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Scottish architects slam procurement for creating poor buildings

Scottish architects have slammed the country’s procurement methods and lambasted the country’s architecture policy for creating poor quality buildings

The policy, which was updated back in June 2013, has been criticised for contradicting the Scottish government’s own fee-driven procurement processes

The outcry comes as Richard Murphy said Scotland was one of the worst places to be an architect in an article in The Scotsman. The award-winning architect called for more competitions, adding that the Scots were being saddled with a generation of awful public buildings.

He said: ‘I’m a huge supporter of the idea that if you want to get good architecture you get a good architect. Simples, as they say. And one of the best ways of doing that is having paid limited architectural competitions and not the absurdity of fee competition.’

Paul Stallan of Glasgow-based Stallan-Brand, commented: ‘There is a complete and cynical disconnect between the political rhetoric on the value of design and place making, and the reality of procurement in Scotland presently.’

Gordon Duffy of Edinburgh based Studio DuB, agreed: ‘The emphasis of competitive tenders at the outset tends to produce poor quality fodder’.

He added: ‘The root of the issue is that competitive tenders result in decisions based purely on fees, while competitions, which encourage decisions based on architectural talent, are few and far between in the UK these days.’

William Tunnell, of Queensferry-based small practice WT Architecture added that the current procurement barriers were particularly difficult for small projects. He said: ‘The box-ticking mentality of PQQ’s puts a massive barrier in the way of young or small firms being able to compete.  

Dualchas Architects’ Neil Stephen agreed: There has been a lack of understanding of how procurement can impact on design quality and architecture policy, and how it excludes young and small practices from opportunities to show what they can do.’

A total of 27 projects in Scotland have been shortlisted in the RIAS/RIBA Awards for this year’s RIBA Awards.

Further comments

Richard Murphy, Richard Murphy Architects
‘The much vaunted Scottish Architecture policy, Minister for Architecture, ten-strong Scottish Architecture Policy Unit, general air of self-congratulation doesn’t seem to square with the Scottish Government’s procurement policy; in fact they seem to be in direct contradiction.

‘I was having a conversation with some Danish architects who had heard about the Scottish Architecture policy and then were flabbergasted when I told them what actually goes on. The reality is the Scottish government procurement policy has placed virtually all public buildings in the “hubco” system where a few large contractors select the architects and where I’m told fee levels have plummeted to an absurd level and architects who get work that way wait months before they are allowed to fee. The Scottish government likes to look at Scandinavia as an exemplar but clearly not in this area.

If you want to get good architecture you get a good architect

‘I’m a huge supporter of the idea that if you want to get good architecture you get a good architect. ‘Simples’, as they say. And one of the best ways of doing that is having paid limited architectural competitions and not the absurdity of fee competition - which is not euro-mandatory despite what they say. They do a lot of that on the continent: Spain, Germany [where it is mandatory for any building with public money in it] Netherlands, Finland, Norway. Indeed Northern Ireland NHS under John Cole has had that policy for several years. David Chipperfield has virtually constructed his entire career on the continental competition system.

‘And finally, interestingly where architectural quality is a prerequisite to getting funding for lottery funded projects, architectural competitions are frequently used. If lottery funding demands it, why not taxation funded projects too?’

Paul Stallan, Stallan-Brand
‘There is an complete and cynical disconnect between the political rhetoric on the value of design and place making and the reality of procurement in Scotland presently. It is disappointing that there is no charismatic and influential elected member with an intelligent and unbiased perspective that understands Scotland’s creative industries and design economy which includes architecture who is able to see how critical this economy is nationally and internationally. Ideas and innovation are the currency of the future not widgets and whisky.’

Gordon Duffy, Studio DuB
‘The root of the issue is that competitive tenders result in decisions based purely on fees, whilst competitions, which encourage decisions based on architectural talent, are few and far between in the UK these days.

The emphasis of competitive tenders at the outset tends to produce poor quality fodder

‘The emphasis of competitive tenders at the outset tends to produce poor quality fodder. It’s the general standard of architecture that has to improve as the higher end stuff will always look after itself. The result is at best a polite unchallenging architecture, what I’d call the acceptable face of modernism in Planning terms.

‘The RIAS will defend its position with a “Strong Scottish Shortlist for the RIAS/RIBA Awards 2014”   but how is this work perceived in a broader context? Underlining my previous point here have been few and far between, home grown Scottish Architect projects of seemingly appropriate calibre (discounting Koolhaas’s Maggie’s of 2012 and the EMBT Parliament winner of 2005) that have made the Stirling Prize shortlist in recent years, you’d have to go back to 2003 to find one and that was the modest An Turas.

‘The downturn has claimed many architectural firms which have spawned a plethora of new small/medium sized practices so we have the conundrum that goes with recessions of more and more practices being set up in a climate of competitive fee tendering for projects that they will not get a sniff at and the body that represents us in this neck of the woods suggests “it is up to the professionals to evidence how this is detrimental”, what more do we have to do?’

William Tunnell, WT Architecture
‘The balance between cost and value is not there yet in many public building commissions and architect’s fees are often really low, particularly at the early stages of a job. This puts big pressure on small firms in particular. Our view is that the box-ticking mentality of PQQ’s puts a massive barrier in the way of young or small firms being able to compete. Simple things like insisting upon over-inflated PI insurance can make pitching for a job not worthwhile.  We once pulled out of a tender because the extra premium we would have had to pay to secure the level of PI demanded were going to exceed the potential fee!

‘The Scottish Governments Policies have moved a long way to support good architecture, and this has fed through to much good design, particularly on smaller scale projects and, on the whole, to a more progressive attitude from planners. Ironically this shift is in part down to Richard Murphy and a few others holding their course in the truly design-hostile environment of the and 90’s, and delivering really good, fresh buildings.  Things could still be much better, but they are moving in the right direction.’

Neil Stephen, Dualchas Architects

There is a lack of understanding of how procurement can impact design quality and architecture policy

‘There has been is a lack of understanding of how procurement can impact on design quality and architecture policy, and how it excludes young and small practices from opportunities to show what they can do. There has been a review of Scottish Government procurement policy carried out due to this criticism, as well as criticism of local suppliers and contractors being excluded from tendering. My understanding is that a change in policy on procurement is being considered – but until we see the changes, we can’t assess if it will work.

‘The trouble we have is that politicians tend to come from a limited gene pool of lawyers, teachers, social workers and ad men – there aren’t enough architects in the frontline making decisions. Instead you have architects talking amongst themselves complaining about policy. My experience is that politicians do want good design – they just don’t necessarily know how to achieve it, despite having an ambitious architecture policy. They are risk averse – and who would blame them after the pummelling they got in the media for the Scottish Parliament project – a lot of which was stirred up by architect Peter Wilson.

‘Richard Murphy’s comments were overblown, but that’s how you get in the papers, so he’s done a good job. The problem is that it can make architects sound like a whining self-interest group – we have to change the culture of Scotland so that design quality is at the centre of life and how it can make people’s lives better - not something on the margins.’

Readers' comments (1)

  • It really is a fucking nightmare, I have been working for myself since I was a student delivering self and user generated projects in communities all over Glasgow. I don't play the promotional game and I don't kiss ass and I produce work from a place of genuine interest and critical enquiry. I enjoy working in the social, physical and cultural spaces between, identifying needs and making work but like any young architect I have ambitions to create bigger work and effect people and place in a variety of ways across a variety of scales. I don't see the conditions existing in Scotland that will allow me to do this without selling a bit of my soul

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