Doing your Homework

TEXT Helena Grdadolnik and David Colussi

Since the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) P3 program began in 2001, two English secondary schools (Hampden Gurney by Building Design Partnership and Westminster Academy by AHMM Architects) have been shortlisted for the Stirling Prize, the premier architectural prize in England; both schools were delivered outside of the government P3 initiative. Meanwhile, CABE’s research found half of the BSF schools delivered to be mediocre or poor. Is the discrepancy in design quality inherent in the process or due to architects’ inexperience with this new way of working? This article will try to address these questions by examining the P3 process from pre-qualification to on-site delivery from the perspective of a project architect for two BSF schools.

BSF contracts range in size from as few as four to more than 100 schools, awarded to a contractor through a competitive process. The competition includes the design of a series of “sample schools” to demonstrate design approach, working method and understanding of the brief, as well as a review of the team’s qualifications and additional criteria such as financial models, information technology provision, long-term facility management commitments, and a pledge to use local workforce or supply chain.

The first stage of BSF is pre-qualification and is similar to most RFQs, though in this case it is contractor-led. As an architect within the contractor’s consortium, you can be named as a “preferred supply-chain partner” for future work in the contract (and have no further responsibilities throughout the bid) or be the bidding architect on one of the sample schemes. I will relay my experience with the Tuke School for the latter through a case study of a successful bid for 12 schools in London.

Once qualified, bidding consortia enter into a three-month “competitive dialogue” stage–a process of testing the project brief and presenting design ideas to the school and school board for feedback. Through this stage, the contractor is taking on all of the financial risk, including paying the consultant teams for each stage of work. Frequent structured meetings are often held with an unruly number of participants, due to the number of interests involved. This is the only chance for bidding consortia to consult directly with the user, so the architect’s communication skills are put to the test. Also, these meetings can at times be strained (kicks under the table from the contractor if you unknowingly mention something that hasn’t been “cleared”–easy to do in these circumstances) and it can be difficult to get meaningful client feedback due to limited time and the client’s reluctance to speak candidly for fear of compromising competition fairness. In my most recent experience, the brief contained several core requirements that we disagreed with. As the project designers, we had to strike a balance between challenging the brief’s preconceptions without appearing to ignore the school board’s brief or feedback. These conditions are not unique to a P3 process, but are amplified by the structure of the discussion and the compressed schedule.

The consortium enters the competitive dialogue with a full design team, including specialist consultants (acoustics, traffic, fire) as required. One truly positive result of this fully engaged consultant team is an integrated design process that I have not experienced on traditionally procured projects. At the conclusion of this phase, bidding teams are required to submit their proposed scheme to CABE design review for evaluation, where a passing grade on design quality is a requirement for proceeding to the next stage. It is crucial that this evaluation is conducted prior to the close of the competitive process, while the school board has a stronger bargaining position with the bidding consortia. This step is even more vital for non-sample schemes (the subsequent schools that are awarded after the initial competitive process), but due to the sheer volume of schools, CABE only reviews non-sample schools on a randomly selected basis.

A “preferred bidder” is then selected for exclusive final negotiation with the client, though the contractor is still working at risk until achieving “financial close.” During this period, the scheme is further refined to detail the consortium’s final interpretation of the client brief including area/finish schedules, external materials, indicative construction details and a full schedule of furniture/fixture/equipment. This binding agreement between client and consortium becomes the contract documents, though it is closer to a performance specification for the entire building than more conventional contract documents. The financial close agreement also establishes a benchmark for subsequent projects in the contract, so the client is pushing to have as many elements defined as possible while the contractor is trying to stay non-committal. The architect is stuck between the two. The task of trying to sufficiently define the final building in the absence of traditional prescriptive contract documents while upholding design quality is incredibly onerous and demands a different working method–one that many firms are still trying to reconcile. Additionally, beyond meeting the client requirements for achieving contractual financial close are a parallel set of contractor-imposed deadlines relating to sequentially tendered work packages for a construction date that will inevitably start the day after financial close is achieved. Aside from the challenge of coordinating this work, the difficulty lies in negotiating appropriate fees against a project schedule that does not align with a typical design development sequence.

In P3 school projects, all buildings are provided with new furniture, computers and sports equipment. The impact of this exercise on time and resources cannot be underestimated, and additional fees should be negotiated for this additional service. Seen from another perspective, however, it offers another opportunity for architects to add value to the process and extend design control to an area beyond conventional scope.

After financial close is achieved, there is enormous pressure on the construction schedule, as contracts typically include an optimistic fixed handover date. The on-site delivery phase of the project is where differences between the UK and Canada are the most profound and where refinement to the P3 process could bring the greatest improvements to finished buildings. In the UK, an architect’s seal/signature is not a requirement for either Building Permit submission or as a condition for occupancy. Coupled with contract documents which, though incomplete, have been signed off by financial close, the architect’s role risks being made superfluous. In my own experience on the Lanchester School, this phase of the project was the most frustrating. The inevitable lack of coordination that results from incomplete construction documents was compounded by a site team that did not feel obliged to follow details/specifications as long as financial close requirements were not compromised. In addition to eroding the goodwill established between architect and contractor during the bid stage, it raises a serious question over liability. The architect is expected to maintain design responsibility, but with specifications/details incomplete and purposely kept vague prior to financial close. Coupled with reduced control on site, legal liability lies in a troubling grey area. This lack of control during construction is evident in even the best examples of BSF projects, where detailing and coordination is too often wanting. This disparity is being addressed through the introduction of a new role from the client’s side; a combination clerk of works/technical advisor who will regularly be on site to ensure the design intent of the broader financial close documents are carried through at detail level. While this will almost certainly have positive results,
it is indicative of a shortcoming in the wider P3 process where mechanisms are forced into place to compensate for the reduced role of the architect.

Despite the diminished role on site as outlined above, CABE’s assessment of the design quality of P3-delivered schools found evidence that, although the P3 process is no longer architect-driven, the architect is still the key to a successful outcome rather than the contractor. Schools built by the same contractor with different architects showed a range in quality, but schools by the same architect for different contractors showed similar levels of quality. The conclusion was not only that some architects were more skilled designers, but some practices are more skilled at getting the best building from this new procurement method.

As evident from the examples presented, some aspects of the traditional role of the architect are reduced through P3, but the question remains, with more familiarity and experience (as well as the addition of suitable mechanisms within the system itself to ensure design quality and appropriately apportioned risk) can architects find new avenues to influence the final delivery of the building projects completed through this procurement route? CA

David Colussi, MAIBC, was the designer and project architect of several new P3-delivered schools with Haverstock Associates Architects in the UK. He is now practicing in Toronto.

Helena Grdadolnik, MRAIC, was a senior advisor at CABE, the English government’s advisor on architecture, urban design and public space. She is now based in Toronto and is a partner in Public Workshop.