Monday21 August 2017

Embassy architects axed from Foreign Office work

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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.


Readers' comments (11)

  • All very sad for those that failed to make it, but there are lots of 'award winning' practices out there? Do we know who did make it? Maybe once that information is divulged we can ascertain if it is some kind of architectural disaster about to happen, or if it is maybe just sour grapes from those that missed out?

    It is frustrating that people bemoan the lack of 'young new pratices' getting onto frameworks, but then also compain when firms like MCAslan and A&M neither of which are small, young or new, fail to make it.
    As for those firms that seem to think that they should be exempted from getting ISO9001 accreditation.....it's not complicated or expensive, and maybe if you just did it then you could stop moaning about it. As a profession who scream and shout about protection of title and the threat from those unchartered 'building designers' that don't being the assurance of quality that being RIBA or ARB gives, why do you think clients should not care if your internal standards meet ISO9001? If you do things well then you whould have no problem.

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  • We would have loved to have the opportunity to design an embassy and our team would do it well - but without a previous track record doing exactly the same thing we thought it would be a long shot to get through. We did apply though (!), but didn't get shortlisted.

    It was a very complicated questionnaire to try to fill in and the website was not very user friendly, so I imagine even people with oodles of experience found it difficult to show it.

    On the positive side though, compared to many other tenders like this, the procurement people did give very good feedback so you could see precisely where you lost points, although it didn't really bring up any surprises.

    I didn't do very well on the "in 2500 words describe how you would resource international projects while achieving best value" question - so will have to brush up my essay writing skills for next time !! I also lost marks on the 'date and location of formation of our business' question which is a bit random, as I'm sure we filled in the date and location properly!!

    Ho hum!

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  • Mike Duriez

    Could you publish the list of "box ticking" firms which made it onto the framework?

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  • ISO9001 is endemic of a culture that requires paper over performance.

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  • Totally wrong Hugo. ISO9001 is simply evidence of performance. In fact, for a small firm it is proof that the processes are in place to do bigger jobs, which is exactly what is needed to access work.

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  • ISO9001 doesn't guarantee a quality product, but rather that a practice has good procedures in place. Shouldn't a judge of suitability to take on these jobs be an ability to show a track record of delivering quality buildings on time and on budget?

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  • There are winners and losers. Maybe those who did not win didn’t put enough effort in to winning it. Maybe they thought that they were guaranteed of the work. Maybe those who lost just weren’t up to it and its given someone else an opportunity. Good luck to those who won.

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  • asbestos policies. "trivial details...." we think not.

    Mark is right, lets see who made it before over reacting as usual.

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  • Mark Felbrigg - getting ISO9001 actually involves a lot of work commitment - some small practices might not have that necessary super-organised senior person who can devote a substantial amount of time to do the research, writing, and monitoring involved.

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  • zecks_marquise

    @handyali, frankly if a company doesn't have the resource (and indeed responsibility) to become QA accredited, clearly they are not acceptable to design very complex and secure public buildings.

    Rules are rules, and they were the same for everyone who entered.

    Anyone who claims, it is unfair because the rules have changed from previous competitions, are just as idiotic as a person who smokes on a train because they used to be allowed.

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