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.

As the year progressed we witnessed the emergence of a troubling trend: at least two public sector tenders pushed the cost of administration onto the winning consultants. In a particularly mercenary move, East Sussex Council required successful tenderers to stump up running costs amounting to a quarter of a million quid across a three-year framework (generously leaving open an option to extend it to four), providing no guarantee that these eye-watering figures will be offset by fee income. Architects already grumbling about the cost of tendering for frameworks from which they rarely get work are unlikely to be delighted by the prospect of now paying huge sums for the privilege.

To the north, then, where, in a somewhat callous response, Sheffield University batted away criticisms of its competition for a new £25 million Music Centre, claiming that the 150 expressions of interest it had received were evidence not of a tragic waste of everyone’s time, but rather an indication of how enticing the entire enterprise was. The open, single-stage procedure itself called for an outline design to accompany the tender submission, a sadly all-too-common approach in which architects hand out their ideas for free in the vague hope of landing a juicy commission.

To cap off a less than auspicious year, while most of us were peeling back the first door of our advent calendar, competitors in the Helsinki Guggenheim competition were opening their inboxes to discover that, nearly two years after it was opened, the entire competition was being abandoned. Some estimates place the total cost of work contributed by architects approaching 10 per cent of the total capital cost of the entire building budget, and while nobody seriously enters such contests expecting to win, the enigmatic renders it generated were destined to remain vapourware forever more.

It wasn’t all bad news. The Science Museum continued its ambitious redevelopment programme with a raft of interesting awards. March saw the completion of Coffey Architects’ library, won back in 2014, while Muf’s celebrated Interactive Gallery opened to the public two years after it was awarded. Duggan Morris was announced winner of the new top-floor event spaces (full disclosure: RCKa was on the shortlist) and HAT Projects was picked to design new entrance space. The Science Museum’s continuing support of both emerging and established firms demonstrates that in certain sectors there remains an appetite for innovation and creativity that eclipses any misplaced perception of risk.

The past year also witnessed one or two small, but significant, successes. Cambridge University graciously lowered the turnover limit for their Biomedical Campus masterplan following pleas that the original value excluded smaller firms (although retaining a level which was still much higher than perfectly capable teams could manage). Surrey University did the same, but this time under considerable duress, after complaints that its imposition of excessive financial thresholds were in conflict with EU law. A cancellation of the contest and subsequent republication in April with marginally more modest barriers to entry was a welcome victory in an otherwise infelicitous year for higher education capital projects. HLM, a firm which could have cleared the original turnover requirement several times over, went on to nab the £3.8 million Student Union refurbishment in October.

And what’s in store for 2017? The untangling of the UK’s Public Contracts Directive from European procurement laws may well commence, but is unlikely to result in any significant improvements, given our national propensity for unnecessarily complex and bureaucratic processes. More importantly, the New Year provides us all with an opportunity to call out those procedures which get it badly wrong. Empowered by the modest successes Project Compass has achieved over the past 12 months, it has been great to see others assuming the mantle and taking action. The tide may finally be turning.

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