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Architects under fire from MoD

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The government is moving towards a method of procurement for public buildings which will put architects and other consultants in the back seat - unless they are willing to shoulder a large burden of risk in the lead role.

The Ministry of Defence, which spends £1.5 billion a year on construction, is aiming for a system of prime contracting, described by Clive Cain, its director of quality, as a 'single source procurement approach'. To test its ideas it is carrying out two pilot projects, both for physical recreation and training centres. One, at Aldershot, with amec as the prime contractor, starts on site today; the other is at Wattisham, and has Laing as prime contractor.

Cain says these projects have already proved their success at the design and planning stage. The costs were calculated over a 35-year life. 'We intend to use this as our normal way of procuring non-pfi projects,' said Cain.

Now the Treasury is considering a similar move for all government procurement. It has produced three draft documents, which are out for consultation, and intends to publish final guidance in May. 'We want to move into innovative forms of contractual relationship,' said Mike Burt, head of procurement practice and development at the Treasury. Prime contracting is one of these forms, but the Treasury is also interested in design and build. 'We are interested in dealing with firms that have a design and construction capability in one organisation,' said Burt. 'The issue is, is the market ready to receive that message? How many firms have that capability?'

The prime contractor, according to Cain, could be 'anybody willing to manage the supply chain - it may be somebody from outside the construction industry.' Himself an architect, he said he found it 'surprising that architects and engineers don't see themselves as part of the supply chain. Architects and the riba have to think seriously about the implications of the Egan report and other developments.'

Richard Saxon, chair of bdp and of the Construction Industry Board's Good Practice Panel, believes these changes are inevitable. 'It's the way the wind is blowing and we have to adapt,' he said. 'One hundred and eighty years is a long time in which to separate architecture and construction.' Saxon believes that rather than the creation of massive multi-disciplinary companies, there will be 'virtual companies' forming long-term strategic alliances. 'It would all have happened long ago if we were good enough,' he said. 'The culture has pushed organisations away from being able to do the whole task.'

riba president David Rock warned: 'It does annoy me how people naively think that at the beginning of the job they can get a fixed price.' He said that he recognised that there has to be change but, 'one has to be careful of any proposal that looks to be one that emphasises the reduction in costs.'

Robin Nicholson, chair of the Construction Industry Council, said: 'We are very alarmed. We will be seeking a meeting with the treasury to better understand their ideas and to explain the value of consultant-led design teams.'

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