With the completion of Brighton Library and the Home Office HQ, two buildings of architectural merit have emerged from the Private Finance Initiavtive. So can PFI deliver on quality?

This month sees the resolution of two of the construction world’s longest running sagas. The earliest attempts to build a new library on Brighton’s Jubilee Square and a new headquarters for the Home Office on London’s Marsham Street both date back to the early nineties.

Over the years, the projects have limped on through a series of abortive competitions as briefs, budgets and the composition of client bodies fluctuated wildly. But today, Brighton’s librarians have new shelves to stock and the Home Office’s mandarins have new corridors of power to prowl. And how were the years of prevarication brought to an end? Through that shadiest of agencies: the Private Finance Initiative.

The fact that after such troubled histories both of these high-profile buildings have been realised on time and on budget clearly strengthens the case for PFI. But these projects also offer something few earlier PFI schemes could claim — a palpable level of architectural ambition. When the Brighton scheme was presented to Cabe, the design by Bennetts Associates (in association with local architect Lomax Cassidy Edwards) was applauded as having “the potential to be an exemplary PFI project”.

Significantly, the £8 million building is embedded within a £50 million urban regeneration project comprising a mix of retail, leisure, hotel, office and residential facilities. The development of the library and the surrounding 4ha site have been linked within the same PFI package. This has proved successful both in enabling the production of a coherent masterplan for the whole area and allowing the cost of the library to be cross-subsidised by the neighbouring development.

While, the library’s exterior, clad largely in blue terracotta tiles proves relatively demure, its interior houses a dramatic exposed concrete structure on which the reading floors are distributed. Its origins, one suspects, owe something to the limpid, hypostyle world of Wright’s Johnson Wax building. It is a small miracle given one’s expectations of what a PFI building looks like.

Cabe gave a rather harder time to Terry Farrell’s design for the Home Office building, but finally registered its approval after a programme of artworks by Liam Gillick were integrated into the building’s exterior. It too sits within a larger PFI package, also comprising a significant residential building. Admittedly, the Home Office is never going to be anyone’s favourite building. With its giant-order piers, brises-soleil, and reflecting pools it cuts a curious image — like the high commission of some sub-Saharan colony, mysteriously transferred to Pimlico. But it is not without quality — particularly at the level of the masterplan — and a marked improvement on the three unfeasibly grim slab blocks that previously occupied the site. All of which begs the question: how has something of value been realised on these occasions, when design appears to have been such a marginal concern on so many previous PFI projects?

Unfortunately, a large part of the answer to that puzzle lies buried among the criteria by which competing PFI bids are assessed. Those measures are far from transparent. Neither the Home Office nor Brighton & Hove Council were prepared to make known what weighting they attributed to design when assessing the bids for their new buildings. This climate of secrecy has disturbing implications. Bidders can’t accurately gauge their client’s level of ambition for a new building. The public can’t assess whether a project is delivering that New Labour shibboleth: “best value”.

Representatives from both projects agree that a more quantifiable factor in the success or failure of any PFI project is the extent to which the brief has been nailed down at the start. Katharine Pearce, Brighton and Hove’s project manager, explains: “I think because our design brief was so explicit it meant that when [the developer] did get tempted to water things down it was contractually much harder to do that.”

Pearce acknowledges that the fixed nature of the contract also made it difficult for the client to make changes to the package post-tender. But Tom Symes, managing director of the Mill Group, the consortium behind the Brighton project, feels that the rigidity of PFI can be overstated. “There is a bit of a myth about how difficult it is to make changes,” he says. “There is a process and it is worked out and a solution is found. If you wanted to turn [the library] into a hospital, that might be a problem, but if you wanted to open seven days a week, that can be done. If you want to make all the offices open plan, that can be done.”

Events on the Home Office project support those comments. The project has been criticised by the House of Commons accounts committee for its failure to respond to an increase in staff numbers of 1,700 between 1998 and 2003. Yet significant elements of the design — notably Gillick’s artworks — did follow after the tender process without any impact on the programme.

A third factor is the nature of the proposed design. “If there is one lesson from PFI,” Rab Bennetts explains, “it is that whimsical and style-based architecture may not survive the process.”

It is no coincidence that both of these projects are characterised by a near-diagrammatic configuration, which proved resistant to much further reduction. The sense of mystery that PFI preserves around the value of design stands in marked contrast to the merciless illumination it brings to questions of cost, programme and maintenance.

