When jobs change hands and cost-cutting ensues, design quality can suffer – and councils are not doing enough about it, says Christine Murray
Where were the Hillingdon planners when it came to the Gatefold building at the Vinyl Factory? With signiﬁcant changes made after planning to its cladding, colour and materials, the result is a disﬁgured project disowned by its mother – Studio Egret West – and scantly defended by its midwife – delivery architect Frank Reynolds Architects.
The Gatefold building changed hands after winning planning, leading to a new client and a revised brief. Its ﬁnal form is a shadow of what it was supposed to be. The quality of its execution certainly does not reﬂect well on any of those involved, including contractor Willmott Dixon.
When the delivery architect is appointed directly by the contractor, they will often not be instructed to champion the original design
As explored in our news feature on novation, problems with Design and Build aren’t new, but this contract type’s prevalence in the procurement of housing increasingly shows that quality suffers when the lead architect is taken off the job and the contractor is incentivised to cut costs.
I don’t wish to vilify talented executive architects who have successfully worked with their design counterparts to realise award-winning projects. But when the delivery architect is appointed directly by the contractor, they will often not be instructed to champion the design of the building’s author.
More enraging is the impotence of the planning authorities and their failure to enforce the building out of what they have approved. It’s nothing short of public deception when a respected, award-winning architect is used to win planning, and is then promptly disposed of – usually to enable the quick and deliberate dumbing-down of a project.
In private conversations with prominent housing architects, I’ve been told that you’ve been asked by less scrupulous housing developers to leave speciﬁcation out of planning applications, and instead use generic terms such as ‘rooﬁng material’ to make it easier to wriggle out of the detail. Many of you have started to ﬁght back – for example, by only taking jobs where you will be novated and writing this into the contract; insisting on a client-side ‘design guardian’ role; or getting as much detail as possible enshrined in planning applications.
These guerilla tactics are hard-won from experience, as Alex Ely of Mae says: ‘More and more we are insisting that we remain client side through stage 4 and only tender with a comprehensive level of detail. We learned this through painful experience, disappointment and our naïve understanding of how much is a risk in terms of quality with Design and Build.’
We contacted Hillingdon Council with our ﬁndings on the Gatefold building affair, but they refused to comment. A few councils have learned the hard way about novation and are taking enforcement seriously, but others are still more zealous about policing the detail on domestic extensions than enforcing quality design on major projects. Whether the planners are afraid of scaring off investment, too ill-resourced to do their jobs properly, or simply fail to see the perils of the cost-cutting contractor, the promise to the public enshrined in planning approval must be held to account. The quest for More Homes, Better Homes depends on it.