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Wednesday30 July 2014

It’s time to stop sulking and face the new school realities

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The RIBA and the profession need to knuckle down and make themselves indispensable to the government’s education plans

Amanda Baillieu

Amanda Baillieu — editor in chief

The construction of practical, low-cost, functional school buildings is an ambition architects should support, but the government’s new baseline designs have left the profession divided.

The shrillest voice in the debate is the RIBA, which wrongly described the designs as heralding “flat-pack” schools. There were claims that curves have been banned, schools will shrink and children and teachers will be “deprived”.

It’s not simply that the RIBA’s emotive language is inappropriate — reinforcing the stereotype of architects as self-indulgent, self-serving artists. It ignores the fact that amid severe public cuts £2 billion is being spent on school buildings — and that means work for its members. Granted, it may not be of the type that architects would like, but the way to play it is to offer to pitch in — not to walk off in a huff crying “foul play”. Even the nice Ed Vaizey must wonder what planet the RIBA is on.

More sensible commentators have raised real concerns, such as how practices not already working with contractors can get a foot in the door. And, more importantly, whether savings could have been made by streamlining procurement. There are few who don’t believe that the schools procurement process was a waste of money.

There is a lot that’s still unclear — a review of PFI has still not reported — but architects need to give ministers the benefit of the doubt. This means working with contractors by innovating within the tighter budgets, rather than wasting time and money on buildings that we can no longer afford.

While the profession was unfairly targeted by education secretary Michael Gove, it is time to move on. The baseline designs are far from perfect, but instead of walking away — the default position when architects don’t get their own way — or shouting that it’s not fair, the profession needs to take a deep breath and get to work.

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Readers' comments (8)

  • Amanda, you are very misguided.

    The ability of small firms to innovate is what could deliver schools on low budgets. Recently I was part of a small team who delivered a small school building in Queens Park. We needed complete freedom in order to save money, cut consultancy by doing things in different ways and taking on more of the tasks, adjusting our designs to adapt to the awkward site, negotiate down prices with contractors we knew and understood the situation. In the end a 55m2 build was delivered for 140,000 pounds in central London.

    These initiatives are just wrong, poorly thought out, do not understand the value the profession brings, are foolish and simple minded to the extreme.

    I would rather fight this than support it.

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  • Hugo, is £2545/m2 good value?

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  • The question of value is not best judged by an accounting view. The client is very satisfied as are all the people involved including the young students.

    All I can say is that everyone involved felt we had acheived the minimum cost possible in this case.

    The 140,000 figure includes everything including professional fees.

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  • Thanks for the clarification Hugo. I'm in NI and have to say it still seems like a lot of money to me but then you probably wouldn't believe the kinds of fees that are winning tenders these days!

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  • As Hugo rightly points out, budgets are not really the issue in the article. As an architect we have to work with what money is available, whether its £1 or £1m.

    The difficulties I usually face working on schools projects is that many things that are considered architectural are controlled by the main contractor. The big contractors have supply chain agreements for certain products which limits my options and ability to design and specify other more appropriate materials. Hence we end up with identikit aesthetic.

    If procurement could be amended to allow more flexibility, this would undoubtedly enable architects to innovate more within the constraints of a budget, since the current BSF costings of £1050 per sq. m. are somewhat challenging.

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  • Hugo, even as an all-in price his £2,500+/m2 is way off what the public purse can afford. And that's what we should be fighting, not these designs which are an earnest response to area, budget and environmental specification constraints.

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  • 'The question of value is not best judged by an accounting view.'

    I'm afraid this really exemplifies why it's no suprise that we have become marginalised as a profession. I've always understood successful Architecture to be driven by responding to the parameters of the brief. This attitude of 'never mind the cost feel the quality' does us no service.
    Put away the black polo and get real.

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  • Schools that are built cheap may not represent good value for many obvious reasons. Thus, a front end accounting view is a poor way to judge value.

    The budget is the budget but the result is clearly not always equal.

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