On Being CABE-able

TEXT Helena Grdadolnik and David Colussi

Over the last decade, different levels of government in Canada have increasingly decided to procure public buildings through Public Private Partnerships (P3), from hospitals in Ontario to schools in Alberta. Despite an ongoing debate over whether P3 does indeed represent the best value for public funds, it seems that P3 is here to stay and its use in Canada will most likely become more widespread. Of the various P3 models, Design Build Finance Maintain (DBFM)–known as Alternative Financing and Procurement (AFP) in Ontario–is gaining the most ground. DBFM is an extension of design-build delivery methods where the contractor’s role is expanded to include project financing and maintenance of the completed building over a long-term period, typically 25 to 35 years. A more detailed description of P3 can be found in Brian Watkinson’s article “P3 for You and Me?” (see CA, April 2008).

There is a perception amongst architects that P3 diminishes their role and the quality of the outcome. This may or may not be true, but what is true is that the architect’s role has fundamentally changed. In this two-part series, we will share lessons learned from the UK, where using a Private Finance Initiative–or PFI as P3 is known in England–has been an increasingly common delivery method for projects across all scales and sectors over the past three decades, from large-scale hospitals to small daycares. The largest and most high-profile program is Building Schools for the Future (BSF), a 45-billion secondary school building program to rebuild or renew every secondary school in the country in 15 years through P3.

Research relating the quality of school environments and student test scores put design high on the agenda for BSF, yet the first waves of P3 schools were a complete disaster. The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), the English government’s advisory body on architecture that is heavily involved in the BSF program, conducted a post-occupancy assessment of 52 of the 104 new secondary schools delivered through the BSF program between 2001 to 2006, and over 50 percent of them were found to be mediocre or poor. Despite design being considered central to the selection of the successful team, many of the schools were poorly designed with inadequate circulation, insufficient storage space, and maintenance issues arose due to low-performing materials and poor detailing–overall, the buildings were uninspiring for students, teachers and the surrounding community.

P3 detractors point to poor-quality outcomes, but this is not inherent in the process. Whether or not P3 can deliver good design depends largely on how the procurement process is set up: is the objective merely to achieve the cheapest outcome, or is there an aspiration for a quality outcome that is also cost-effective? A number of recent P3 buildings that have been highly commended in the UK include a library in Brighton and the national government’s Home Office in London. Unfortunately, these success stories still remain the exception. Due to the early failures in the first waves of P3 school-building as well as other P3 programs including the Local Improvement Finance Trust (LIFT) initiative for health-care clinics, mechanisms to shape and guide the project delivery process have since been put into place by the English government. One such addition was a CABE-administered school design review panel to scrutinize all bid designs prior to awarding a contract–only designs passing a minimum standard of design quality (as well as meeting all other criteria in the RFQ) could advance to the next stage.

Through research and advocacy, CABE has been successful in convincing various government departments in England of the financial and social value of good design, including: increased productivity, lower maintenance costs, favourable conditions for public health, and decreased opportunity for crime. At a three-hour-long talk on Alternative Financing and Procurement (AFP) by Infrastructure Ontario delivered to a room full of architects at the annual Ontario Association of Architects (OAA) conference held in Toronto last May, there was not a single mention of design quality, and I could find no mention of design quality on their website. This left me to conclude that although Infrastructure Ontario is responsible for guiding the procurement of billions of dollars’ worth of public building in the province, design quality was not high on their agenda. This is a missed opportunity and very short-sighted for a large-scale public building investment program, because actual construction costs represent a small fraction of the total operating costs for public services.

Furthermore, the cost of bad design is high. For example, in the case of the BSF program, the building construction and maintenance only represents 3 percent of the total cost of education over the life of a school, and this has a huge impact on regular operating costs. The 45-billion public and private investment in England’s secondary schools over the next 15 years is a drop in the bucket compared to the 1.2 billion in public funds spent on education each week. Certainly, design can make a significant impact on factors such as teacher retention rates and pupil performance.

At the recent OAA conference, David Colussi and I presented our experiences with P3 in the UK, and the lack of design quality was a key concern echoed by delegates. Other concerns included the potential financial risk to practices and the perceived lack of opportunity for smaller design firms to participate. In BSF, it is the contractor who is taking on the financial risk through the bidding stage, and the consultants (including the architect) are being paid for their time at each stage of the process, whether or not their team is successful. “Bundling” multiple projects within a single contract is also contentious in Canada because it assumes one or two architectural firms will corner a given market. Meanwhile, in the UK, smaller projects bundled for P3 still continue to provide opportunities for small and medium-sized firms. There is no expectation that one practice can and will design and deliver all the projects–the architects are part of the contractor’s supply chain, and not their partners. The downside to this is that once a sample scheme is designed for the bid and goes through the approvals process, the contractor is not bound to using any of the architects for subsequent projects in the contract, even if the architect’s designs helped them win the bid in the first instance.

As the English school boards are looking for different skills from design practices to fit the variety of projects that make up the contract, small and medium-sized offices are often called upon to bring local knowledge and specialist expertise to the consortia. The architects in a recent consortium for a London-based P3 included large high-profile firms Building Design Partnership, Allies and Morrison, Haverstock Associates (a medium-sized firm of 20 people included for their expertise in designing special-needs schools), and Architects of Change (an emerging practice of three people known for innovative work).

Back in Canada, the Alberta Schools Alternative Procurement (ASAP) initiative could learn from the Brits. Rather than asking one firm to deliver a standard modular design to enable efficiencies in scale over 10 to 14 schools, as they have done, a sample scheme for one school could be sought from a bidding consortia that sets out indicative materials and typical details to be used for all of the schools to achieve cost efficiencies without losing sight of the fact that buildings, especially important civic institutions like schools, are site-specific and need to relate to their immediate context. Also, levels of risk and liability need to be appropriately shared to ensure that the parties within the consortium with the most to gain (i.e., contractors, finance and maintenance companies) take on more risk tha
n those who will not reap as much of a financial reward. With these changes, there may be the chance for smaller architectural practices that cannot afford the financial risk or commit resources to 10 schools at one time, but that may have more school design and/or local expertise than their larger counterparts, to be part of a bidding consortium and to contribute to a more successful future for P3 in Canada. CA

David Colussi, MAIBC, was the designer and project architect of several new P3-delivered schools with RIBA Award-winning UK practice Haverstock Associates Architects. 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 as an architecture critic and a partner in Public Workshop.