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Selection process for new London concert hall is ‘onerous and ambiguous’

Powell & Moya’s Museum of London which will be repalced by the new concert venue
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Independent competition organiser Malcolm Reading advises architects to read the small print before throwing their hat into the ring to design the City of London’s proposed £250 million concert hall

Sitting on a key site in the Barbican complex and with a price tag of around £250 million, the City of London’s proposed Centre for Music has been billed as a landmark project for both London and the UK.

Yet the project is a case study in confused public procurement: a competitive selection process that is onerous in its demands, racked with ambiguities, and predicated on a six-sides-of-A4 brief. Here’s a quick guide to the relevant highlights for architects.

The money fairnesswhat will the winning architect receive for how much work?

From the hours spent by me and the team deciphering the selection questionnaire (SQ) it appears to boil down to an initial, maximum £350,000 contract. This will cover architect/lead designer, fire engineer, access consultant, façade consultant and CDM services for 15 months’ work to December 2018 (equivalent of RIBA stage 2) on a hugely complex project – to support the client in seeking funding – which is not guaranteed.

This works out at just shy of 3 per cent (expenses included) of the advertised projected £12 million fee for full service (nine and a half years) , offering a fraction of the fair proportion for work done at a concept design stage.

Additionally, an honorarium of £10,000 for the shortlisted teams seems disproportionately small for a project of this size and significance.

Compare that with £4,000 for the RIBA’s recent Wall of Answered Prayer crowd-funded competition or £10,000 for the £25 million Ross Pavilion and Gardens project in Edinburgh.

The creativity time-bomb what copyright does the architect sign away?

The procurement documents indicate draconian intellectual property conditions, especially given the fee indicated above: the client takes ownership of the entire concept design. As the proposed contract (non-negotiable under the Restricted Procedure under OJEU) states:

‘(a) Option A applies, all of the documents will be the property of the City in all respects and the consultant hereby assigns full copyright and future copyright and all other intellectual property rights in the documents to the City;’ [1]

The financial riddle what exactly is the turnover requirement?

The turnover and financial and economic standing requirement is confusing and onerous. There is a three-part appraisal process, which includes satisfying minimum standards with regards to the turnover requirement, standard accounting ratios and Altman’s Z Score (covering likelihood of bankruptcy) as well as a detailed assessment of company accounts.

The turnover and financial and economic standing requirement is confusing and onerous

The minimum turnover requirement is calculated ‘as the annual average of the last two reported financial years, divided by the estimated annual contract value’,[2] whereby the applicant must achieve an unrounded result of 2.0 or greater.

However, it is not stated within the procurement documents what the estimated annual contract value is, and it is therefore unclear how this figure could be calculated (or how high the threshold is).

Museum of london exterior

The existing Museum of London of the edge of the Barbican estate - the proposed site for the new £250 million concert arena in the City of London

The existing Museum of London of the edge of the Barbican estate - the proposed site for the new £250 million concert arena in the City of London

OJEU ambiguities the process follows Restricted Procedure rules, or does it?

The competition documents state that the selection process follows the OJEU Restricted Procedure for public procurement. The team here noticed that examples of relevant projects are requested from within the past 10 years. However, we understand that public procurement regulations set a limit on the age of the examples that can be used to demonstrate technical and professional ability of five years for services and three years for works – so is this intended, or just an error?

The SQ asks the following question: ‘Based on your understanding of the project brief, describe how your prior experience will allow you to develop designs which meet and exceed the expectations of all stakeholders in this project. Give clear examples of how you have done this in previous projects.’[3]

This appears to ask for an understanding of the project brief that is forward-looking. But is this allowable under OJEU’s Restricted Procedure? The public procurement regulations state clearly that assessment must be backward-looking in the first stage.

The SQ states that: ‘The contracting authority may re-assess reliability based on past performance at key stages in the procurement process (i.e. supplier selection, tender evaluation, contract award stage etc.)’ [4] Our understanding is that the Public Procurement Regulations do not permit reassessment of criteria at a subsequent stage that has already been assessed.

Meanwhile the Tender Submission Guidelines state that 21 per cent of the overall score is assigned to post-tender presentations and interviews.[5] This could be read as implying new information may be received after the formal deadline, which does not seem to be compliant with the Restricted Procedure under OJEU.

The project omissions – why such a limited project brief? Where is the international coverage?

The very limited project brief (despite the reference to the original feasibility study) is six sides of A4 positioned as Appendix A to the Selection Questionnaire. This hardly equates to a complex £250 million project of national importance or the project’s own rhetoric in its media release. No details are given of the Centre for Music’s trustees.

While the competitive selection process is advertised as an ‘international’ search, at the time of writing we struggled to find any mentions of the initiative in international design media published outside the UK.

A landmark design on a shoestring?

This is a landmark project for London, and indeed the UK, which is absolutely dependent on the creativity of architects and an understanding of design to be a success.

This initiative could have showcased the UK as ahead of the curve internationally in understanding how to commission design, how to relate to architects. Instead it is focused on getting a bargain.

Malcolm Reading is founder of Malcolm Reading Consultants


[1] C4M Architect Appendix 2.1 Conditions F-Professional Services (Deed)-2015, pages 1 and 5
[2] Selection Questionnaire SQ Pack, page 26
[3] Selection Questionnaire SQ Pack, page 38
[4] Selection Questionnaire SQ Pack, page 23
[5] Tender Submissions Guidelines, page 3

Response from the Centre of Music project team

’The procurement process for the Centre for Music has been carefully developed with the City of London Corporation to ensure that it is compliant with OJEU rules. We recognise that there are different ways of procuring a project of this scale and we have taken appropriate advice to ensure that the process is open and fair to all entrants, and that it will deliver best value for money and an excellent collaboration with the selected design team.

’We have already received expressions of interest from across the world and look forward to announcing the shortlist later this year.’

Nicholas Kenyon, managing director, Barbican
Kathryn McDowell, managing director, London Symphony Orchestra
Lynne Williams, principal of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama


  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • If the AJ’s pages are an indicator, the number of design competitions appears to be on the rise and this should be a good thing, as well-run competitions offer valuable choice to clients and bring opportunities to designers. But quantity without quality is not enough and Malcolm Reading’s incisive comments on the avoidable shortcomings of another competition are depressingly familiar.

    A positive client-architect relationship is critical in fulfilling the potential of any project and the need to establish trust and mutual respect between the parties is just as important for a design competition as it is for a direct appointment. This begins with the PQQ and briefing criteria, where entrants decide to commit what can end up being a significant time and resource, and should encompass all the entrants, not just the last one standing. The defence that a process is “compliant with OJEU rules” does not mean that it is good or fair or is not exploitative.

    A successful competition can transform good design into truly great design, but only when the aims and aspirations of client and architect are well communicated, clearly understood and mutually aligned. This is well known to experienced providers such as Malcolm Reading and RIBA Competitions and it is time that other promoters, particularly in the public sector, embraced a positive spirit for competitions rather than hiding behind the letter of the law.

    Martin Knight FRIBA

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