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What makes an award-winning building?

Clients like Godfrey Bradman were perfectly happy to spend money on the useful, but not on the useless, writes Paul Finch

This is the season for awards judging - always a pleasure, since it reminds us that, despite the myriad problems besetting those who wish to create the good, the useful and the beautiful, it is possible to achieve just that in the face of what sometimes seem like overwhelming odds.

Looking at this year’s crop of shortlisted entries for the World Architecture Festival Awards, you realise just how brilliant so many architects can be, given the right client, brief and site. The RIBA awards provide the same impression.

By far the most important factor is client ambition or aspiration. If the client doesn’t really care, then however good the initial design ideas may be, they will be watered down as a result of someone along the food chain deciding they can make more money for themselves (or justifying their existence) by dumbing things down.

A famous story about the developer Godfrey Bradman concerned a meeting with vast numbers of lawyers and surveyors - who tend to hunt in packs - and, of course, the single architect. One of the surveyors had failed to arrive on time and Godfrey, to make a point, began burning £20 notes in an ashtray. A considerable sum had gone up in smoke by the time the hapless surveyor finally arrived. Professionals cost money, and clients like Godfrey were perfectly happy to spend on the useful, but not the useless.

Behind every great project lies a great client, and it is pity that the RIBA only acknowledges one of them each year. An experiment whereby it made a multiple award one year was a great idea, mistakenly kept quiet until the night. Collectively happy, each of the recipients was slightly miffed, having expected to be named the one and only.

If I were the RIBA, I would hold an annual client awards dinner. I imagine many would invite their architects to attend and I am sure sponsorship would be forthcoming, especially if it were left to the AJ to sort out. The current celebration of RIBA Awards in the various regions has zero excitement, despite the efforts of all involved, and attracts very few clients. I suppose a few will turn up for this year’s Stirling Prize event (especially if they like standing up, since there is no sit-down dinner).

However, the RIBA Awards are well run and continue to make visits a cornerstone of the process. They deserve a first class awards event to complete the process.

Another process involving visits is the British Construction Industry Award scheme, on which I have had the privilege of being a judge since 1995. This is an award for buildings and civil engineering projects which are successful in the round, that is to say built to time and budget, well designed, and endorsed by user clients. On an idyllic summer day last week we went to see a beautiful house by Birds Portchmouth Russum in the morning and a rather magnificent sewage treatment works serving Brighton and West Sussex in the afternoon, delivered by a public/private consortium with Costain as the main constructor.

Tolstoy’s comment on families: that happy ones are all the same, while unhappy ones are each unhappy in their different way, apply to construction teams. Most of them will have experienced the odd wobble or two along the way, even on highly successful projects, but their commitment will, generally, have overcome them. When you meet a good construction team it becomes almost immediately apparent that they could tackle anything - and succeed.

It shouldn’t need saying, but clients are indeed a crucial part of the team, whether they are experienced or inexperienced. They should be better acknowledged.

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