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Councils must do more to stop designs being dumbed down

Christine Murray
  • 1 Comment

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.

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Gatefold building

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.

  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • Dear Christine,

    I’ll aim to be succinct but clear and perhaps nuanced. Answering your questions in reverse order;

    - Planning departments are on the whole poorly funded and staffed with itinerant geography graduates or similar who will read and apply planning policy as if it were the Bible. There is little to no understanding of urban design aesthetics let alone procurement and its potential for altering what is a legally binding approval. Those in planning departments that do appreciate all aspects of the process will also understand their authority and will create very tight conditions and more often nowadays even write the architect into the Section 106 Agreement so that if the property (and approval) is sold, the purchaser inherits the architect. Camden, Lambeth, Hackney and Westminster have done so in the past and gradually so are other boroughs.

    - Architects on the whole are businesses needing to function on cash flow, appreciating their growth with their clients. Some client only live off value added by planning gains, some mix that with full development. To allow the client that flexibility and avoid irritating one's client very few architects will insist their client is bound and restricted with construction and fee costs through ‘over specification’ and the original architect conditioned into the approval. Some do, we have, no client has thanked us for it but planning departments, the neighbourhood and their councillors have, though they don’t give us regular work.

    - Development has an industry standard risk probability of 20% on invested costs including site purchase, construction, fees, interest etc. this allows sale values to drop by 20% (a recession) and the funding bank to be assured the client is not in negative equity. Purchasing land with an approval is the product of such a calculation, namely calculate the overall sales value, take away 20% and an estimated investment cost and that gives you the land value. You can quickly see that in a recovering to rising market developers will be bidding higher to purchase the site while the banks are using yesterday’s values to maintain the overall value. Developers will very quickly need to make savings by ‘dumbing down’ the specification and appointing cheaper architects/consultants via their D+B contractor. As you can see it isn’t just a matter of greed but a structural issue with a moving property market, something not at all easy to ameliorate.

    - The Design and Build Contract is not per se the root of ‘dumbing down’, this could just as well occur with a Traditional form of contract. It’s the information contained within the contract and the intention of the two signatories, client and contractor that produce the buildings. An architect can produce exactly the same level of information for a D+B contract as for Traditional, specifying absolutely every detail, screw and nail. The client will gain a fixed price to a fixed date and assuming the client has engaged the design team to produce that level of information because they are interested in maintaining the quality, they with their Employer’s Agent (who can be another architect within the same original practice now novated to the contractor) will ensure the binding contract is maintained. If the client has little interest in maintaining the quality promised to the planning department and believes there is enough room for manoeuvre because the planning documents are loose enough they could hand over the approval stage drawings to the contractor as part of the D+B contract and leave the latter responsible for its delivery. Which is effectively how almost all speculative housing development are undertaken.

    In conclusion, few developers are financially and philosophically mature enough in their outlook to step outside the structure of the short-term market. You cannot expect them to change. Similarly as architects are mostly the tick-eating birds on the hippopotamus, symbiotic, able to fly from one to the other but with little to no effect on its partner's direction, you can’t expect them to change much. Lastly, planning departments have all the control and as they are fortunately not yet privatised as Mr Schumacher believes they should be, they are wholly independent and able to quite frankly dictate the terms.

    If you really intend for the AJ to be an agent of change I would suggest you organise a series of lectures with say Charles Rose of Camden’s planning department. Invite key figures from each borough to teach them the power they have for ensuring quality at application, approval and delivery.

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