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Anger as Gove seeks architect for ‘class leading’ HQ

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‘Anti-architect’ education minister Michael Gove has been criticised over his plans to convert Whitehall’s Old Admiralty Building into a new ‘class leading’ headquarters for his department

The Department of Education (DfE) announced it was seeking an architect to transform the iconic grade II-listed building into a new London headquarters earlier this week.

The move comes three years after the minister controversially said award-winning architects like Richard Rogers should not work on Free Schools and that architects working on the BSF programme represented a waste of taxpayers’ money (AJ 02.02.11).

Shepherd Robson partner Lee Bennett said: ‘I wonder if Gove’s memorable exhortation not to use award-winning architects will apply to this project? Let’s see if he sticks to his values when it’s his own commission.’

Ian McChesney of London-based Ian McChesney Architects added: ‘Send them to a flat pack pre-fab in Basingstoke – more like.’

Gove faced an industry backlash two years ago over plans for new standardised schools which would be 15 per cent smaller and £6 million cheaper than previous designs.

Peter Morris of Peter Morris Architects said: ‘Giving the DfE new world class offices in Whitehall will surely reinforce the notion that your environment improves your wellbeing and learning, which will give me greater hope that they will do the same for school children.’

Around 1,600 DfE civil servants will occupy the 18,000m² eighteenth century complex when the overhaul completes in 2017.

Each worker will have around 11.25m² or workspace compared to 6m² per pupil in a typical new school where teachers’ offices are usually 8m². 

Commenting on the scope of the project, ADP chair Roger FitzGerald said: ‘The Old Admiralty Building is a nationally-significant building and the department should take a long-term view and do the project properly to a high standard.  Hopefully, we’ll get better budgets and more architectural ambition back into our school projects before too long.’

The cost of refurbishing the Royal Navy’s former London headquarters has yet to be announced but the design contract will be worth up to £5 million and the relocation is expected to save DfE £8.5 million a year.

According to the tender notice, the new headquarters must achieve a BREEAM very good rating and be a ‘class leading facility that is not overly elaborate and which offers demonstrable value for money.’

The energy consumption and running costs of the department’s current Sanctuary Buildings base are known to be very high according to Mairi Johnson, AECOM’s global head of education.

‘Moving the department’s head office to somewhere more efficient would definitely be of benefit to the taxpayer,’ she said, adding: ‘With civil servants scurrying about, it could also assist in pepping it up the rather bleak and windswept Horse Guards Parade.’

However Robin Nicholson of Cullinan Studio said: ‘Given Gove’s wanton abandonment of the previous government’s low cost programme for reducing our schools’ energy bills and carbon footprints, I doubt he will demand the exemplar low energy retrofit he should.’

Chris Williamson of Weston Williamson meanwhile suggested the tender – which seeks an integrated project management and design team – could provide a good opportunity for young practices.

He said: ‘The fact that they are looking for a combined project management and design service might encourage the use of younger, less well established architects because the project manager can propose, establish and coordinate the rest of the team.’

He continued: ‘A project of this type would be less easy for a young design team to win on their own. The task will be for younger less experienced designers to convince the project managers that they are worth any perceived risk.’

The move is part of the government’s on-going consolidation of its estate which has so far raised £1 billion from projects including Blair Associates’ transformation of nearby Admiralty Arch into a hotel.

The deadline for requests to participate is 9 May.



Further comment

Alan Wilkinson,WPP Architects

The Admiralty Building project might be a nice job if you can get it, but I doubt many small firms will be rushing to submit for this one.  The OJEU notice is clearly skewed towards the large, multi-discipline firms and although I have not seen the PQQ documentation, it is clear that minimum levels of turnover will be a criteria, which seems to go against the governments previously stated intention to be less exclusive in its commissioning.

Dominic J Eaton, director at Stride Treglown

The project appears to require quite a specialised set of architectural skills including the refurbishment a high profile listed building. I am not sufficiently familiar with the brief to appreciate where there might be opportunities to introduce new elements within the building.

Also the absence of a budget limits the potential brief, and on the one hand, this move is about saving money so the department of education will be exposed to criticism if the budget is too high. Although on the other hand this is too important a project to skimp on the architectural potential and specification.  

There could be a number of opportunities to open up the interior. I’m thinking about the Sackler Galleries at the Royal Academy where Foster brilliantly opened up an underused and tired area of the building to create new vertical circulation routes which improved the connectivity between floors.

I wonder how many similar opportunities there might be within the project for creative design to run alongside sensitive refurbishment. I think it is a fantastic opportunity for either an established practice or a rising star. However, it is a very important project and the selection of the right team will be critical with regards the scheme success.

The selection process needs to be sufficiently open to allow for the opportunity of a wide range of interest. I think this is the best method for securing the best architect for the job.

Historically, it seems to me that the requirements for edibility for this type of work can be so prescriptive and limiting, that many innovative practices, large or small, young or established, become excluded. This would, in this instance, be a shame.








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Readers' comments (1)

  • Just so long as the winning scheme includes an 8m2 office without natural light or fresh air for him, that would be fine!

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