NEWS ANALYSIS: Studio Egret West’s Gatefold building is just one example of how Design and Build is dumbing down design quality. Colin Marrs and Richard Waite report
When an architecture practice demands its name is taken off a completed scheme, it is clear something has gone very wrong.
This is what has happened with the much-anticipated Gatefold Building, the ﬁrst residential scheme to complete at the Old Vinyl Factory, a former EMI site in Hayes, west London.
Put simply, Studio Egret West, the original architect, wants nothing to do with it. The scheme, close to a new Crossrail station and billed as a marker for the rest of the wider development, has been value-engineered to within an inch of its life.
The story is familiar. Top-name architect (Studio Egret West) wows the local council and wins planning. Housebuilder and contractor (here Willmott Dixon’s private rentals sector arm Be:here which in this case bought the plot with its consented design from developer Cathedral) brings in a replacement architect (Frank Reynolds Architects).
The award-winning practice (Studio Egret West) is left in the cold, unable to inﬂuence the construction and the ﬁnal outcome of its initial, crowd-pleasing design.
Frank Reynolds Architects – an experienced executive architect – has presumably only done what it was asked to do by its client. But in the process the original design has been horribly dumbed down. Flourishes like lightweight steel and bamboo walkways have become heavier and joyless. The white split-faced concrete cladding has been replaced by a cheaper, yellower finish and details such as the texture on the façade and the rebated statement signage have gone.
So what does the Gatefold building tell us about its particular type of procurement and how much of a one-off is it? More importantly, what does it say about housing quality at a time when industry and government are so focused on the quantity of supply?
Why the design of the Gatefold building has been compromised is a tricky question to answer, as few of those involved with the project are willing to discuss it. The fact that a Design and Build contract was used and that Studio Egret West was not novated and has had no input into the ﬁnished product is clearly part of the story; but the practice has refused to comment, perhaps for fear of sounding bitter.
The selling of the scheme by Cathedral to Be:here is also clearly a major factor. For its part, Be:here puts the design changes down to the development’s change of use from private market homes to long-term rental properties, insisting that the building works ‘really well’ as a build-to-rent property.
A spokesman for Be:here says: ‘It was necessary to consider future asset management – for example the selection of glass as a more robust material for the external walkway balustrades.
‘Frank Reynolds Architects did a great job meeting our requirements and the level of interest from renters has been very strong.’
We only deliver 30-40 per cent of our residential planning consents
Seth Rutt of Hawkins\Brown
Reynolds is reluctant to point the ﬁnger but hints that a changing brief and the priorities of his client were important reasons for the design changes.
Many would say that the local planning authority should act as the ultimate custodian of good design but Hillingdon Council has also refused to comment on the Gatefold building.
What is clear is that it is just one example of a common trend in the housing sector, where – under Design and Build – architects are not novated and design quality is put at risk.
Novation lead pic
As Seth Rutt of Hawkins\Brown says: ‘A straw poll among our sector heads is revealing. In the education, commercial, transport and civic and cultural sectors, once we’ve taken a project through to planning, about 90 per cent will be delivered with us retained as the detail design and site delivery architect.
‘In stark contrast, we only deliver about 30-40 per cent of our residential planning consents.’
Often on housing schemes, says Rutt, the studio is appointed as an ‘architect seen to be trusted by planning officers and design review panels’ but later released after planning ‘in favour of a cheaper architect or an in-house team that is less likely to question decisions that compromise quality’. It is a practice, he claims, which amounts to ‘an abuse of reputation’.
Given the reluctance of architects to discuss the issue, it is often difficult to work out how signiﬁcantly original designs are compromised by Design and Build and the practice of switching architect at the construction stage.
One measure, however, is to look at how many schemes win Housing Design Awards at both concept and completed stages.
Shockingly, of the 34 winners in the design (‘projects’) category of the awards between 2009 and 2013, only seven subsequently gained recognition in the category for completed schemes.
More tellingly, none of the projects where the design team changed landed a ‘completed’ award and many see Design and Build as the primary culprit.
Alex Ely, principal at Mae Architects, says: ‘The Design and Build form of contact all too often prioritises time and cost over quality. And yet, despite evidence that this doesn’t serve the best interests of the project, the industry seem wedded to this form of procurement.
