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.’