Embassy architects axed from Foreign Office work
Tick-box procurement blamed for award-winning practices failing to make new framework
The architects behind half a dozen recent British embassies and consulates have failed to get on the Foreign Office’s new framework agreement following a “nightmare” procurement process.
Allies & Morrison, John McAslan, Tony Fretton, Richard Murphy, The Manser Practice and Design Engine — all of whom have successful track records of designing embassies and consulates — have been rejected from what could prove a lucrative pipeline of work.
The news has reignited a simmering resentment across the profession over the PQQ procurement process, which many feel favours practices able to tick boxes over those with skill and experience. Some said they believed they were marked down for apparently trivial details such as lacking asbestos policies or ISO accreditation.
Jonathan Manser, whose Manser Practice was responsible for the 2009 embassy in Harare and the 2002 high commission in Dar Es Salaam, called procurement a “complete nightmare”.
He said: “It’s just a box-ticking exercise with faceless bureaucrats. I can’t believe all these practices were universally bad.”
Allies & Morrison, which designed the 1995 British Embassy in Dublin, came 11th out of 46. Partner Joanna Bacon said: “It was a very convoluted PQQ sheet plus case studies. We appear to have done OK on the PQQ questions but scored poorly on the case studies because we didn’t fill in all the fields, because we either couldn’t divulge the information or simply didn’t have the information they required in that format.”
Richard Jobson, director of Winchester-based Design Engine, which was responsible for the embassy in Sana’a, Yemen, said even as a very young practice it had found the previous procurement system led to plenty of work.
“With expressions of interest we could craft a document that was often good enough to break through and give us a chance,” he said. “But since PQQs came in it’s worse than going to hell and back and we’ve had very little success.”
He suspected they were rejected by the Foreign Office for not having ISO 9001 accreditation. “You increasingly have to know someone on the board who’s selecting it so they are expecting your entry,” he added.
Richard Murphy, who has completed two Foreign Office projects, said it was it was overlooking practices that had experience of its specialist security requirements.
“We got a mark sheet back that was very puzzling to us. But you can’t argue with these people once they have done their marking. It’s a bit galling,” he said.
“Procurement is the biggest crisis facing architecture at the moment. It’s basically a system that acts against architects.”
John McAslan said the procurement problem was symptomatic of the serious issues facing the profession.
“It’s a profession in crisis, if you really want to look at it bleakly,” he said. “Of course there’s great work being done but at the core of it there really is a need to assess… how we can put a proper value against the service we provide, financially and culturally.
“This is a key moment to make something of this crisis. [RIBA president Angela] Brady is the person who can do it. She has two years to lead the profession through this and she seems pretty fearless.”
The Foreign Office has not yet announced which architects have been appointed but they are believed to include Jordan & Bateman whose co-founder John Bateman once worked for the Foreign Office. The practice was on the previous framework, signed in 2001, and has completed a number of embassies and consulates.
The new framework was drawn up under a new Foreign Office head of estates who has replaced highly regarded architect Stephen Whittle. Recruited from the Metropolitan Police, he does not have a background in architecture.
A Foreign Office spokeswoman said anyone with a complaint about the process should contact them directly.