‘Many clients seem wrongly informed that novation poses a risk, fearful that if anything goes wrong the contractor can lay the blame at the door of the client’s chosen architect.’
‘Design and Build all too often prioritises time and cost over quality’
Alex Ely, Mae Architects
The situation for architects is compounded, says Stephen Proctor, founding director at Proctor & Matthews Architects, by a dislocation between planning and post-planning work within contractors’ own company structures. He says: ‘The planning team is judged on whether it can secure a quick and good planning permission, which requires a certain type of skill.
‘Then the construction team comes along and its bonuses are based on lowering costs.’
The cost-cutting incentive leads to the construction team ditching the architects to take advantage of a cheaper practice – and plenty of smaller ﬁrms in the market are geared up to undercut their rivals’ prices.
‘The contractor thinks if it retains the original architect, they are somehow going to resist any attempts to value engineer it and their cost reduction drive will become more difficult,’ Proctor continues.
The implications of changing architects can be extremely serious, however. He adds. ‘The original architect is always going to be the best person to make decisions about cost savings. You know which bits matter. This is why it is so bad for the industry and the built environment: the things that are being dumbed down are the bits that matter – including the streetscape.’
Some in the profession are more sanguine about the practice of switching architects, however. Esther Kurland, director at Urban Design London argues that the Design and Build process encourages cost-cutting – and that it is this, rather than any change of architect, that is to blame. ‘The feedback from architects is very mixed,’ she says. ‘Some people say if you stopped this process then they wouldn’t have any work. You shouldn’t automatically assume that using a new architect always produces worse buildings. The new ﬁrm might be able to put more work into the scheme and work closely with the community.’
It’s really sad when a big housebuilder goes to a star architect and sells the dream, then the product is scaled back and diluted by the delivery architect
Indeed, architect John Robertson has worked on a number of schemes where Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP) has voluntarily handed over their designs for his practice to work up technical drawings – including on the NEO Bankside scheme in London. While, he says, he understands the frustrations of architects who are involuntarily removed from projects, in his view the voluntary agreement works well.
He says: ‘RSHP is more than capable of doing the technical work if it wanted to be novated, but they don’t always want to. It is really sad when one of the big housebuilders goes to a star architect and sells the dream and the product is then scaled back and diluted by the delivery architect. But we wouldn’t want to get involved in any dilution of another architect’s schemes.’
In cases where such handovers are involuntary, and the outcome less successful, questions hang over the role of council planners.
Planning expert Peter Stewart of Peter Stewart Consultancy says: ‘Once [the original architect has been dumped], it is rare for the scheme to be smartened up, rather than dumbed down, and it is the details in particular that usually suffer. And it’s just as much of a problem for minimalist designs as for tricksy, intricate, visually rich architecture’.
He adds: ‘Planning authorities can control these things if they choose to, through conditions or legal agreements – there are established models for both. Westminster City Council, for example, puts demanding conditions about details and materials on its consents, and suffers less than most authorities from dumbing down. But this is not a priority for most planning departments, nor for most elected members.’
Mike Kiely, president of the Planning Officers Society, takes some of the criticism on the chin. He says: ‘As planners, we can tend to be quite vague sometimes and run off a load of clichés about the design outcomes, which provides wriggle room later in the process.’ But he adds that planning officers can in some cases play a role in getting contractors to buy into the idea of retaining the design team by starting conversations with them earlier in the process. He says: ‘Most times you will be pushing at an open door. Developers that will build and hold onto schemes to make an income are place-makers – they make more money from a good result.’
Well-written planning conditions also help ensure less amenable developers are held more ﬁrmly to account, he adds. Kurland agrees, saying there is a key role for the original design team here. She says: ‘Where the architects write the original conditions or include as much detail as possible in the scheme, it makes it less easy for the scheme to be dumbed down.’
However, she warns that the coming move to a system of ‘planning in principle’ is likely to hamper the ability of planners to be prescriptive on design quality. She says: ‘Instead of front-loading the planning application process, the new system will be back-loading it. There are only ﬁve weeks allocated to the detail of the consents, and the limited capacity of council planning departments could really scupper the ability to nail down the designs properly.’
A growing number of councils and housing associations are paying closer attention to the issue of architect retention and some have gone as far as to insist that the initial architects are novated by contractors.
But Glen Richardson, urban design and conservation manager at Cambridge City Council, says there are problems with that approach, too. He says: ‘We would love to be able to do it, but our legal people say we don’t have the power to name a particular ﬁrm in a legal agreement.’
