Editorial: Fair Game?

north design office's finalist entry to the memorial to the victims of communism competition
north design office’s finalist entry to the memorial to the victims of communism competition

How did the Memorial to the Victims of Communism (see CA, February 2015) balloon from a $4-million project, covered mostly by private funds, to a project that by some estimates now exceeds $40 million? Some of the answers may be found in a close examination of the competition.

In public-sector competitions, cost should be an important factor in the jury decision. The RFQ for the project states, “Experts in conservation, engineering and costing will review the Qualified Proponents’ design concepts contained in their Proposals and provide technical comments to the Jury of Experts.” The provision for a costing expert was dropped in the RFP stage—an out-of-the-norm decision for projects of this type.

The fact that the jury was not availed of costing expertise is evident from the wide-ranging scope of the finalist proposals. The selected scheme covers about half of the 5,000-square-metre site with built form. It includes two large structural concrete elements: a viewing bridge, and a multi-storey-high folded plate, finely textured into graphically treated one-centimetre squares and finished with a self-cleaning surface.

By contrast, the other schemes are relatively modest—reflecting perhaps a more realistic idea of what may be built within the given budget of $3.2 million for construction and professional fees. One scheme consists mostly of a landscaped garden, while others deploy taller sculptural elements strategically and selectively.

These competitors took the question of cost seriously, and budget was an important factor in shaping their designs. I spoke to one competitor who, in a debriefing, was told that certain elements of their design were not prominent enough for the jury’s liking. In fact, the design team had scaled down those very elements to meet the budget.

On the day that the shortlisted proposals were juried, the news emerged that the government had quietly agreed to provide $3 million in taxpayer dollars to the project—doubling the $1.5 million it had earlier pledged. The organizers said that the extra money would act as a contingency fund or endowment.

In spite of this generous contingency, juror Shirley Blumberg estimates that the winning entry would well surpass the original budget, costing $6-$9 million to build. Even with significant value engineering, it would be difficult to build a structure of this scale and level of finish at the stated budget.

The running tally of project expenses must also take into account the costs sunk into designing the federal court building originally intended for the site. This is no castle in the sky: the design had been finished with complete working drawings, ready for tender, when it was put on hold in 2004.

Detailed designs—whether executed or not—are serious investments of time, thought and energy. The architect for the justice building was paid. The six competitors for the memorial, for their part, received a $10,000 honorarium that only partially defrays costs. Two teams I spoke to each recorded spending in excess of 650 hours on their proposals.

All competitions are a calculated gamble—but entrants expect a fair evaluation of their efforts. When a detailed cost breakdown is part of the submission, the evaluation should include an independent evaluation of these costs.

Beyond the construction and fees, the biggest expense for the project, ultimately, will be the land it sits on. The site that Public Works has donated, that they claim is worth $1 million, has been valued by an independent real estate assessor at up to $30 million. If the monument is in fact built, a future government will perhaps come to recognize that the site is far too valuable to be used for a monument. They might consider taking up the onerous task of moving the built memorial. It would be a fitting final twist to this labyrinthine saga.