planning, design, urbanism, landscape and resilience blog


Coverage of the news that 17 Edinburgh schools have been closed as a result of serious construction defects (see here) has largely focussed on the on-going disaster that is private finance initiative (PFI). However, I’d suggest that the case also highlights wider problems with procurement practices that have become normalised within the UK development sector, and which need to be addressed if we are to prevent similar shortcomings in the future.

In broad terms, procurement is about how you contract out development work, and to a lesser extent about how it’s funded­. Within my working lifetime the most significant change has been the shift to design and build contracts (D&B). In order to explain what this means, I think it’s helpful to reflect on how we used to bring forward a development before D&B; principally using a ‘traditional contract’. With a traditional contract if someone wanted a new building they would need to engage the services of an architect who would help them to develop a design through a number of agreed stages, employing sub-consultants such as engineers where necessary, until they had a design ready to build. At this point, the design would be put out to tender, whereby a contractor would be employed to build it. At this point the architect then acts as the client’s agent, administering the build contract and providing oversight to ensure it is built correctly, on time, etc. This second function of the architect, as a contract administrator, is often overlooked but is fundamental to their professional status and why no other designers have such an extended education period or require statutory registration to guarantee their competence and probity.

By contrast, in a D&B contract the architect or designer is employed to provide only an outline design for the scheme. This is then used to tender the contract for both its building and the further design development needed to get to get it built; in effect the architect is answerable to the contractor. For those in the know, there are often some tell-tale signs of a D&B scheme, including poorly detailed interfaces or where problem areas are continually rebuilt and patched up, rather than being designed out in the first place.

Early D&B’s were initially a byword for shoddy results, but have gradually become the UK norm over the last 20 years; it’s now pretty unusual of for any major development to go ahead on a traditional basis. Notably, the 2012 Olympics used a form of super-D&B, where the main contractor also took on many public sector functions, including planning and development control. However, I’ve never fully understood the supposed advantages of D&B, but the speed of delivery, the ability to control costs and a rather opaque notion of lowering risk to the client, seem to be the ones most commonly put forward. So how is this manifest in the building of schools then?

Around 2007 I worked on a series of schools rebuilding projects for a county authority in the Midlands, which all followed a familiar pattern and were procured using D&B. At the outset there was always a glut of consultants involved in the formulation of some big ideas and long-term plans for the project; some time after starting on site there would be ‘value engineering’ (translation: major cost cutting) which would invariably compromise some key element of the design.[1] Whilst there would be concerns from the school/client/designers, the process of delivery rarely left sufficient time for any sort of deviation from the plan and the project would carry on as before. As the build reached completion, all sorts of short cuts and omissions would start to creep in as the main contractor worked to keep costs down. For landscape architects, this often meant that there was virtually no budget for external works and the results were nearly always crap.

I’m still not clear how completed projects with fundamental changes from agreed schemes got through planning without enforcement action. Certainly many local authority officers I spoke to were aware of the problems, but somehow they got railroaded into going along with whatever was deemed necessary by project leads. I also think there is a bit of cultural issue here with no-one wanting to be responsible for a failure and hence it’s in everyone’s interest that things should be considered successful. This issue was brought into focus by the largest school of the programme that had a particular severe bunch of cuts and abridgements as the contractor struggled to keep on budget. Memorably, a grey-water system that had been bought and installed in its own building was not connected to save a few hundred quid, whilst the entire landscape budget was reduced to a single hemisphere of the most basic paving around the main entrance. Worst of all, with no budget for new areas of hard-standing, the contractor tried to patch up the schools former carpark to act as an entrance/bus drop off.[2] It didn’t work at all and I was told that the school had to pay for this to be rectified later.

Soon after a pow-wow was arranged for all the major contributors to ‘learn lessons’ from the project, and which was well attended by the great and the good, including senior construction managers and local councillors. With the exception of the architects, who made some fairly guarded criticisms of the finished building, almost everyone was effusive in their praise and turned up to celebrate what a successful project it had been (I thought the building itself turned out ok). Credit to my former boss, whilst he was pretty diplomatic he didn’t pull any punches regarding the problems in the construction process, the exceptionally poor results in the external works and how these could be addressed in the future. It’s hard to know if any of this was acted upon, as we were never given any further work on this programme.

There is a universal truism that good design needs good clients. The local authorities I worked with on school redevelopment were often not particular good clients, frequently overwhelmed by the complexity of the procurement process and lacking coherent goals for the projects; as a result they kept getting poor results again and again. Moreover, responsibility was very often shared between many different officers and where present, leadership was almost always provided by people in cost and programme control roles and who had little investment in the final result.

I think these issues also highlight the very different priorities between designers and contractors, which become locked-in to the process of procurement. While I accept that this is something of a generalisation, designers and architects are often much more invested in the design and the end result, as well as typically working more closely with end users to meet their needs (although this too is diminishing as a result of procurement trends). By contrast, construction staff will frequently move between sites, limiting their attachment to any particular project and there is a further problem of work being sub-contracted out that probably deserves an article of its own.[3] Ultimately, the cheaper a project is to build, the more profitable it is for the people building it, whereas a designers reputation has traditionally been based on good finished builds.

