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Why clients must learn the art of making up their minds

Here we go again. While there is at last a glimmer of hope over the sorry saga of Pimlico School, another architect, brought on board specifically to improve the quality of a pfi project, finds its work is no longer wanted because the client has switched consortia.

pfi projects tend to be mired in secrecy, but at Norfolk police headquarters, where the client has switched consortia, it is clear that it has changed its requirements as the project has gone along. It has definitely decided it can get a cheaper package partway through the process. How much cheaper this really will be, given the rfac's criticisms and a planning authority which does not have a history of accepting shoddy design, only time will tell.

But at least part of the problem can be put down to the client's lack of experience. And this is not surprising. How often does any police authority commission a new headquarters? Only once in the career of a senior police officer. And how do members of the police get to those positions of authority? Through developing a range of skills which are unlikely to include an intimate knowledge of the building process.

At Pimlico, in order to cram in expensive housing, the government and Westminster Council are trying to prove a point by driving through a 'pathfinder' project and ignoring the existence of a well-loved building and the children's needs. But in Norfolk we came close to getting a real pathfinder - a pfi building which was excellently designed by Pringle Richards Sharratt both in terms of fitness for purpose and the way it sat in the landscape.

At Pimlico Westminster wants to reduce the teaching space and the playing field - in Norfolk the error seems to have been in moving the goalposts. If we are to get decent schemes out of the pfi there has to be a concerted effort to educate and guide clients in their responsibilities not only to their paymasters but also to the wider public. And to make them realise the message that all those concerned with the construction industry have been trying to hammer home for years - one way or another, changing your mind is always expensive.

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