What’s the best way to choose a design team? Rigid scoring systems need to change if clients are to get the best balance between cost and quality

Sour grapes are the ugly fruits of criticism, especially in a creative industry like architecture, where emotion and self-belief conspire against objectivity. Complain about the conduct and outcome of a design competition and the architect is inevitably branded a poor loser. But something is badly wrong with the way in which architects (and other consultants) are chosen and someone needs to speak up. So here goes …

The guilty parties are not hard to identify. First, there is the procurement system itself which, for public sector projects at least, adopts rules and procedures that trap clients into making the wrong choices. Second, there are the design teams themselves, who can’t resist the temptation to submit ludicrously low fee bids to accompany their submissions. The evidence is consistent.

Exhibit A: a large further education project in Glasgow was advertised in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU) and the shortlisted entries were assessed on a quality to cost ratio of 60:40, which might suggest that quality should win out over fees. Nothing could be further from the truth. Despite sharpening their pencils on a fee that was well below the pre-recession norm, the multi-disciplinary team that came top in the quality scores got zero out of 40 for the fee element, even though they were not the highest bidder. By contrast, the lowest bidder scored 40 out of 40. In consequence, the “best” team was 40 points adrift before the quality element was even considered and therefore had no prospect of being chosen. It transpired that two bidders had undercut
the “best” team by a staggering 50%.

Exhibit B concerns a medium-sized but potentially complex cultural project in Manchester, where the quality to cost ratio was even more “favourable”, at 70:30. Once again, one team won full marks on the quality score but a 22.5 point deficit on the cost score proved too much. The published scores suggested that there was a disparity of 40% between the fee bids. It’s also worth noting that “quality” generally includes a range of subjects such as quality management systems, so design itself is a relatively small component.  

How the winning teams are going to resource such challenging projects is beyond me, but knowing and pricing the right level of resource has clearly turned out to be a penalty.

The source of the problem is the scoring method buried in a Treasury advice note on procuring consultants, but the huge range of fee bids during the recession is skewing the process beyond recognition. Quite simply, lowest cost always wins and the public sector client must be left wondering if it is saddled with an architect that won’t be around at the end of the job, a litany of claims for additional fees or a young (in other words, cheap) team that doesn’t have the relevant experience.

But the OJEU process is nothing if not transparent. The rules must be clear from the outset but the Treasury guidance note is not mandatory. Fees don’t have to be scored in that way, so Bennetts Associates has stopped entering competitive selection procedures that don’t have a sensible assessment method. We’re not desperate for work at any price. So what is to be done instead?

Exhibit C is a more positive example. It is another cultural client for a major theatre project in the West Midlands (no prizes for guessing). The shortlisted architects were interviewed, there was a visit round the site with the client, and a workshop in the architects’ offices to establish the chemistry, references were taken from previous clients and the final presentation established an initial design approach, as opposed to a final solution. Fees were not finalised until the scope of the project was clear. Guess what? The project finished on time, on budget and won several awards.

I rest my case.

The same evidence is provided by countless architects who are intent on hanging on to their professional values and surviving the recession without committing hari-kiri on fees. The lesson for the public sector is that choosing a design team doesn’t have to be like procuring other forms of goods and services. The private sector understands that; developers in particular recognise the relationship between quality, fees and the importance of the right choice of architect, not to mention the engineers and other key consultants.

Yes, I’m cheesed off that we lost so many recent competitions, but sometimes it’s actually easier to accept that we haven’t done the best design, rather than having the best proposal and being shafted by an arbitrary fee-scoring system. What we need is a system that recognises the true value and meaning of quality and professionalism. That’s constructive criticism, not sour grapes.

Rab Bennetts is the founding director of Bennetts Associates Architects