Also becoming more widespread is the insistence by public bodies on retaining the original architect in a client-side ‘design guardian’ role. Teresa Borsuk, a partner at Pollard Thomas Edwards, says: ‘We have done this on various projects. The contractor sometimes moans, but for us it works really well. It is about making sure the design spirit is kept. You go over the technical drawings and look at whether the proposed changes are appropriate. Sometimes you are actually more empowered to keep the quality of design than if you are a novated architect.’
Intriguingly, a small number of large-scale housebuilders are beginning to retain their original architect for commercial reasons, according to Jane Briginshaw, consultant and former head of design and sustainability at the Homes and Communities Agency. She says: ‘Mark Clare, the former chief executive of Barratt Developments, saw that in London, you can charge high prices for quality developments. He saw that retaining architects would help improve the ﬁrm’s bottom line.’
So why doesn’t novation happen more? Damien Sharkey, associate director of development at specialist residential developer HUB, has an intriguing insight. He says: ‘We have novated architects on projects, but this does have some disadvantages. Who carries out the monitoring role? It raises a potential conﬂict of interest. In addition, it is very difficult to ﬁnd an excellent concept architect that is also an expert in delivery.
‘The contractor may also feel they are being forced into working with someone, which can lead to disharmony.’
The solution to this thorny issue is not clear. Architects could be more precise at the early stage of a scheme about which design elements really matter and a presumption in favour of novation among councils and clients might result in better schemes. But how can that view take hold in an industry where some developers don’t trust the architects with the whizz-bang concepts to see projects through?
Tim Quick of formation Architects
Much of our work is in the residential sector, designing and delivering large scale apartment buildings in urban locations. D&B is a fact of life in the world we inhabit and over the years we’ve learned how to make the best of it.
One of our mantras is that ‘buildings are collaborations’ so we encourage contractors to bring ideas to the table. At the same time there are elements of the building that we and our clients need to control – sometimes very precisely. The tender documents need to make it crystal clear where a D&B contractor can make a contribution to the design and where it isn’t welcome.
So when we do Employer’s Requirements for a D&B contract the documents makes a clear distinction between the elements that are specified on a prescriptive, descriptive or performance basis. The prescriptive elements are agreed with the client before tender so they can’t be ‘dumbed-down’ later – unless of course the client chooses to make a change. But client changes are variations, which can occur under any contract, not just D&B.
I don’t agree with those who say that planning permissions should include a condition that a particular architectural practice should be retained to build out a planning scheme, as if that was a guarantee of quality. Forcing clients and developers to use certain architects, either at planning or delivery stage is extremely questionable. Imagine if a local authority imposed the requirement to use a specific contractor to build out a project – that would raise all sorts of ethical as well as practical issues. Local authorities should concentrate on the quality of the scheme before them at planning, not on the previous reputation of the architect.
Dav Bansal of Glenn Howells Architects
It is important for the design architects to remain involved in some capacity but the scope of this depends on the business model of the client. In some cases, it works well for us to be novated and take a design through to delivery while still maintaining an ‘open book’ relationship with the client.
It has also worked well where we are retained by the client in a comprehensive compliance role that focuses on the design intent, while another architect works on delivering the nuts and bolts for the contractor. In both cases, it is important that the roles are clear from the outset and the programme needs to adhere to a sign-off/ approval period.
Sally Lewis, of Stitch
As a relatively new practice (established in 2012) we have not had many opportunities for novation. Our clients on the larger projects of 100+ homes tend to prefer their established supply chain for post planning work. Working in this context we have sought to ensure our schemes are not value engineered later by embedding the design intent at very early stages. This means working with client side costing teams from the outset and identifying which elements should be protected as intrinsic qualities of the scheme. The result is that although we are only officially engaged up to RIBA Stage 3 on these large projects, we have considered most of the important details and cleared these with the technical and cost teams by the time planning permission is secured. Acton Gardens Phase 3.1 is a good example - it is one of the first projects we pitched for and it has recently completed, and I’m happy to say the end result looks better than the CGIs despite our lack of involvement in the post planning stages. It’s pretty much exactly as we designed it.
