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Ashford Council increases contest honorarium after architects’ protest

Commercial Quarter Island Site, Ashford
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Ashford Borough Council has promised a £1,500 honorarium in its competition for a £650,000 food hub following the publication of an open letter from architects castigating the ‘onerous terms’ of the procurement process

Earlier this month 21 architects signed the open letter, which criticised the competition for failing to detail a scoring system, seeking costed designs without client engagement, and offering an honorarium of just £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.

The letter 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 response the council increased the honorarium to £1,500 and published its scoring system, which comprises 65 per cent concept design, 10 per cent cost plan, 5 per cent design team, 10 per cent fee proposal and 10 per cent questionnaire response.

Additional calls to waive the requirement for prior experience of three similar schemes with local authorities and to include architects on the judging panel are understood, however, to have fallen on deaf ears.

Commenting on its decision to revise the competition terms, the council said: ‘We can confirm that, following the comments received, we have altered the terms and conditions relating to our expressions of interest document for The Island Site within the Commercial Quarter area of Ashford.

‘We have considered all of the points made to us, and increased the honorarium slightly and have published the weightings for stage 2 of the process. While we appreciate that we are not able to reflect everything that those who signed the recent open letter had indicated, we would like to place on record our genuine thanks the feedback they have provided.

‘It should also be pointed out that there has been substantial interest to date in the competition, so we are already looking forward to sifting through the pitches made to us to date.’

Bowles responded: ‘I’m glad that Ashford Council have taken on some of the issues that architects have raised and recognised that the original tender was lacking in detail and generosity. It still doesn’t go far enough but at least recognises that there’s a problem.

‘If councils and others make this method of procurement more usual there’s a pressing need for the profession to engage and offer clear guidelines for what constitutes a reasonable tender designed to give the best results. The council had no assistance; I hope that in the future we can fill this knowledge gap for the benefit of all.’

There’s a pressing need for the profession to engage and offer clear guidelines for what constitutes a reasonable tender

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 would have each received 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.’

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.

The competition closes for entries at 2.30pm today (23 January).

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


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