Exclusive: The AJ meets Catalyst Education, preferred bidder for Birmingham City Council’s £2.4 billion BSF programme
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The people around this table have a massive task ahead of them. Together they are Catalyst Education, preferred bidder for the design and delivery of 89 secondary and special-needs schools for Birmingham’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. This recession-busting, six-phase project, including £1.2 billion of design and build activity, will take 15 years to complete. It’s the largest school-building project in Europe. Perhaps that’s why they look so content.
But it’s been tough getting to this stage. The bid began in June 2006. The design team had to work up three sample schools and the wider commitments – such as using the supply chain to expose pupils to careers they may not have thought of – make this project more than a little demanding.
Birmingham’s delivery team is as unusual as its plans are ambitious, in that smaller firms have been selected alongside larger ones. It also has two design champions: Sam Jacob of FAT and Deborah Saunt of DSDHA (with both firms working on school designs). Alsop Architects is a team member, alongside Archial, Cottrell and Vermeulen, and local firm Associated Architects.
The Birmingham BSF design methodology too, is unique. The team has developed a ‘toolkit’ to brief incoming designers and it uses a ‘buddy’ system to aid collaborative design. Here we present an edited transcript of the three-hour discussion, focusing on the bid and its design processes.
Rory Olcayto Some of the architects here today are not typical BSF firms.
Gary McGuire We wanted a balance between experience and fresh ideas.
Richard Cottrell For a smaller practice this is a great opportunity. It sends a message of hope that there are BSF clients and contractors who are open to what has not been the norm to date.
Sam Jacob Maybe there’s an advantage in selecting less experienced firms, less ground down by the PFI process. You put a lot more into it because it’s such an exciting scenario.
McGuire When we’re selecting partners it’s a two-way discussion, so its not only a matter of ‘we’ll have you’, it’s as much about who potential partners want to work with as well.
Jacob Because FAT doesn’t have a track record in school design, we’d not be taken seriously, but the buddy system here allowed us to learn.
Olcayto Buddy system?
Simon Foxell It’s a framework that allows firms introduced throughout the programme to learn from those who have already participated. This way, small, agile firms gain from working on a very big programme and are able to do individual projects with the quality only they can provide. The buddy system creates a backbone of consistency and encourages architects to share their best ideas.
Cottrell When we first came on board in March 2008, we were nurtured by Archial, the team already in place. It’s an interesting approach because typically architects are insular and not very communicative with each other.
Adam Wardle We found it refreshing because everyone has a common objective.
McGuire We should remember that the design and building programme is just one aspect of a much bigger…
Sylvia McNamara It feeds into our worklessness agenda. Bidders had to show how they would use their supply chain to make youngsters aware of the jobs available to them – and not just construction jobs. Lawyers, finance people, HR people, caterers are all attached to the BSF programme.
Foxell We’re focused on developing the skills and life chances of Birmingham’s children. The greater advantages are for the regeneration of Birmingham because it will create a more educated workforce, one that can understand the world of work.
McNamara That’s right, but with rising unemployment now, we can also be part of that solution. There will be 34 buildings constructed or remodelled simultaneously. When the bullring was redeveloped most workers were from overseas. We don’t want that.
McGuire We want to employ more than 70 per cent of the workforce locally.
Olcayto It seems a lot to ask of architects and contractors…
Foxell We’re looking for architects prepared to share, and who are interested in education before design. We insisted each bidder had a strong educationalist from the outset.
Terry White My job on the partnering side is to ask the design team, ‘how is this going to improve the learning outcomes of children?’
Olcayto Is that not the role of headteachers?
McNamara A BSF review showed that headteachers think they don’t have enough say, but to be honest they have too much. Each has a different view of what’s right for their school, but to let them work with their own architect would take hundreds of hours – it’s ridiculous.
McGuire We thought of it as a city-wide strategy. Our architects designed schools in a way that could be applied on a wider scale.