We are also increasingly working with local councils delivering housing on their own land. Croydon Council in particularly has set a high standard for design quality in its small sites housing programme and intends to continue the architects’ involvement in the 50 + projects projects to include detail design services prior to or in parallel with contractor procurement. In this case novation will be vital to retaining design quality as during the planning stages the interrogation of costs has been less detailed than it is typical with developer-contractor clients. The potential for value engineering and loss of design quality coming out of the D+B process is therefore more significant, so we are looking forward to being involved in the detailed design stages to safeguard the design intent.
As a general rule in our studio - whatever the client or procurement route - we aim to embed elements of design quality rather than have anything ‘stuck on’ that can easily be removed or replaced. In the case of Acton Gardens phase 3.1 it was the bricks and they remain intrinsic to the distinctiveness of the scheme. It wasn’t so much the council that secured their retention but my personal mission to convince the client of their value, and the fact that there were no cost or buildability issues that came up during detailed design to cause them to be dropped from the scheme. A good result all round. To the extent that the same clients may be more inclined to novate us.
Seth Rutt of Hawkins\Brown
Architecture isn’t architecture until it’s built - otherwise, it’s paper, pixels and promises. We always endeavour to stay as close to the delivery of a project as possible after the conceptual stages.
A quick straw poll among the sector heads at Hawkins\Brown is revealing. In the education, commercial, transport and civic / cultural sectors, once we’ve taken a project through to planning, about 90 per cent will be delivered on site- with us retained as the detail design and site delivery architect. And if this is not the case, we have often been retained as a Design Guardian by the client to monitor and guide the contractor team.
’Architecture isn’t architecture until it’s built - otherwise, it’s paper, pixels and promises’
Invariably with higher education and schools projects this high proportion of continuity is due to the client being a future occupier of the building, with a vested interest in design quality- and a desire for continuity of complex briefing discussions and decision-making from pre-planning to completion. Similarly, with transport and civic projects the project knowledge is valued and retained through to delivery.
In stark contrast, we only deliver about 30 to 40 per cent of our residential planning consents on site.
A large factor is the commercial, speculative nature of many residential projects, where planning consent triggers a step-change in site value. Many developers operate on this premise alone- and for other developers who would otherwise want to build, the opportunity to cash in on value rather continue at risk is understandable.
With estate regeneration projects and volume house builders, it becomes more nuanced. Affordable housing providers are invariably reluctant to novate the design team, for fear of losing out on a lower contract pricing. In these cases, we have to lobby the tendering contractors to agree to retain us.
With volume house builders - the source of much of our residential work- we have the challenge of working with a cellular client structure. Typically this would comprise land-buying, planning, site delivery and sales teams, each controlling the project in sequence and handing over to the next. To stay appointed at each stage is possible- but really requires a very close relationship with the entire client structure.
Often with volume house builders, there is a firmly established system which relies on tried and tested construction methods, material buying agreements, valuation formulae and a reliance on what has been delivered before to de-risk the margin between site acquisition, construction cost, and sales receipts. The financial reasoning is understandable, but this structure conspires against forward thinking, new ideas and modern methods of construction if the only way is the tried and tested one.
With most of our clients, we have an established relationship and manage to negotiate our way through the delivery maze. However, we have on numerous occasions been appointed as a an architect seen to be trusted by planning officers and design review panels- and then released after the planning stage in favour of a cheaper architect or an in-house team that is less likely to question decisions that compromise quality. Whilst we understand the economics, it does feel like an abuse of our reputation, when we have made big promises to planning authorities and local residents on behalf of our client- and are not around on site to ensure they’re kept. Of course, there remains the emotive aspect of design authorship, which is a key motivator to achieve tight deadlines and intensive working.
How can this be resolved? If local planning authorities were more exacting post-consent, it would certainly help. This could possibly include a stricter attitude toward retention of the design team - but whether this can be reasonably enforced is a moot point.
The Design Guardian role is working for us on some residential projects – and it’s a way of steering the detail design according to the original vision at one remove from the tough environment of detail delivery. But for us, after planning there is no substitute for being ‘in the trenches’, proactively informing value engineering, cajoling, negotiating and protecting design vision within the constraints of a project.
On a positive note, we are encouraged by repeat work from housebuilders that value our input at all stages. And latterly by our build-to-rent clients who have a long term vested interest in their project, where residents are seen as repeat ‘customers’ who deserve an enjoyable brand experience supported by a legible high quality building.