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In private hands

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The effect of PFI on design elicits strong responses.Andrew Barraclough of HOK International believes it is possible to make it develop side by side with quality

Have you heard the urban myth about the gentleman from Somerset who spent the last 15 years of his life collating and mathematically detailing the behaviour of the household fly? The pensioner apparently carried out this work not for professional research or to produce a definitive report on the lifestyle of the pesky insects, but simply because he found them deeply, deeply fascinating.

It is a simple truth that, given that there are six billion people on the face of the planet, there will be somebody somewhere obsessed with just about anything you can possibly imagine. Another more disturbing example is a slightly peculiar German woman named Ulrich who, and this bit is true, has set up a website devoted to stories she has conjured up about wrapping Roy Orbison in cling film. Do a search in Google if you don't believe me.

Perhaps completing a holy trinity of weird subjects to be interested in, comes Andrew Barraclough, the head of public and institutional architecture at HOK International's London office, who has managed the quite extraordinary achievement of becoming obsessed by the minutiae of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI).

To be fair, Barraclough has reason enough for this obsession. PFI schemes are bringing a serious amount of cash into his practice's already-lavish offices on London's Oxford Circus, where we meet. For a member of this fine profession to have the business nous to get to grips with this incredibly complex procurement method, and then use this knowledge to bring in an almost endless stream of massive jobs, is a real achievement.

But this in itself is not why I am interviewing the Manchester and Brightontrained practitioner. The main reason is that the National Audit Office has decided to make use of his deep well of information and co-opt him on to a design review-style committee it is founding to assess design in PFI-build schools.

It is safe to say that the PFI process is still in the process of bedding in. Since its inception it has been constantly in the public eye, with almost anyone from the worlds of politics and construction having an opinion on whether the system is good, bad or (in the case of the buildings it produces) ugly.

However, this stream of comment seems to have quietened in the last few months as most people - even the arch-critics in the trade unions - accept that there is little or no chance that either this government or a possible Tory successor is going to abandon it.

This uneasy truce looks set to be broken in the next few weeks as RIBA presidential candidate Jack Pringle's campaign gets up and running. Pringle has made it abundantly clear that he will focus a great deal on the damaging affects of PFI on both the status of architects in society and the architecture they produce. Pringle, for one, clearly has a principled objection to the entire concept.

But what of Barraclough? Is it difficult for a man who is clearly passionate about the subject of good design and the positive impact it can have on public buildings to uphold and work within the PFI process?

'There is simply no way that the country could afford to spend £2.2 billion on schools without this system, ' he says, clearly trotting out a figure that is dear to his heart. 'There are a lot of people that knock the PFI system because it is the easy thing to do, but really what they should be attempting to do is work within the system to make it better.

That would be really good.

'What we as a profession need to do is find a way of demonstrably proving that we can improve business margins through the use of high-quality design. If we could do this, then there is no reason why architects and designers should not benefit and take a share in the profits in the long term, ' he says, somewhat ambiguously. 'This would make for a radical change of outlook in both procurement and business.'

Barraclough also believes that there are many things that architects can, and should, learn from working within PFI. 'I really enjoy a lot about the process of being an architect working under these conditions as it stretches us in the way that we design.

There are a whole raft of issues that we have never had to really think about such as the optimum life cycle of a roll of carpet, ' he says, as if carpeting was the reason he joined the Manchester School of Architecture in 1978. 'In the past we would simply have picked one we quite liked without giving it much thought.'

But this general support for the system does not stop Barraclough accepting that there are also major drawbacks that need to be resolved. And, to my surprise, Barraclough accepts the major criticism from the world of architecture, that the procurement method leads to an unhealthy divide between architect and end-user client.

'We must develop a closer relationship with the client as well as our PFI partners.

We must develop an understanding of the user's business, which, in addition to providing a building, focuses in improving the business environment. This would be the foundation of a true partnership where the business interests of the PFI consortium and user are inextricably linked.'

It is a strange irony that someone who is a self-styled advocate of the private finance system can come to the same conclusion as many of its most committed critics and yet package the recommendations for change in such a different way. One wonders which strategy will be more successful:

Barraclough's reform from within approach, or Pringle's head-on confrontation. Only time will tell.

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