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Proper planning and strong leadership will avoid playground spat

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Legalese: School commissions carry a heightened risk, not least because the client body is likely to be disparate and divided in its views, writes Mark Klimt

In more than 30 years of handling claims against architects, I have been struck by the high incidence of disputes surrounding doctors’ surgeries and education establishments. In both cases, one is dealing with educated clients who are used to having to rely upon their own judgement and to make decisions that will affect large numbers of people, but whose expertise is not in the area of construction.

The government’s Academy initiatives and the wedding of public and private funding in this sector thrust schools projects into the limelight two decades ago, but education projects have always represented a particular challenge to construction teams. Normal pressures such as time constraints, limited budget and the presence of deleterious materials (a very common occurrence in the refurbishment of 1930s-1970s schools) assume heightened importance because of the involvement of children. An understanding of the peculiar quirks of education projects and of the reasons for their frequent problems offers architects an opportunity to make sensible arrangements designed to protect them from unjustified attack.

As with any other project, education commissions have the best chance of succeeding if they are set up properly. This will mean that the architect should avoid receiving instructions by committee; often a selection of well-intentioned lay benefactors, such as school governors, together with the bursar and head teacher, will be tasked with delivering the finished project. The architect should insist on instructions being routed through a single representative to avoid having to pick its way through often contradictory messages received from the client body. Any power struggle as to whether the head teacher should have final say over the governors, or whether the bursar – with a more detailed knowledge of the finances – should hold sway over the head teacher, need to be resolved ahead of issuing any instructions to the architect, for the benefit of both client and architect.

Space is likely to be at a premium at these frequently over-crowded establishments and there will be a wish to maximise the ambitious use of every area of site. What is more, the students will be robust and unforgiving end-users whose activities will demand a lot from their environment.

The architect needs to make proper allowances for time necessarily spent agreeing as clear and detailed a set of employers’ requirements as possible. The aim is to have a scheme that has been properly thought through in advance, agreed at both client and consultant level, for the best and most cost-effective use of the areas, in a bid to minimise client changes once the project is on site.

The architect also needs to be particularly clear in its appointment about what services are basic and what would involve separate remuneration. A school client’s enthusiasm to reflect the myriad views and requirements of its diverse body often leads to variations and counter-variations issued to the architect, without an appreciation of the impact on costs or consultant fees. Where such instructions are in the offing, the architect must make clear in advance the likely additional costs implications.

All of this, of course, has general application and is not peculiar to education commissions. But architects need to be aware that education projects carry a heightened risk. School spending is perennially in the headlines and buildings for higher education are expected to showcase the talents of those for whom they have been built; funding is always tight and under scrutiny; the client body will frequently be disparate and divided. Through proper planning and firm leadership, the project has the best opportunity of avoiding a descent from ideological flagship into rancorous dispute.

Mark Klimt is a partner at law firm DWF

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