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Blow for quality as design pays price for the cost of PFI 5 bidding process

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Aloof? Standoffish? Disdainful? How often are these epithets thrown at architects? And when it comes to PFI projects, we all love to criticise the outcomes, but there is a suspicion that those who don't deign to sully their hands with such work are being supercilious. Why not get to grips with the projects and show that there is another approach, that it might be necessary to make some compromises but that a good outcome can be achieved?

There are some deliberately 'design-led' PFI projects, but these are still the exception. It was therefore impressive that some smaller, design-led practices were willing to make an effort in the field of education.

All the constituents that formed the association 'PFI 5' have experience in this field. Recognising that PFI demanded large resources, they banded together to create a joint pool of expertise as big as all but the very largest practices. And they started looking for work. How disappointing, then, that the three of the five involved in a bid in Norwich have now been dumped. And that the reason is that their fees were far too high. These will not have been greedy fees, just the kind proposed by practices that want to make a living and do some proper design work.

The tragedy is that the reason the consortium has to demand such low fees is because of its huge costs elsewhere. Winning consortia still need to put in low bids, despite the fact that they are spending a fortune on the bidding process. That is real wasted money, since it does not feed in to the design or the execution of the project itself; whereas, as we all know, wellspent architects' fees are a real investment, delivering quality and often also cutting the cost of execution. If PFI bidders cannot afford to pay for the cost of design, they will continue to put up poor quality buildings that may be a drain on the public purse in the future.

And the experience of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, van Heyningen and Haward, and Penoyre & Prasad will discourage others from following their approach.

Indeed, PFI 5 itself is unlikely to evince much enthusiasm for further bids. And that may be another nail in the coffin for PFI quality.

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