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RIBA blasted over failed RSPCA competition


The RIBA has been criticised after a contest it launched for the RSPCA was abandoned

The competition, for a £4.5 million modular base, was shelved before it reached its paid second phase, meaning no cash for its three finalist teams: Alma-nac, Nicholas Hare Architects and a collaboration between engineer Gabbitas Gill Partnership and brand designer Fresh Design International.

Alma-nac director Chris Bryant estimated his firm had spent up to £20,000 on its first-round application. If 50 practices participated in the open call, the total cost to the profession may have been in the region of £1 million.

In a statement, the RSPCA said it had scrapped the project because of ‘planning and highways issues’ surrounding the undisclosed site in north-west England as well as ‘challenging financial circumstances’.

Bryant – whose practice last year completed a new base for the London Animal Hospital – criticised the RIBA for failing to safeguard against planning and highway issues prior to the competition’s launch.

‘Does that reflect how the RIBA values our time?’ he asked. ‘We understand that competitions carry a level of risk but we would expect the RIBA, in particular, to demonstrate the levels of risk of a certain project and communicate this to its membership. We don’t want to enter fictional competitions.’

He continued: ‘We are fully aware that competitions are resource heavy and we don’t agree with the format, but in a particularly difficult procurement environment they are often the only way for us to secure projects of this type. We don’t enter many open competitions for the reasons above but we recently finished the London Animal Hospital so felt well placed to participate.’

Project Compass director Russell Curtis described the failure of competitions due to an absence of ‘basic due diligence’ as a ‘recurring theme’.

He said: ‘Rather than launching straight into a competition process which involves huge cost to the profession, surely it’s sensible to commission a (paid) feasibility study from an architect who knows what they’re doing, and which would highlight any fundamental issues with the proposed site before the open call goes out?

‘If the estimate of costs is correct – and even at half this figure, it’s eyewatering – I’m astonished that the RIBA is allowing this to happen at the very point there’s so much uncertainty in the industry and architects are once again struggling for work and battling with low fees.’

The RIBA-backed competition sought innovative proposals for a low-cost and sustainable animal centre for the charity. It focused on a semi-rural 3.2ha pilot site in an undisclosed location and aimed to create an exemplar modular system that could be erected on any site in the UK.

The RSPCA is the world’s oldest and largest animal welfare organisation, with an annual revenue of around £130 million. It operates four animal hospitals and several centres across the country.

The new animal centre would have featured an education space and veterinary suite along with kennels, a cattery and small-animals area.

The winning team was expected to partner with the charity in delivering similar projects across the country.

In a statement, the RSPCA said: ‘We would like to thank everyone who entered the RIBA competition. Unfortunately, following the launch of the competition, the site identified in the North West was found to be unsuitable due to planning and highways issues and, despite extensive searches, no suitable alternative sites in the area could be identified.

‘Owing to challenging financial circumstances, the RSPCA’s strategy in the North West has changed and plans for a centre have been put on hold.’

The statement continued: ‘Under rules of the competition, no payment was due to teams who submitted work to Phase 1. The competition did not proceed to Phase 2, when shortlisted teams who entered would have been entitled to receive an honorarium payment after the conclusion of the competition.

‘The three shortlisted teams have been informed of the situation and the RSPCA will keep details of the teams and consider using them for future builds.’

RIBA executive director of professional services Adrian Dobson defended the institute’s involvement saying that ‘at launch stage there were no specific concerns about site viability or financing’. 

He added: ‘We are committed to delivering competitions that are fair and attractive to all concerned, and are always transparent about honorarium payments, and any risks where we have been alerted to them.

‘Whilst it is clearly true that open competitions require practices to invest resources at risk, they do represent one way of opening up opportunities to the widest pool of existing and emergent talent.’


Readers' comments (8)

  • Once again, this shows that architectural competitions should be abandoned and boycotted by the profession. No sane, modern profession would tolerate this nonsense. The competition system appears to be a hang over from Victorian times, when they were probably used as a fig leave for corruption and nepotism.

    They give the illusion of an open and transparent approach, when in reality the winner is already largely decided. They are an extraordinary waste of time and resources, often leading to inferior and costly buildings (eg Scottish Parliament building, which was 10 x over budget, and must cost a fortune).

