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Report highlights ‘serious flaws’ in UK arts building procurement

A critical investigation into the construction of new UK arts buildings has recommended a radical shake-up of procurement

University of Cambridge researchers argued that the current national recommendations for using public money to build arts venues had ‘serious flaws’ and was responsible for the ‘disillusionment and loss of faith’ of individuals involved in such projects.

The study – which is part of a new book Geometry and Atmosphere focused on the construction and financial histories of six high-profile theatre projects, including an ‘exhaustive investigation’ into all areas of the design, procurement and delivery process.

The findings questioned the efficacy of the current National Audit Office-endorsed system.

The capital project process is labyrinthine and corrosive

‘This is an angry community with a lot to say,’ said project lead and University of Cambridge architecture professor Alan Short. ‘One experienced administrative director vowed she would “never, never, never do a building again, because it is just too stressful”, and a director declared that “arts buildings are seriously bad for your artistic health”.’

‘Such was the intensity of feeling that virtually every participant was extraordinarily candid. What emerges is a labyrinthine and often corrosive capital project process that courts problems and in some cases even leads to complete failure.’

Video on the procurement of arts buildings

The results are distilled into new guidance for arts projects stakeholders – including architects, designers, administrators, engineers and builders. The findings could be applied to any sector where public money is spent on major building projects, it was claimed.

The report argues that the Arts Council Lottery organisation’s funding process allows ‘relatively little time to conjure up ambitious visions to catch the Lottery panel’s eye’.

This means bidders are ‘gambling with sketchy ideas unproven technically but, when successful, are absolutely tied to the original budget figure’.

The report argues that by the time the very necessary technical expertise becomes affordable, the budget to absorb the necessary changes has evaporated.

By mapping the progress of the budget variance against the authorised budget for each theatre project, the team found that all project bids were completely different, calling into question the use of a standard ‘one-size-fits-all’ template for realising arts capital projects.

The report proposed an alternative procurement protocol. First, expressions of interest outlining the vision would be solicited and reviewed; those permitted to proceed would receive enough funding to develop a credible technically secure design; detailed schemes would then be reviewed intensively, some sent back for reiteration, some cancelled, but others permitted to proceed to full construction information, again properly resourced; finally, a rolling technical review would enable rapid construction to start in order to preserve teams and project expertise.

The three-year research project was carried out in conjunction with the University of Salford and was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Recent high-profile arts building projects include Rafael Viñoly Architects’ £28.2 million Firstsite visual arts museum in Colchester, Essex (pictured) which suffered three years of delays and costs overruns because of a major client-contractor dispute.

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