‘collaborative’ forms of contract, exemplified by design and build, were conceived as a way of reducing the adversarial nature of construction in the hope that by working together the entire team could focus on delivering projects to programme and budget. It was expected that D&B would magically reconcile the elusive triumvirate of cost, quality and time. What really happened was a transfer of risk, with the balance of power shifting from the contract administrator (a role most often fulfilled by the architect) to the builder. With the architect no longer acting on behalf of the client, and often taking their place as just another subbie within the builder’s extensive supply chain, the custody of quality was left up to those consultants, often from a cost background, remaining by the client’s side. The benefit was obvious: a contract could be signed — often much sooner than would previously been possible — and the cost was fixed, with the risk of cost overruns now the responsibility of the contractor. It was up to the builder how to deliver the project within the sum agreed, and any unexpected increases would be down them to resolve. This arrangement was so compelling it became the default choice for most public sector projects of any significance. The inevitable consequence was, however, that contractors would look to save money within the parameters laid down by the contract information in the desperate hope of widening excruciatingly narrow margins. Something had to give, and the sacrifice was quality.

There’s a perception in some sectors that our obsession with quality is simply a demonstration of our detachment from the realities of modern contracting. Why spend £50 on a tap when we could spend £500 and have it in gold? This is nonsense, of course. Our concern extends not only to the needs of the commissioning client but also those who will ultimately occupy those buildings we design; rarely are these the same, particularly in the public sphere. We care about the contribution our buildings make to wider society; the effect on those who live and work around them, too. We understand that decisions made during the design stage can have a profound effect on longevity, enjoyment and quality of life. Quality extends not only to the thoughtfulness of the design, the selection of materials and how they are put together, but to the enjoyment of those that live, love, work and sometimes die in them. The impact our buildings have on the lives of the people that inhabit them can be profound and success cannot simply be assessed on the day the building is handed over, but only after months, years or even decades have passed. Architects understand that construction itself is only a brief excursion within a far greater journey. By retaking our position at the heart of the process we can concentrate our efforts on arriving at the right destination.

(1) “Edinburgh school wall collapse report highlights ‘lack of scrutiny’”, BBC News, 9 February 2017

(2) “Orchard Village: what went wrong with PRP’s flagship housing scheme?”, Architects’ Journal, 15 February 2017

Good riddance to the Garden Bridge

Good riddance to the Garden Bridge: an eye-watering waste of public funds

Walter Menteth article originally published 11 May, 2017 in



With one swift blow, London Mayor Sadiq Khan confounded plans to construct a leafy walkway above the River Thames. By refusing to guarantee further public funds, the mayor leaves the Garden Bridge project with a funding gap of some £70m, and a countdown of just eight months until planning permission expires.

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Passing the buck: The new construction crisis


(Walter Menteth article originally publish on LinkedIn pulse March 19, 2017)

Over recent months significant construction issues have been reported that highlight major deficiencies in UK procurement culture.

The Orchard Village EstateLakanal House in Southwark, The Edinburgh PFI schools programme, Catalyst Housings Portobello Square developmentSolomon’s Passage in Southwark, and Bovis’s recent £70m pay out to purchasers, are some recently reported examples.

The common thread between each one of these is poor scrutiny, lack of oversight and co-ordination, where responsibilities and the supervision for implementing qualitative judgements had become confused, or worse disdained or ignored. The quality of the construction works has ultimately suffered with disastrous consequences, none of which should have happened.

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The highlights (and a few low points) of 2016’s design competitions

(This article originally appeared on Dec. 16, 2017 on the Architects’ Journal website, HERE.)

Those with their noses pressed firmly to the grindstone of the public sector will know that 2016 presented an increasingly exasperating array of pungent procedures and cack-handed contracts.

Despite evidence of good practice emerging in isolated pockets across the UK, many of us continued to wrestle with excessively complex, unnecessarily verbose prequalification questionnaires and archaic and bewildering web portals seemingly coded on a Commodore 64.

It was a big year for high-profile cultural projects. The Museum of London began and concluded the selection of a design team for its new Smithfield home, with the award going to a talented team headed by Stanton Williams. Meanwhile, in Essex, Southend-on-Sea Borough Council commenced, abandoned, and began again its search for an architect to take forward the Thames Estuary Museum it had previously awarded back in 2009, but which had ground to a halt in the seven years since AEW’s original scheme won planning. Quite who’s up for taking on this apparently Sisyphean task might become apparent early in the new year.

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Flying by the seat of their pants


(Walter Menteth article origionally published September 13, 2016 in LinkedIn Pulse)

There have been significant recent revelations about the Thames Garden Bridge in London and the Garden Bridge Trusts structure and funding.

These reveal the Trusts near exclusive reliance on public funding, which reputedly amounts to £30m from Transport for London, £30m from central government, along with the costs and liabilities of indemnifying the project along with the contracts the Trust has entered into.

There have also been revelations about the number of significant and expensive contracts the Trust have now let on their own account, at exceptionally high risk. These have onerous obligations and damaging break clauses. These have been let prior to the project having received full authority and clearance to proceed with construction. Continue reading “Flying by the seat of their pants”

The crescendo of Thames Garden Bridge opposition call for an independent inquiry

Following Project Compass’s detailed submission of critical evidence into the procurement of design services for the Thames Garden Bridge to the GLA Oversight Committee 17/9/15, and the subsequent Project Compass Thames Garden Bridge Procurement Report 02/16 examining both procurements of design and project management/engineering services, a significant number of other further fundamental concerns have been brought to light.

Calls have been growing for the project to be subject to an independent inquiry, with the RIBA now joining the chorus. Five inquiries: by The Charity Commission, The National Audit Office, the GLA Oversight Committee, the Mayors Office, and TfL’s external auditors have or are now interrogating separate issues. Continue reading “The crescendo of Thames Garden Bridge opposition call for an independent inquiry”

#Remain in Europe

A purpose in aligning EU procurement regulations has been to ensure our closest markets are freely accessible for design services.  The EU has constructively contributed to ensure the ongoing reform of procurement is made better, fairer, more accessible and can stimulate growth. Project Compass research evidence highlights many of the worst procurement practices uniquely emanate from the UK. The Leave campaign have presented no policy on how improvement might be achievable or delivered, with no evidence that leaving the EU would benefit UK construction procurement. In this absence what have we to go on? Continue reading “#Remain in Europe”

Muddy Waters “Jobs for the boys”

London’s proposed Thames Garden Bridge

(Walter Menteth article originally appeared in January 31, 2016 on LinkedIn pulse)

From all that is now known about the Thames Garden Bridge it has become increasingly apparent that this project represents a turning point.  Its entire procurement is characterised by corruption that is tainted by nepotism and collusion.

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