Birmingham BSF in numbers
• 89 secondary schools including 6 special schools
• £1.2 billion construction cost
• £2.4 billion total programme cost
• 15-year construction cycle
• 6 phases
• Phase 1 begins on site in May 2009 and completes in 2011
• Phase 6 to complete in 2024
• £152.4 million construction cost of phase 1
• 6 architects to design phase 1 schools (Associated Architects, Alsop, Archial, Cottrell and Vermeulen, DSDHA, FAT)
• 3 sample schools for bid process: Broadway (design and build £18.45 million refurbishment by Cottrell and Vermeulen); Stockland Green Technology College (PFI £17.7 million new-build by Associated Architects with FAT); joint campus for Holte Secondary School, Mayfield Special-Needs School and Lozells Primary School (PFI £36.82 million new-build by Archial with Alsop)
• 10 client design advisors
• 10 Transforming Education advisors
DESIGNING FOR THE BID
Olcayto How much design work was required by the bidding process?
McGuire We had to submit three sample school designs to stage D (see box, above right).
Foxell Though each school had its own design team, architects worked across all the projects.
Wardle The transforming education objective allowed us to apply core themes across all the schools.
Cottrell We would come together on cluster design and educational philosophy and develop those ideas with the educationalist.
Olcayto What does ‘cluster design’ mean?
McNamara There was an assumption that post-war schools typified what a school should be. But we asked why. So we explored the idea of Bristol’s learning clusters (developed by Wilkinson Eyre’s Department for Education and Skills exemplar in 2003 and implemented in the firm’s 2008 Bristol Metropolitan College (AJ 22.05.08)). We’ve added an external learning deck to the cluster model. We’ll work with the school to find ways of using that deck.
Olcayto Do site constraints not make it difficult to implement ideas across projects?
McNamara We don’t think a school should be shaped by the plot of land it has. That’s an ‘outside-in’ approach. What about buying land [from the housing department] to allow a different kind of school design?
Asset management has always been: ‘It’s a grotty piece of poorly shaped land – tough. Design something that fits.’ But we’ve managed to secure adjacent land for Stockland Green Technology College so the architects can do something constructive. We’ll also consider buying a new site for other projects if it means getting the design right.
Wardle Coming back to the collaborative design process – you can’t be too precious. You can’t drive in one straight line and keep going. You’ve got to be flexible and respond to what’s happening.
Cottrell And thick skinned!
McNamara We gave harsh feedback. If we saw one solution applied in one school but not another we’d ask why not.
Olcayto Did the architects ever question the brief? Challenge you?
Foxell We’ve taken the process of competitive dialogue very seriously. We changed one of the sites (the joint campus site – see box above) halfway through the process because the bidders said it didn’t work.
Jonathan Leah And we did the complete design all over again!
Foxell Top tip: get your architects to design your school twice! (laughs)
White But you come back in with zeal and enthusiasm, because it’s for the right reasons. You’re doing it again to improve the design.
Leah It proved to be the right move because we were able to approach the new site very differently.
Olcayto What’s a typical Birmingham BSF design issue?
Jacob You’re being challenged to think on different scales – from the position of plug sockets to the position of the school and how it connects to the city. But you are also challenging the idea of what the school is.
Cottrell How to develop ideas for both new-build and refurb was interesting. With new-build you could implement some of the blue-sky theory of what a cluster should be. But then 50 or more per cent of the project is refurbishment, so how do you include the same level of thinking into an existing shape or how do you extend it to make it better?
White We’ve also thought about how spaces can be used for a variety of uses. How do you make them smart, usable and attractive?
McNamara We can learn from earlier PPP projects. The problems with those schools have been tattooed on our mind by headteachers in monthly meetings throughout the bid.
Jacob We want to make everything we design work twice as hard.
McNamara Integration is a challenge. We had a lot of ICT meetings to get it embedded at an early stage, but we didn’t do enough to integrate the ICT, facilities management and design and build work streams.
Olcayto It all sounds very demanding for smaller practices.
Cottrell We’ve been involved for a year now and all the presenting and talking and changing means you do have to put more resources in than for the standard client situation. It has been an enlightening process – both frustrating and entertaining. At the start you think, ‘Are we able to enter this world?’ We were half expecting to lose.
White Losing once is okay because what you learn could be useful if you were to bid again. But losing twice or more may prove too much.
Olcayto How is all this documented?
Foxell We’ve developed something we call the ‘toolkit’. We use it to brief designers and share expertise. It gives a strong flavour of the project philosophy. As well as education and building-specific advice, it covers community outreach and how we work with stakeholders.
