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The British Construction Industry Awards knows what to look for in a great project

Rory Olcayto enjoyed his part in an awards scheme that has the right judges - and selects the right projects

I spent three very enjoyable days this summer touring the buildings and projects shortlisted for this year’s British Construction Industry Awards. My companions were among the UK’s most experienced industry professionals.

It’s good to discuss the merits of a project such as Liverpool’s Canal Link with figures like Mace Group director Gareth Lewis, for example. Lewis can draw upon the experience of his firm’s delivery of Norman Foster’s British Museum Great Court revamp or the preparation behind Renzo Piano’s 310m-high Shard, now on site at London Bridge.

It’s also good to move beyond the vagueness that characterises much of architectural criticism and encounter the definitive judgements of Jean Venables, the outgoing president of the Institute of Civil Engineers.

On each visit, for every positive, a negative was raised, because there was an expert on the jury voicing specific concerns. The jury is so broad – 17 members in all – that at least one other will be sympathetic to your viewpoint.
I remember obsessing over details of the UK’s first shared surfaces project – the Ashford ring road scheme designed by Whitelaw Turkington – with Philip Singleton, city design advisor at Birmingham City Council.

What sets BCI Awards apart is that it rewards successful collaboration between architects, planners, engineers, local councils and other professionals in the delivery of projects. Spatial qualities, form and aesthetics are not high on the jury’s checklist. This means that EMBT’s Scottish Parliament, a Stirling Prize-winner in 2005, could never triumph here. The contractual mess, wild overspend and very late finish on site would have seen it disqualified. This is a good thing. The industry needs an awards ceremony that celebrates
how well it can work together.

What it doesn’t mean is that the BCI Awards turns away from innovative, challenging design. Good-looking buildings with new ideas about spatial organisation (such as 5th Studio’s outlandish Creative Exchange centre) and mixed-use design (such as Dixon Jones’ Kings Place, pictured, an office complex with conference and leisure facilities) proved to be impressive enough holistically to merit awards.

It’s worth noting that, like the Stirling Prize, the BCI Awards has shortlisted both Eric Parry Architects and Allford Hall Monaghan Morris. However I believe the BCI Awards, which has a more broadly experienced jury and a more complex set of criteria to meet, has identified the firms’ best recent work. Parry’s St Martin-in-the-Fields picked up the conservation prize while AHMM’s Yellow Building walked off with best building. When the whole industry is asked for its opinion, it seems, real winners emerge.

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