    Just say no, and stop the RIBA from continuing this insult and injury to practitioners. Like Edward S Prior (1852-1932) did.

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  • Eoin O'Leary

    Don't forget the £50+VAT entry fee the RIBA charge you for the pleasure!

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  • Completely agree with 'number 5' and I have stated the same many times. Competitions are devaluing our profession in the eyes of clients and the general public as they perpetuate the fact that architects are prepared to work for nothing. If we don't value our time or expertise why should clients & the public?

    I can't believe the RIBA continues to endorse competitions. It is also a recurring theme that directors claim competitions cost their company money however they probably count free overtime by students and junior architects that have worked for free. It is recently qualified architects that lose out in this, not the companies.

    If someone is serious about getting ideas from several architects they should pick the ones they like and pay them to work up proposals.

    Some competitions attract 300+ entrants, all that wasted time and energy and what do people & clients think? Architects have time and money to burn so obviously make too much profit.

    The RIBA, by endorsing competitions, are literally ruining the profession and encouraging slave labour.

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  • What's particularly galling is the way every time RIBA are called out for wasting everyone's time with these competition fiascos, they leap to defend themselves from any criticism, rather than listening to their members and accepting that there's scope to improve.

    Obviously there's a risk in competitions but the risk is meant to be that someone else wins, not that the competition as a whole is launched before anything is know about its feasibility but it's given a veneer of plausibility by being organised by RIBA.

    The whole RIBA competition system needs fundamental review, with input from members about what minimum standards should be adhered to before the call goes out.

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  • It is difficult to comment without knowing all the details of how this situation arose, and have sympathy for the architects who lost time and money being involved with competition that has been aborted - half way - not by the RIBA - but the client. The RSPCA are a long and well established organisation that reasonably would be expected to have done all their homework on the viability of the development proposed and resolving any planning or transport problems before they embarked on the competition process. It doesn't seem realistic for the RIBA Competitions Department to be expected to check those aspects of a competition unless the potential problems are or should have been reasonably obvious to them when setting up the competition. Or proceeded with caution if the potential promoters were not a well established and efficient business organisation. No doubt lessons will be learnt from this case - perhaps in future including a clause requiring the promoter to compensate entrants if they pull out after the competition has started. As for the general criticism of competitions they have always been welcomed as providing opportunities for younger unknown architects to win competitions and break through to the big time. That still applies. What has happened is that there are too many competitions. There are other less risky ways to get work. Part of the cause of too many competitions may be the RIBA policy to promote competitions widely and pocket the profit made from their role in the process. But also architects can and should limit the number and intensity of competitions they enter as speculative work balanced against projects obtained in other traditional ways like networking and publicity to what they are doing. When I was in practice we always balanced the cost and time of speculative work we could afford the risk involved against that were fee earning projects. How much work time and cost was involved in entering against the value should you win. The old "upside potential against downside risk test. Architects should be very selective on the competitions they enter judge your benefits of winning and the more likely outcome - not winning.. Owen Luder CBE PPRIBA

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  • Alex Mowat - Mowat & Company

    The RIBA Competitions office surely has a duty of care to check out a client's ability to deliver, their finances and competency before before launching competitors to bidders.

    Perhaps the RIBA Competitors office should look at the RIBA code of conduct as a good guide to diligence. At the core is the ability "to provide the knowledge, the ability and the financial and technical resources appropriate for their work. "

    Are the RIBA Competitions office achieving this and are they expecting members to uphold this without checking out the competition organiser?

    From what we read here is sounds like they are not, but there are 2 sides to every coin : An explanation from RIBA competitors office on how they undertake due diligence would be welcome, rather than the current silence.

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  • Competitions are an absolute waste of time, and a cynical way for a client to get some good ideas for zero pay. Putting up with this insult is typical of the profession unfortunately. Work is done for nothing across all levels, from the desperate intern trying to get a foot onto the employment ladder to the partner who has to bust a gut just trying to break even.

    I am astonished that anyone enters these farcical processes at all. I never have, and I don't have a £20K hole in my bank account.

    Everyone should boycott ALL competitions, whether from the RIBA or elsewhere.

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  • Alex Mowat - Mowat & Company

    Still “no comment” from RIBA!
    Please explain your side of the story.

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