McGuire It’s being continually modified and will continue to develop.
Foxell If something goes well we want to repeat that and learn why it’s gone well, to encourage others to use it in the future.
Olcayto Is that something that’s been traditionally difficult in BSF projects?
Foxell It’s something that’s been traditionally difficult with architects.
McGuire When you add in to the mix all the other designers, engineers, and landscape architects, it’s a big team to manage and share information across.
Olcayto I’m sure other local authorities would be interested in your approach.
McNamara In the long run we want to share and want to help, but it’s intellectual property and there is a certain amount of commercial sensitivity about the product.
Jacob It’s specific to Birmingham. It comes out of a particular agenda and opportunity.
Cottrell To transfer it misses the point. The rules are, you should go through a process.
CABE’s 10 points for a well-designed school
1. A high-quality design that inspires usersto learn
2. Sustainable design, construction and environmental servicing
3. Good use of the site, balancing pedestrian and vehicle access and enhancing community presence
4. Secure buildings and grounds welcoming to both school and community
5. Good organisation of spaces in plan and section, easily legible, fully accessible
6. Well proportioned, fit-for-purpose internal spaces that meet curriculum needs
7. Flexible design for short-term changes of layout and use, and for long-term expansion/contraction
8. Good environmental conditions throughout, including optimum levels of natural light and ventilation
9. Well-designed external spaces offering a variety of settings for leisure, learning and sport
10. A simple palette of attractive materials, robustly detailed and easily maintained
Olcayto Given this extensive and bespoke design process, are CABE’s 10 points for good school design redundant?
McNamara I find it bizarre that education doesn’t feature in the 10 points. Nowhere does CABE ask, ‘is it a transformational building?’ So we end up being assessed on things like ‘what does it look like from the outside and how does it sit on the street’, instead of ‘does it function for young people’ and ‘do we know what we want to achieve for young people’.
Foxell We’ve challenged CABE on its 10 points to put education more to the fore.
Leah Sylvia’s concerns with CABE are shared by the design team as well.
Jacob There’s a clash in the way of thinking. Birmingham asks us to think about schools from the inside out. CABE looks at schools from outside in.
Olcayto What do you think of CABE’s ongoing criticism of BSF design quality?
Foxell For Birmingham, process is crucial, so for CABE to look at schools midway through and say they’re not good enough is beside the point. It doesn’t help us.
Wardle We test our designs against education models that we’ve run our sample schools through to make sure they measure up. We’ve done a number of analyses: ‘a day in the life of a child’, for example.
Foxell We have many people in dialogue from different disciplines. As the team develops its strategy, the architecture improves. It’s easy to develop compelling-looking buildings, but you have to go in and fix them later because they don’t deliver educationally.
McNamara The classic is atria: is it the right solution for school entrances or is it a way for architects to make their mark? It may look good but is it the best use of space? How does that space add value in terms of learning?
Olcayto Our focus today has been the bid and design process, but I wonder if you could flag up potential delivery bottlenecks, by way of conclusion?
McNamara Delivery bottlenecks have nothing to do with contractors or architects. There is a process called ‘Strategy for Change’ that has to be signed off by ministers and the Office of the Schools Commissioner that interrogates school estate plans. But it’s being hammered twice because we’re already interrogating it through the National Challenge scheme. It’s a heavy-handed process.
Foxell Local initiatives, national initiatives, the global financial situation – it all has to come through one point of delivery. Getting through will be a huge achievement because each one is a potential bottleneck. But the financial situation is a temporary one. PFI has enough flex to morph and change, and it will do so.
• New-build secondary schools will be PFI
• Refurbishment/extended schools will be design and build
• New-build academies will be design and build
• Separate contracts for ICT and facilities management (FM)
Local Education Partnership (LEP)
The bespoke delivery vehicle for a local BSF programme, whereby a private sector consortium forms a formal partnership with the local authority and BSFI (a sister company to Partnerships for Schools) after financial close. The local authority can procure wider local services through the LEP, including primary schools, healthcare and leisure facilities. An LEP gives exclusivity to the client’s delivery team to manage the project for 10 years, with a five-year extension dependent on performance.