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London 2012 is a lesson in design procurement

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Paul Finch’s Letter from London: The London 2012 Olympic delivery bodies absolutely did not rely on contractors to tell them who the architects should be

The understandable fuss about marketing restrictions on the teams which designed the London 2012 Olympics should not obscure a more fundamental issue relating to the future of architects in the UK: on what basis should they be appointed for public projects, and by whom?

Procurement has been much debated in recent months, generally in black and white terms. On the one hand, we have a line of thinking that goes back to various studies into the future of contracting from more than a decade ago, which sees architecture as a sub-set of the construction industry, and therefore a matter which can be safely left to builders to deal with, just like piling, or health and safety.

The other strand, best represented by the criteria for Lottery project applications, suggests that no proposal depending on public subsidy should be allowed to proceed without a design that is not only capable of getting planning permission, but is significantly better than that standard. We all know that, in theory, a planning permission implies a design of good standard. Alas, by looking around us, we can note that this is far from being the case.

PFI procedures have muddied the water because of the assumption that there is only one way to procure designs, which tends to exclude the client from direct engagement with designer. There is no reason why this should be the case, but in practice that is how it has turned out under rules sanctioned and promoted by HM Treasury. Somehow they managed to get Stuart Lipton as provider and Norman Foster as architect for their own PFI office project. When it came to schools in ordinary parts of the world, you seemed to get Messrs Jarvis; an architect you had never heard of; and walls the school bully could punch a hole through. The Treasury didn’t seem to notice.

Anyway, let’s remind ourselves how we managed to get a set of magnificent buildings and landscapes for the 2012 Games. Aquatics Centre: design competition. Handball: design competition. Velodrome: designompetition. Main stadium: competition which would have included a competitive design element, if there had been more than one conforming bidder. Masterplan: design competition. Landscape: design competition. Look and feel: design competition. Notice a trend?

Government knows full well that if you want to get something really good when it comes to architecture, you need a system of procurement which prioritises design quality and involves a direct appointment. The ODA, LOCOG and the Legacy company absolutely did not rely on contractors to tell them who the architects should be or on what basis they should be appointed. That is not to say that novation never took place, or indeed that the original architect might not be replaced by a contractor’s architect at the delivery stage. But it is to say that the client knew exactly what they wanted and how to get it. This involved a hands-on relationship with real, live designers.

So why shouldn’t local authorities, health trusts, education providers and government departments behave in the same way? And, if it was right for the construction procurement processes at the Olympics to depend on a shadow set of checking contractors (ie lack of trust), why should we think that contractor- led procurement is the answer for the vital, everyday buildings that affect so many lives, for better or worse?

All those Olympic architects will find ways to make use of their Olympic experience in pitching for future work. Indeed it has already happened. I am less sure that government will take on board the procurement lesson that the Olympic project provides.

Did you know reading this article can count towards your annual CPD requirement?

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