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Three projects that demonstrate the pitfalls of procurement

Emily Booth
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Three very different approaches to hiring an architect show the difficulties in achieving the best design, writes Emily Booth

What is the best route to good design? There certainly isn’t one size that fits all – and it can be a tortuous and convoluted process, judging by a clutch of current stories.

Islington’s Old Street Roundabout competition has a whopping 39 projects on the longlist and has come in for some criticism about the nature of the contest. It was an open call for design ideas and required considerable effort and input from practices right from the start. There was no early narrowing of the field. What if you put in all that work, and walk away with nothing? It’s a situation that few other professions would bear. On the flip side, what if your practice is an unknown or under-recognised talent? What if you would never have made the tick-box selection list in the first pass? This is your chance. This is competition at its broadest.

Turning to the procurement row over the proposed Thames crossing from Rotherhithe to Canary Wharf, it looks as if there will be a much smaller group of names in the frame. Too small for some. ReForm Architects, which put forward the idea and designs for a crossing at this location, has sought legal advice over the way Transport for London has run its contest.

All these projects started with the best of intentions: putting good design and the best possible sense of place at their heart

The Southwark-based practice has accused the public-sector client of failing to remove a potential conflict of interest, allowing its locally supported scheme to be disadvantaged. The AJ’s Will Hurst, in his excellent column about the issue, writes: ‘A new culture at TfL appears to have moved so far away from the one that led to the Garden Bridge, it may be that a level playing field has again been bypassed, but in the opposite way.’

From here to Igloo Regeneration’s pioneering custom-build project in Cornwall. After a sluggish start, the scheme appears to be moving forward. There are six approved build teams, each with its own designs which customers pick off-plan. One of the main reasons for the slow progress has been how novel and uncertain a process this is for clients: there is no reassuring show home to view, for example. But the first person to dive in will surely get first-mover advantage and the hope is that this will unlock more interest in the custom-build approach.

Three approaches to commissioning design – three out of many. Each gives a snapshot of procurement in 21st-century Britain, with its attendant strengths and weaknesses. How will the finished projects turn out? That is less clear.

This article appears in the New town issue – click here to buy a copy

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