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School design requires too much homework

Procurement processes are preventing us from building schools that we can be proud of, says Michál Cohen

Architects are increasingly reliant on education projects to provide them with a reliable income. However, there are still question marks around the end results. Due to the sheer volume of schools currently being built, the good old days of client/architect relationships with schools have given way to a lengthy procurement process and a battle to be part of bidder consortiums.

Our reputation as architects is based on the high quality of our designs. Yet there is insufficient clarity and openness between bidders and consultants, which sometimes means that decisions to reduce the specification are made without clear discussion.

An enormous amount of waste is created in trying to deliver schools under this framework, and although the detail work architects achieve is impressive, there is not enough time for it to be considered.

While these frameworks are necessary to address the need for transformation in our education system, the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) Invitation to Continue Dialogue (ITCD) stages 1 and 2 have proven an intense and costly 24-week period for design teams. After 12 pre-arranged clarification meetings with the school and local authority, who evaluate the bid and select the preferred supplier, the preferred bidder has only a few weeks to submit a planning application. The Academies framework allows teams just 12 weeks to reach the equivalent of RIBA Stage D.

For large, new-build secondary schools built under BSF or the Academies framework, this limited period allows little scope for architects to be creative before presenting ideas. Particularly when it comes to the refurbishment of existing buildings, there needs to be an in-depth consultation with the school. While refurbishment projects can be innovative, they often prove more challenging to work on than new builds.

Additionally, bidders are not paid for the competitive process, so not winning a project can be very costly. A bidder might spend £2-3 million on employing the whole design team for three to four schools, including highways, planning, fire, acoustics, structure and cost consultants. Once the bidder wins a BSF Local Education Partnership (LEP), it is expected to deliver continual improvement, which often includes reducing fees.

Now that Partnerships for Schools is responsible for Primary Capital Programme (PCP) funding, it will be interesting to see how many other local authorities choose to deliver their schools through the LEP or the Academies framework. There is a feeling that the government is trying to push ahead with building schools rapidly. But we need a cross-party commitment to a consistent programme for delivering high-quality buildings that we can be proud of in years to come.

Michál Cohen is a director at Walters and Cohen

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