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Architects blast Ashford council over ‘onerous’ competition terms

Commercial Quarter Island Site, Ashford

Ashford Borough Council has extended the deadline in its contest to design a £650,000 commercial quarter following an open letter from architects castigating the ‘onerous terms’ of the competition

Last week 21 architects signed an open letter criticising the competition for failing to detail a scoring system, seeking costed designs without client engagement, and offering an honorarium of only £1,000 for the three shortlisted teams.

The letter, written by Mole Architects director Meredith Bowles, argued the terms were ‘wasteful and unnecessary’ and effectively asked architects to create ‘a shot in the dark’, rather than an intelligent synthesis of information and needs. Signatories included Russell Curtis of RCKa, Piers Taylor of Invisible Studio, Paul Karakusevic of Karakusevic Carson Architects, and Sarah Wigglesworth of Sarah Wigglesworth Architects.

It said: ‘We suggest that the terms of the competition might be amended to promote good practice and to demonstrate the way in which the council values good design. This might include increasing the honorarium to £4,000 for each of three firms; making the fee bid separate from the design competition, or setting a clear range of fees that entrants would accept; and publishing the scoring criteria.’

In a statement responding, the council thanked architects for their feedback, which it said it was considering, and extended the contest’s clarification and submission deadlines. The statement said: ‘This is the first time that we have run such a competition, and we are genuinely grateful for the feedback from architects thus far.

‘We have decided to give ourselves a little additional time to consider the points raised. We have now extended the deadline for those seeking clarification until Wednesday 17 January at 12 noon, and the bid response deadline has been extended until Tuesday 23 January at 14.30.’

This is the first time that we have run such a competition, and we are genuinely grateful for the feedback

The competition invites ‘insightful and creative architect-led teams’ to submit applications for the commission, which will transform a prominent 1,288m² plot next to Ashford International Station.

The land, known as the Island Site, currently contains a four-storey disused corn mill and a large steel portal framed building – formerly home to the Ashford Youth Theatre. This will be converted into a serviced shell and core suitable for a café, bar, food market or delicatessen.

The mill, meanwhile, will be transformed into managed, start-up office space featuring co-working areas, small private offices and meeting areas. The space between the two structures is expected to become a new public garden and events area.

The interim project is part of Ashford’s wider Commercial Quarter regeneration zone. Under the advertised terms, three shortlisted teams will each receive an honorarium of £1,000 to draw up concept designs following an open-expressions-of-interest round.

According to the brief: ‘The success of the Commercial Quarter is dependent on the council delivering on its promise to establish a place that is well connected and where people will want to come to work and live. While delivery options for the next major phase of development within the Commercial Quarter are being explored, the decision has been taken to deliver an “interim use” for part of the Island Site in the short to medium term of four to five years.

‘The interim proposal is seen as key to simultaneously ensuring the success of Phase 1 of the Commercial Quarter and the council retaining the flexibility it requires to deliver longer-term development which will maximise both the economic benefit and financial return to the borough.’

Over the past decade Ashford has witnessed a 14.9 per cent increase in its population, linked to the creation of the HS1 high-speed rail link to London St Pancras.

The Commercial Quarter project aims to revitalise the area surrounding Ashford International Station and includes a new home for Ashford College by HNW Architects, an expansion of RSHP’s Ashford Designer Outlet by Chapman Taylor and a new retail hub named Elwick Place by Guy Hollaway Architects.

First-round submissions for the latest project should include a completed questionnaire, a short statement of interest and relevant experience, and examples of three relevant projects. Applications from local teams are encouraged and a winner will be announced in early April.

The open letter

Dear Caroline Carney

Your project for the Commercial Quarter at Dover Place looks like a great opportunity for the right architect. We would love to submit but I’m afraid we are unable to do so under the onerous terms of the tender requiring architects to submit a design scheme as part of the bid. The tender requires designs sufficiently detailed to be costed, effectively to RIBA Stage 2. The design process to produce this will be without engagement with the client, or consultation with other bodies, and the £1,000 honorarium would represent a fraction of the cost of completing the work. A fee proposal is sought as part of the competition, and no indication of a scoring system given, and what weight is given to the design and the fee.

As a method of evaluating design quality within a tender bid this process is wasteful and unnecessary. It will not produce better design. It devalues the work that architects do, which is a synthesis of information and a response to a particular need, not a shot in the dark. It cuts into architect’s fees as this work must be funded, leaving less available for the actual work. The requirement for ‘work up front’ is unique to the design industry; the Council has no requirement for solicitors to write a contract prior to being appointed, or for contractors to demonstrate they can build by actually building.

We are not against competitions in principle but believe that if design competitions are to be used to choose an architect the process needs to be better defined. It is unreasonable to include a heavily weighted fee component; if the aim is to increase quality (why else the competition?) appropriate fees could be ascertained prior to the tender and applied uniformly. There is fee data available to ensure that best value is obtained.

We would reconsider should the Council apply better practice in setting the competition. Good advice can be had from the Royal Institute of British Architects, or the independent organization Project Compass. We suggest that the terms of the competition might be amended to promote good practice and to demonstrate the way in which the Council values good design. This might include:

  • Increasing the honarium to £4,000 for each of three firms
  • Making the fee bid separate from the design competition, or setting a clear range of fees that entrants would accept.
  • Publishing the scoring criteria

We have only recently seen this tender published and the undersigned all have these concerns. I suspect that there will be further architect’s firms with the same views who will likewise be put off by the terms of the tender. Is it possible to consider amendments? I note your final date to do so is today. It would be good to do so, as the Council’s initiative in all other respects is to be applauded.

Yours sincerely

Meredith Bowles, Mole Architects
Mike Tonkin, Tonkin Liu Architects
Darren Bray, PAD Studio
Russel Curtis RCKa
Oliver Smith, 5th Studio
Piers Taylor, Invisible Studio
Peter Besley, Assemblage
Thomas Stokke, Haptic Architects
Paul Karakusevic, Karakusevic Carson Architects
Anthony Hudson, Anthony Hudson Architects
Tom Emerson, 6a Architects
Brian Vermeulen, Cottrell & Vemeulen Architects
Wendy Mason, Rivington Street Studio
Anna Woodeson, LTS Architects
Christopher Ash, Project Orange
David Saxby, Architecture00
Charlie Hussey, Sutherland Hussey Architects
Gianni Botsford, Gianni Botsford Architects
Sarah Wigglesworth, Sarah Wigglesworth Architects
Luke Tozer, Pitman Tozer Architects
David Howarth, DRDH Architects



Readers' comments (4)

  • John Kellett

    Interesting. Ashford Council expect every competition entrant to spend a large sum of money with no guarantee of success. No wonder Carillion went bust, unsustainable procurement. It was the same with PFI, seven teams designing a hospital to stage D, as it was then, before the contract was let. Then the practice I was working for, as PFI advisors, were asked to add another ‘for comparison’. Unbelievable. I refuse to participate in such ‘competitions’ as they are rarely won on merit.

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  • Perhaps the RIBA should sent local authorities either a hard copy or a link to their excellent publication " Design Competitions Guidance for Clients".
    I am sure that the local authorities mean very well, but do not have professional/client adviser help to decide whether or how to run a design competition.

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  • This episode shows there is still a long way to go, as all smaller firms already know, to ensure that all competitions are properly specified and run. We strongly support Jane Duncan's suggestion that the RIBA take a much more proactive stance in help make sure that no council or indeed other public authority launches unsuitable competitions.
    David Green Belsize Architects

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  • That’s quite some list of signatories. Are 3 shortlisted enough? Is £4000 enough. No to both IMO

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