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‘Insult to injury’ as Sheffield University cans ‘exploitative’ design contest

University of Sheffield masterplan

Procurement reform campaigners have blasted the University of Sheffield for abandoning its £25 million ‘Pearl’ music centre contest and wasting up to £1 million of bidders’ resources

Online procurement service Project Compass said the decision to shelve the ‘inept and exploitative’ single-stage competition – which required costly outline designs from all applicants – added ‘insult to injury’ for the 150 firms who applied.

Based on each team spending £5,000 on their bids, the shock move – blamed by the university on public funding cuts and uncertainty surrounding Brexit – means that up to £1 million in total of interested architects’ time and resources may have been wasted.

Further concerns have been raised over the university’s failure to produce a feasibility study prior to launching the contest, which was immediately met by demands from bidders for a more detailed brief. It has also been suggested placing an auditorium on the constrained city-centre site may have been highly challenging, something which an initial feasibility study would have quickly revealed.

In a statement acknowledging the bidders’ disappointment, the university said: ‘We endeavour to only advertise opportunities where there is a strong likelihood of proceeding. However, in the light of changed external circumstances or internal priorities, we continue to review our projects to ensure our resources are prioritised on providing the greatest impact for our student experience and world-leading research.

‘Given the ongoing reductions of public funds to universities and the implications of the EU referendum, the university has carefully reviewed its capital projects and taken the decision in this instance to concentrate on continued partnerships with music, art and performance spaces across our city region for the time being, rather than proceed with The Pearl at this time.

‘We recognise that this is disappointing for those architecture firms that have submitted bids. However, we will keep interested architecture firms informed about future opportunities with the university.’

In response, Project Compass director Russell Curtis said: ‘This tender process raised some serious concerns from the outset, with interested architects expected to prepare sketch proposals for free for a building seemingly without a brief. The late cancellation of the project just adds insult to injury. If the best that the university can guarantee is that they “endeavour to only advertise opportunities where there is a strong likelihood of proceeding” then they really should take a long, hard look at how they go about it.’

‘Such a laissez-faire approach really does demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of how much time and effort goes into responding to these things. The university claimed they had around 150 expressions of interest, which could well have resulted in over a million pounds’ worth of wasted work.’

There’s no sign of even a rudimentary feasibility study to establish the suitability of the site

Commenting on the lack of a detailed brief, Curtis said: ‘Questions raised during the tender process do nothing to dispel the impression of an inept and exploitative exercise. There’s no sign of even a rudimentary feasibility study to establish the suitability of the site for a project of this scale, nor to set out a basic accommodation schedule on which to base the concept proposals.

‘We sincerely hope that Sheffield University undertakes fundamental reform of its practices before embarking upon the procurement of any future projects.’

One bidder – who preferred to remain anonymous – commented: ‘It’s quite symptomatic of what is going on at the moment with clients who do not have any sense of the burden of wasted time and cost they place on the architectural profession when they have either not organised the project or the selection process adequately or are not realistic about their aspirations. It seems to me no other profession has to go through the hurdles architects are being asked to jump over at the moment when the competition is very intense.’

The bidder continued: ‘A large number of frameworks produce no work and, even when an architect gets on one, they have to go through a selection process again. For even small projects, submissions are either very extensive and unnecessary or compounded by 15-plus architects being approached for the work. I don’t think contractors accept being on a list any bigger than four or five, so why do architects have to be put through this?

‘In reality the site they picked would have been very difficult to make work for the concert hall they wanted, so I think this may have contributed to why they are not going ahead with it.’

The proposed Pearl building, on Sheffield’s Upper Hanover Street, was intended to provide new combined facilities for the university’s music, theatre studies and creative writing departments.The scheme would replace warehouses and former light industrial buildings opposite Sauerbruch Hutton’s and RMJM’s Jessop West humanities building, which opened in 2009.

The contract notice stipulated: ‘The new building will enable music, theatre studies and creative writing to develop, and expand teaching, research and grant capture, while also offering all university students and staff enhanced performance opportunities, and contribute to the university’s pledge to support a strong and vibrant city.’

The building was expected to feature a flexible recital hall capable of seating between 200 and 650 people alongside a 300-seat ‘black box’ theatre and a 160-capacity rehearsal studio. It was also planned to house two music psychology laboratories, an ethnomusicology studio, seven practice rooms, two soundproofed studios plus breakout spaces and multi-purpose rooms.

The competition, which closed on 17 October 2016, came 16 years after Nigel Coates Architects’ competition-winning National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield closed to the public. The £15 million landmark – which opened in 1999 – went into administration after failing to attract enough visitors and has since been transformed into a student union for Sheffield Hallam University.

Last year AJ120 practice Bond Bryan won planning for a 12,500m2 four-storey glass atrium linking the university’s Grade II-listed Mappin Building with the 1855 Central Wing. Other nearby university landmarks include GMW’s 78m-high Arts Tower and RMJM’s copper-clad Information Commons.


Readers' comments (4)

  • Was it a 'tender process' or a competition?

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  • It was an invitation to tender, not a design competition. It was mostly written responses with a design section that asked for outline ideas.

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  • If those participating felt that there was insufficient information given the lack of a feasibility study or design brief then a very simple solution would have avoided the current position - a decision note to bid. Commercial reality should have set in that the likelihood of the project proceeding, in the absence of proper project documentation, was extremely low.

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  • The solution needs to be to define a clear brief and refine the process back to the bare basics and stop asking the design industry to needlessly write about their work but instead go and take a look at meet them.

    The high transaction costs to the design and architectural industry of this type of procurement is a real burden on the industry. Propagated by i) clients and advisers who don't really know what they want and haven't taken the time to work out their perimeters and ii) an accumulative layering of requirements from from bid to bid which are not relevant but everyone is too scared to cut them out.

    Kay Hughes Khaa

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