As a battle-weary Bennetts describes: “My experience has been that it takes a superhuman resilience to keep hold of the original vision. The design has to go through layer upon layer of scrutiny: the librarian, the council, the developer, and the contractor. Apart from the librarian all of these parties also have shadow teams of consultants including engineers, quantity surveyors and project managers vetting what we do. I think I’m a relatively thick-skinned person but that really took me to the edge of my tolerance.”

The journey of the two projects through this trial by fire was immeasurably aided by the fact that both buildings’ architectural expression is intimately related to their environmental performance. In both cases, the developer was contractually required to supply a building that achieved a Breeam “excellent” rating. This requirement has served as a Trojan horse, allowing the buildings’ architectural content to be smuggled past the gauntlet of value engineers. In the case of Brighton, for example, the exposed concrete structure and generous daylighting are key components of an environmental strategy, that should result in the library using about a third of the energy of an ordinary building.

Three years ago, the Office of Government Commerce, the Department for Transport, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs jointly published guidance on how to incorporate environmental considerations into PFI projects. However, the challenges of bringing a sustainability agenda to bear on a PFI scheme remain relatively untested.

As Tom Symes of the Mill Group explains, it hasn’t always proved straightforward: “Everyone accepts that [the library] is not a simple air-conditioned building where if you want it a bit cooler, you turn the air conditioning up. This is a very peaceful building in energy terms. But it takes a long time to warm up and a long time to cool down. If the weather gets really hot for a sustained period, the building will probably get hotter than is absolutely ideal. There was lots of debate around the thermal issues and how they relate to the payment questions. If it gets too hot or too cold — that’s our risk and we lose money. There’s a quite complicated thermal performance section in the agreement.”

So, on the basis of these projects’ success, is it time to concede that PFI is not necessarily the enemy of good design? Certainly, that is Cabe’s position — the problem is not PFI in itself but rather the way it has been implemented. If one takes that stand, projects like these surely represent valuable examples of best practice. Unfortunately, since neither client is prepared to state how much value it attaches to design considerations, it is hard to see how those lessons might be learnt by future projects.

Brighton Library

Client and operator Brighton & Hove City Council
Architects Bennetts Associates and Lomax Cassidy & Edwards
Building contractor ROK
Civil and structural engineers Anthony Hunt Associates / SKM
Building services and environmental engineer Fulcrum Consulting

Home Office HQ

Client Home Office
Architect Farrell & Partners
Developer Bouygues UK
Operator Ecovert FM
Mechanical and electrical engineer Battle McCarthy

Farrell’s Home Office HQ

The new Home Office headquarters is the first new government building to be delivered in central London for nearly 10 years.

While the original programme for the project was already tight, demolition of the former Marsham Street towers added a further challenge in the form of the 65m diameter concrete bunkers buried beneath the old offices. Explosives had to be used for the final demolition, which in turn had to overlap with the start of works, to ensure the 34-month programme for the 75,000sq m office building was achieved.

Fast track construction techniques were also adopted including “hybrid construction” (a mix of pre-cast and in-situ concrete structural elements). A unique environmental solution was developed for climatic control of internal spaces. This comprises multiple zonal heat pumps all sharing energy across an “energy transfer loop”. The system makes the best possible use of variations in heating/cooling loads across all buildings. Central chillers are a fraction of conventional sizes. The transfer loop requires boiler input during low winter months and rejects residual heat via roof cooling towers.

Bennetts’ Brighton library

The interior is a simple rectangular plan with three floors. The ground floor and upper floor library halls are both double-height spaces constructed from two rows of vaulted structures, supported on tall columns. Three single height, flexible perimeter spaces, for book storage, library activities and specialist functions wrap around these central areas in a u-shape, to the east, north and west. These are galleried spaces, overlooking the floors below.

The top-floor reading area is linked by bridges to the perimeter accommodation, allowing light to flood from the roof-lights above to the ground floor below. It is the main reading area with information and reference stock, and houses the library’s extensive special collections of historic publications and documents previously not accessible to the public. The perimeter accommodation includes a large computer suite.

The building’s south elevation is fully glazed. Heat is stored in the walls and floor, and is released slowly into surrounding spaces as part of a low energy release ventilation and heating system. Wind towers on the roof use the south coast sea breeze to draw excess heat from the space below. Concrete has been extensively used to give the building “thermal mass”, which reduces the need for artificial heating.