Designers won’t have to wait much longer to become a fully integrated and properly paid part of the team.
In this column on 26 May, I predicted a number of developments in the construction industry that would take place over the first decade of the new millennium. One of them was a renewed emphasis on design. This is a subject about which it is dangerous to write, just as I was advised by the late Geoffrey Rippon at the start of my political career 30 years ago never to make a speech about education except to say that it was a good thing and we needed more of it. Design, like education, is a topic that has many expert practitioners, and any opinion is likely to be anathematised by some.

However, the RIBA, the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland and the Institution of Civil Engineers have all generously made me an honorary fellow, so I will put on my flak jacket, and here goes.

After I published my interim report Trust and Money back in December 1993, I held a round of consultation meetings. One of them was with Ove Arup & Partners. A very distinguished senior member of that practice gently chided me for not saying enough about design. I took that to heart and put a section in my final report, Constructing the Team, in which I stressed that clients had a significant role in promoting good design, which did not necessarily involve high cost. It would provide value for money in terms of both total cost and cost in use. “Government as patron is not an obsolete role,”

I suggested, and the Millennium Fund might provide some opportunities for landmark schemes.

When researching my report in 1993-94, I found that major clients, sometimes in exasperation, had concentrated on the process and buildability of a scheme and had increasingly demanded single-point responsibility for delivery. Architects had felt marginalised by that and had complained that the status of architecture had suffered, particularly with the growth of design-and-build procurement.

Clients should treat their designers properly. If you retain an architect on a “no win, no fee” basis, you cannot expect the Taj Mahal

Happily, the pendulum is swinging back towards quality design. That does not dismiss design and build, which remains an efficient and productive procurement method and one with many different degrees of risk transfer to the contractor. Rather, design should not be minimised, whatever the procurement route. The creative instinct of the architect or engineer should be harnessed jointly with the skills of the constructors. Building or engineering projects should look impressive and challenging, as well as working. Clients should insist on design being creative, bold and striking, and then treat their designers properly. In 1993-94, I was shocked to discover that architects were being hired by design-and-build contractors on a “no win, no fee” basis, and I criticised such a system. If you retain an architect on that basis, you cannot expect the Taj Mahal.

The full integration of the designer within the team will allow for the flow of his or her talents without losing sight of client requirements and buildability, and on a properly remunerated basis.

This decade will hopefully be a period when designers recover their morale and are allowed wide expression of their free spirits, but as part of a disciplined supply-side team working in partnership with the client to deliver his or her objectives in a best value for money way. Some designers, who are exceptional free spirits, will never be comfortable with such a role. They will see it as commercially driven rather than artistically creative. There will always be space for them in the wider environmental scene. But there are fewer and fewer wealthy and independent modern patrons willing or able to pay for whatever the creative muse feels driven to design. Perhaps posterity will suffer from this. Perhaps we need more self-confidence to produce grands projets. But experience of the building of some of those great schemes can be very painful.

Everyone admires Sir Charles Barry’s Palace of Westminster, but how many realise that the project was a nightmarish conflict between client and architect, with the great architect himself dying a disappointed and disillusioned man, and his son actually being sacked from the scheme later? We have the benefit of one of the world’s most famous buildings, but it would not have won any awards for best practice from a 19th-century Movement for Innovation.