Opinion

Rab Bennetts: We've got designs on better procurement

10 April 2012

Design Council CABE is pushing for a new code of practice to improve the procurement process between designers and public sector clients.

The inter-relationship between procurement and design is one of construction’s hot topics and always has been. For as long as I’ve been involved in the industry, the merits of design and build, construction management or traditional contracts have been debated endlessly.

Currently, three new procurement methods are being trialled in government projects — all of which call for integrated design and construction teams and contractor leadership. In this context, how should design be procured when the “client”, as far as the designer is concerned, is the contractor?

Design Council CABE, the government’s design watchdog, recently launched a campaign to improve the procurement process for architects, engineers and other designers, aimed at public sector clients that have to go through the OJEU process. As part of that campaign we’re pushing for a new code of practice for clients to follow when they are choosing designers. That includes contractors, which, as leaders of the integrated team, often employ the architect.

At present the selection of design professionals by public sector clients is too bureaucratic, costly and dominated by a tick-box culture that has little or nothing to do with design itself. Ultimately, it’s the quality of buildings that suffers, which is not great for the public or the economy.

When the contractor has to employ the design team from the start, some of the same problems can occur. The end client may not even get to meet the designer until the winning team has been selected. Contractors will be interested in managing their risk, ensuring that information dates are met and that costs are minimised, both in design fees and construction.

But are these the right values for a good project or will the public feel short-changed by economy and functionality?

The most common mistake is to base the design selection criteria on aspects that tend to favour the biggest design firms by default — things such as staff and financial resources, previous experience, the amount of insurance cover, the number of quality assurance certificates and so on. For a large project these are perfectly valid considerations but, for medium and small-scale projects, a low score in these subjects will preclude precisely the sort of designer who would do the best job.

For example, an architect with, say, 10-15 employees would probably consider a £10m UK library the most important appointment in the office and would give it its best attention, with hands-on involvement by the most experienced partners. By contrast, a large firm would give this project to the B or C team as the key designers are flat out on the blockbuster in Dubai.

Rab Bennetts is a trustee of the Design Council and director of Bennetts Associates Architects

Another common failing is to ask for a design competition proposal at the time of the contractor’s submission, even though the architect hasn’t been able to meet the client and get a sense for the things that matter. A design at that stage is no better than a guess at best.

The contractor also needs to scrutinise the design consultants’ attitudes on teamwork and the personal chemistry between the project principals. Above all, there needs to be a high degree of trust, so that the contractor can be confident that the architect can properly represent it in its dealings with the ultimate user-client. Competitions are sometimes appropriate, but the best type of design is much more likely to emerge from collaborative relationships.

Last, but certainly not least in the current market, the designer’s fee is not a good way of finding the right consultant, nor is it the way to reach the lowest-cost solution. It might be stating the obvious, but fees need to be established along with what is being purchased in terms of experience and duration of resource as well as quantity. A building with low
life-time costs will require more design time and a fee that reflects this.

That’s why we’re proposing a code of practice for design procurement that reflects the values of the project. The following are the main points for discussion in the code:

The fee for design services should not be detached from qualitative aspects.

Comments are extremely welcome.

Rab Bennetts is a trustee of the Design Council and director of Bennetts Associates Architects

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