Malcolm Fraser has spoken to the AJ about the shock collapse of his practice and has called for a shake-up of the ‘process rathen than product’ driven procurement system
Just days after his 15-strong company Malcolm Fraser Architects (MFA) went into liquidation, the Edinburgh-based architect set out the reasons why the outfit shut its doors and urged a major rethink about the way architecture is procured to prevent other firms following suit.
He said: ‘My practice’s central problem was that almost all our work was high-profile and maximum challenge set within a very competitive fee context. We never managed to get the larger jobs that could sustain those high-profile jobs - despite strenuous efforts.
‘We also worked proactively on putting numerous projects together ourselves [at feasibility stage] but despite many, many attempts they didn’t turn into live projects for us.’
Explaining what could be done to improve the situation, the award-winning architect added: ‘[Our] issues were made much more difficult by the current “process rather than product” focused procurement system in Britain.
‘There needs to be a significant redressing of the balance in the [tender system] towards delivering a beautiful product. At the moment it is weighted, roughly, at 60 per cent design to 40 per cent cost. But architecture is massively more important than that. ‘It should be 90 per cent design to 10 per cent cost which would allow the importance of architecture to be properly considered.’
Fraser, whose practice was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize in 2002 for its DanceBase in Edinburgh, believes the architectural instituions had not done enough to force changes to the procurement system nor had they banged the drum loud enough about good quality design.
He said: ‘It would have have been good to see the RIAS and RIBA calling for [procurement change] too. As a profession we have yet to get the message out about the simple utility of architecture. Of the importance of creating humane spaces with light and views.
‘What we do enriches lives and makes people, happier, wealthier and healthier. Unless we can convince at this basic, utilitarian level we are not going to get the recognition our art form deserves.’
Fraser also warned that level of fees in Scotland remained dangerously low. He said: ‘I don’t feel the situation is getting any better yet. The market does what it does and the pressure on fees remains as hard as ever. It is difficult across the industry in Scotland.’
His fears were echoed by many architects who are worried the surprise failure of Fraser’s 22 year-old company could be the first in a series of collapses of medium sized architecture practices in coming months.
Glasgow architect Alan Dunlop said: ‘[MFA’s liquidation] is shocking news and a sad indictment of sub-standard public procurement process in Scotland, which is contractor-led.
‘The mantra is “value for money”, which really means fees are driven into the ground, often resulting in poor quality cookie cutter schools and health projects. Frankly I expect more liquidations to come, this maybe just the start. I hope not.’
A statement from the RIAS said that the collapse of MFA demonstrated that trading conditions remain tough and margins in architecture are currently very tight.
It said: ‘It seems odd that when architects can contribute quite so much to the quality of people’s lives that this is not recognised by some clients who see it as their duty to shareholders or the public purse to squeeze fees to a point where architects’ businesses are no long viable. As a consequence, jobs are lost and society is also the loser.’
Neil McAllister, architect at GLM, said: ‘The news….must be taken as a wakeup call by us all – that a practice which on outward appearance was very successful can underneath be struggling.’
He said that the demise of the design-led firm demonstrated there was something ‘significantly broken’ in the industry.
‘Often it appears that there are two options for an architectural practice – to produce quality or profit – with the line between being a very difficult one to tread.
‘Somehow the profession needs to persuade clients – both public and private sector – of the value of their work and therefore be able to charge sustainable fee levels.’
Another Edinburgh-based architect, who did not want to be named, told AJ that his practice had recently spent £10,000 on feasibility work on a scheme for a university, only to lose out.
‘If you have that happen to you six or seven times in a row then you are in big trouble,’ he said.
Graeme Massie, director of Graeme Massie Architects, based in Edinburgh, said: ‘Procurement clearly is an issue in Scotland, as it probably is elsewhere too; however, I can’t see this changing in the foreseeable future, as it benefits those with influence in the construction industry while simultaneously reducing competition.’
Eugene Mullan, director of Edinburgh-based Smith Scott Mullan Associates, said: ‘It’s a very sad situation. I don’t know what led to it but my concern would be it’s a reflection of the challenges of operating an architectural practice in the current economic and procurement environment.’
Fraser blames fee levels and tick-box procurement for demise