As an aside,  I’ve seen it suggested in the press that some of the schools built during this period weren’t needed, but I never found this to be the case. Almost all of those I saw redeveloped were post-war and in various states of disrepair; the worst being a large school in south London, which didn’t seem to have a window that would open or any sort of fitting that wasn’t worn beyond belief and ready to fall apart. Moreover, they appeared to have had only the most limited maintenance, lacking any substantial investment in the fabric of the building and with most still having their original single-glazed windows and heating systems. Having been neglected by previous Governments it left the New Labour administration with a massively costly bill for getting school buildings (and hospitals) back to reasonable standards. Not only did PFI seem a particularly ‘Third Way’ answer to this problem, but it also built in ongoing maintenance to overcome this earlier pattern of neglect.

I don’t think that traditional contracts were in any way perfect; many people found them long-winded and bureaucratic to administer, whilst this arrangement unquestionably overlooked the value of an experienced contractor. However, one of my last completed projects in 2010 was a small primary school in Walsall, procured using a traditional contract and which proved to be a really good scheme. Despite major problems with the budget, as a result of the ground surveys missing a number of mine shafts on the site, the architect worked closely with the school to identify cost savings that would not impact upon its function, whilst the contractor played its part by suggesting better value suppliers and products. The result was a building to BREEAM Excellent standard, delivered to budget and still provided excellent teaching spaces, particularly outdoors: see here and here for results. This collaborative approach was very different to the arbitrary way in which cost cutting often happens in a typical D&B scheme. Unfortunately, I suspect that the majority of architects and designers no longer have the necessary contract running skills, which have increasingly been taken up by a growing construction management industry. Furthermore, I’d argue that this shift has fundamentally changed the landscape of construction sector and brought about an identity crisis for architects and associated professionals.

In some evidence of how this change has impacted on individual projects, I recently contacted a well-known firm of engineers to request their drawings for some below-ground services; their answer was that whilst they were happy to provide them, the contractor was unlikely to have followed them in practice. In something of an irony, despite their diminishing influence, designers are increasingly required to sign collateral warranties, which provide the end-user with third-party rights to claim against the designer in the event of a problem. Similarly, pre-qualification criteria for developments (often through the completion of an infamous PQQ), often prevents smaller or local practices from bidding for work.

At its core, the designer’s job is to envisage the built environment before it gets built and to advise accordingly. Where this advice is routinely ignored, the designers have little purpose for their involvement and thus they are increasingly not involved with the critical decisions of development. See for example Olly Wainwright’s recent article on the development of Grand Central in Birmingham, highlighting the frustration of the architect in the face of short-sighted substitution of materials by the contractor. A further consequence of these procurement trends is the split between so-called ‘concept architects’ and ‘delivery architects’[4]; with one expected to provide the ideas and visuals, and another more compliant designer to assist with getting it built.[5] Not only has this division left lower margins for designers as they compete for shrinking roles, but it leaves projects without consistent design leadership, which also impacts on associated professions, including engineers and landscape architects.

Returning to the specific issue of PFI, it can be difficult to generalise about their problems as every PFI I’ve worked on seemed to be slightly different, but I do have an example which perhaps helps to illuminate some wider problems. As part of one county’s Buildings Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, I worked on a school where a facilities management company provided some of the finance for the development, but would also maintain it. Increasingly as the design developed, it was becoming more and more tailored to what the facilities management company wanted to maintain; hence fewer windows and thus cleaning, whilst windows that opened were also viewed as overly costly to sustain. As an alliance of interests formed between contractor and operator to make the design as basic as possible, the architect and end-user (the school) were entirely side-lined from this process.

As a progression of D&B approaches, PFI further changes the relationships between involved parties, with the interests of users pushed ever further down the pecking order. Who is the design for? Is it about for the school/pupils, or is it about maximising the profitability of PFI partners? As I have repeatedly argued in this article it is increasingly the latter, but the problem is also about the lack of reflection on the success and quality of resulting buildings.

Fundamentally, we need schools and public buildings that will perform and provide a service for a generation or more, not fall to bits after a year or two. Unfortunately, the shift in procurement approaches has left large contractors operating with almost no scrutiny and rewarded purely on their ability to build project to cost and time. Consequently, the quality of buildings produced has often suffered, with the defects at Edinburgh schools demonstrating how the most basic requirements of a build can be neglected. My own doctoral research focussed on how we can learn from development practice, and I think there are some relevant lessons here too. In the UK we need more post-occupancy evaluation of developments and the learning points from this process needs to feed into future development briefs. Without this our development sector will become increasingly path dependant, prioritising speed and short-term cost over everything else and unable to innovate or adapt to changing circumstances and which is critical to long-term success.

[1] On some of the BSF projects I contributed to this ‘value engineering’ was often factored in by designers, through over-specifying of more expensive materials, in the knowledge that they would later be down-graded. This approach suited the ‘cost consultants’ who would typically receive a cut of any ‘savings’ made.

[2] Broadly speaking there is a fairly standard formula for these developments, with a new school built on playing fields or parking areas, before demolishing the old school once this is complete. As a second part of this work, new paths, playgrounds and areas of hard-standing will need to be built around the old school and unneeded areas ripped up. This didn’t happen in the example I referred to…

[3] It is not unusual for a large contractor to sign a contract to build a project and then sub-contract it out whilst acting as a ‘co-ordinator’. This effectively provides another layer of management and bureaucracy, further distancing designers (and often end-users) from the critical decisions.

[4] See for example:

[5] It’s my belief that the best designs always address the big picture/wider context and then deliver this through their detailed design. By dividing these elements, the design is always likely to be something of a compromise.