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After 20 years as an architect with Sheffield City Council, Andy Beard found himself back at school - and discovered he still had a great deal to learn about how to master the art of matching PFI with good design by jez abbott. photograph by shaun bloodworth Andy Beard lived to tell the tale of murderous costs, the onslaught of advisors and, of course, the red tape that threatens to strangle the Private Finance Initiative.

The 53-year-old architect, who is now head of education, planning and premises at Sheffield City Council, recently summed up his feelings on heading up a £46 million PFI scheme. The six schools inspired both 'agony and ecstasy', he says.

The good news was that it led to a 'fantastically fast' building programme that saw all schools finished within 18 months.

What's more, the pupils were thrilled.

But the £1.5 million preparation cost was an undoubted agony, as were delays caused by a throng of advisors - from legal and finance grey suits to governors and teachers with egg on their ties.

'Good design through PFI is definitely doable, ' insists Beard, giving the six schools in Sheffield about seven-and-a-half out of 10 in design terms.

'We had no illusions when we started, and we knew it would be hard. It was a success in procurement terms and we got what we wanted.'

But he admits that good design is harder to hit upon. Cost cutting led to small blights in Sheffield, including dingy corridors that were denied the glass walls included in their original design, clumsy service ducting and the occasional lack of natural daylight in foyers and classrooms.

Achieving this latter goal is a must in today's schools, according to the recent conference Beard addressed run by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment and the Department for Education and Skills (DfES).

Yet architects and local education authorities do not help themselves at times, and designers are not very good at looking at the bigger picture, he suggests.

'Designers focus on trying to isolate the design component and they ought to engage with the whole agenda to exploit all its advantages and ease the disadvantages.'

On the other hand, he says, education authorities often trip themselves up by trying to do too much.

'They try to manage PFI internally when it is better to have someone outside who does not become distracted by things like closing schools and decanting pupils.'

Beard was in good company for his PFI post mortem. His audience included a host of civil servants led by Baroness Ashton. The DfES ministerial design champion promised a new standard PFI contract, while CABE matched this by pledging a 10point guide on good design and threw in the possibility of guides on model timetables and evaluation criteria.

But Beard believes that PFI's image problems may persist for some time yet. The most pressing need, he says, is for the process to be streamlined - something that might lead to more exciting design.

'Bigger projects are often more costeffective in procurement than several small ones, ' he says. 'But the problem is you rarely want to rebuild 10 schools at the same time.

At the moment, government funding is year-on-year.

'We need to explore ways of trying to develop a contract that covers a longer period of time and where money can be drawn down throughout the period. If you had a contract that lasted five years, it would be attractive to private firms and banks because of the bigger payment. It might also mean using more than one design team to ensure variety.'

But banks were not so attractive when it came to Beard's own project. His biggest setback came after Sheffield had chosen a preferred bidder and thought it had tied up all the contractual details.

'The bank suddenly decided to renegotiate many of the conditions - they became more onerous and some things had to give on the client side, ' he says.

And client groups themselves can be no less demanding. 'Noisy headteachers - there are a lot of them around, ' he says. One of Beard's schools had a headteacher who was on a 'solo flight' working for one of the advisory panels.

'He didn't go back to his department heads and tell them the outcome of our meetings, ' Beard explains. 'After we signed off the project, they came up and said we had to do things a different way. Making changes at this stage causes problems and this is something to watch.'

Beard knows he is on a steep learning curve. He has been in his current post for 18 months after a 10-year stint heading up the 80 designers and building services staff at Sheffield architects' department. He has been at the council for about 20 years and he trained at Sheffield University.

Change came when the education department wanted someone with architectural skills to handle their building programme, which was massive in scale. His switch from a design to a client role was good for the system, says Beard, who also swears by the salutary benefits of playing the bassoon for the Sheffield Philharmonic Orchestra.

'It's healthy to change jobs. In Japan, you cannot work in the same job in the public sector for more than five years - you have to move on. This prevents people becoming stale in their work roles.'

But such a wholesale clear-out for architects involved in public sector design - and especially for schools - may not be such a good idea, says Beard.

'There is a very strong case to have specialist practices in education, ' he says. 'We need new blood but it is a very specific area.

There are a number of practices that have made their names in education such, as Ellis Williams and Rock Townsend. We couldn't afford to lose them, could we?'

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