We run down the juiciest topics of conversation in the industry this year
1 The Scottish Parliament (and other embarRassments)
Astronomical overruns, delays, endless design changes, and a Scottish executive inquiry: the Holyrood parliament building in Edinburgh is arguably the most disastrous construction project Britain has seen for a long time. The project team got a pasting in the Scottish media after it emerged in June that the cost had jumped £37m to £375m. Bovis Lend Lease, the construction manager, cost consultant Davis Langdon & Everest and architects RMJM and RMBT were pinned to the wall, then brutally fee-capped. Worse was to come. This autumn, it emerged that RMJM had issued hundreds of design changes a month and that the price had risen to £400m. Enter Lord Fraser and his public inquiry, which is making ever more embarrassing revelations while further design changes are still being proposed. The latest estimate for a completion date is July.

Second-placed cock-up of the year is Bath Spa, Sir Nicholas Grimshaw's glass-and-stone sanctuary.

The scheme doubled in cost, was 15 months late, and provided the material for big fight between the council, the architect and contractor Mowlem. And an honourable mention must go to Saga HQ, Sir Michael Hopkins' £20m project. Built in 1999, it required work to rectify draughts and leaks. The repairs are expected to cost £8m, and m'learned friends have been informed.

2 Megaschemes
Big was best for British construction in 2003. Three ambitious multibillion-pound projects – the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, Wembley stadium and Heathrow Terminal 5 – topped the news this year.

T5 snatched the headlines in January with Laing O'Rourke's groundbreaking pay deal with unions UCATT, GMB and the T&G. Skilled workers secured £55,000 a year, and the unskilled £32,000. Companies across the South-east feared having to offer similar amounts, and T5's M&E workers began to agitate for a similar deal – which has just been agreed at £50,000 a year.

CTRL incurred public wrath when a 10 m deep hole opened up near its tunnelling works in east London after a boring machine disturbed a network of 19th-century wells. Work halted for two months and aggrieved locals claimed compensation. But the £5.2bn project is still on track to complete in 2007.

Public safety fears were raised during the construction of Wembley stadium, with police called in to check the foundations for bombs before they were completed. Explosives could have been planted with the intention of detonating them at a sporting event once the project is finished and open to the public, Building discovered. The Metropolitan Police gave the foundations a clean bill of health and construction is continuing.

3 Iraq war and its aftermath
The USA and UK launched military action to unseat Saddam Hussein in March, amid industry speculation over how many reconstruction contracts those greedy Yanks would hand over to UK companies. Not many, it turned out, but few tears were shed for lost opportunities as contractors declared Iraq too unsafe to send their people there. About 1000 construction workers did go to the Gulf – as part of the call-up of army reservists. Some companies were left short of staff, and the Construction Confederation issued guidelines on how to rejig projects and responsibilities to handle the disruption.

Wartime fears that the government's military spending would require cuts in public spending – and hence in PFI projects – have not been borne out so far. But there have been other, indirect effects: terrorist attacks in several countries since the war have led contractors to withdraw staff and tighten security; and British embassies around the world are getting anti-terrorist refurbishments. That hasn't put off consulting engineer Halcrow, which is leading the British reconstruction efforts and hopes to have a 200-strong division in Iraq by 2006.

4 Off the rails
Safety on the tracks was a huge public concern this year, with rail and Tube safety under scrutiny. Jarvis found itself in the firing line as concerns over its work mounted. Network Rail put the company under pressure to slash its profit margins on rail maintenance by 50%. The company eventually gave up the fight, announcing it was to leave the sector. Network Rail later decided to take all rail maintenance work back in-house – which was bad news for Amey and Balfour Beatty, which both had contracts.

Jarvis has had other woes, too. Network Rail said the company was to face "repercussions" after it admitted that a maintenance oversight could have caused a derailment at King's Cross in September. Paris Moayedi was appointed chairman in May but decided it the game wasn't worth the candle, and quit in November. Where now for Jarvis? Maybe London Conservative mayoral candidate Steven Norris can improve matters in the new year.

In January, Building predicted that Tube Lines, the PPP consortium on the Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly lines, would enjoy bumper profits. According to chief executive Terry Morgan, its three members could make £256m in the first seven and a half years of their contract, or £80m more than first forecast. But after a series of derailments, safety incidents and a drop in public confidence, not to mention threats of strikes over safety from the unions, we're guessing they're not feeling so optimistic at the year's end.

5 The bigger they are, the harder they fall
This year saw some of construction's biggest names struggling for survival – and in some cases losing.

Amey started the year in a pitiful state, and speculation was rife that the group was on the verge of collapse. In the end it was saved by its sale to Spanish contractor Ferrovial for £81m.

Ballast was not so lucky, going into administration after its Dutch parent, Ballast Nedam, cut off financial support. Nearly 1000 jobs were lost.

(For more on Ballast and Amey, see "Big deals".) 6 Political animals
Construction suffered a Whitehall demotion in 2003, from having a minister of its own to being part of a broader portfolio. Energy and construction minister Brian Wilson was replaced by lower-ranking minister Nigel Griffiths in June, who got the newly created title of minister for small business and enterprise.

But Griffiths didn't let his broad role stop him from mucking in. After promising to champion construction and hitting out at the Scottish parliament fiasco, he launched a body to give the industry more say in the provision of £400m of training funds.

And John Prescott hasn't been putting his feet up, either. He put a lot of new work our way with his big regeneration spending, which was set out in the Communities Plan. Prescott aims to devote £22bn over the next three years to tackle Britain's housing crisis.

The money will be spent on, among other things, PFI housing schemes and pathfinder schemes to reduce derelict housing stock.

7 London's 2012 Olympics bid
London is to compete for the 2012 Olympics, and that means there's an awful lot of construction work up for grabs.

Masterplanner EDAW and architect HOK Sport were first off the blocks, picking up the £1m masterplanning contract. Now more than ever, pressure is on the government to commission Crossrail, without which transport experts warn the east of London could not cope with the Olympics crowds.

But some of the money to fund the £250m games' bid could be diverted from existing projects, with a 25% cut in the London Development Agency's funding for Thames Gateway regeneration on the cards.

And there are already problems on the horizon. Construction's skills shortage could scupper the bid, according to Construction Industry Council chief executive and former Olympic competitor Graham Watts. He called upon the government to use the bid as a platform to attract new blood into the industry.

8 Transfer season
There were some big moves this year. Skanska was "not best pleased" when senior vice-president Keith Clarke departed to become chief executive of Atkins in June. The 51-year-old will be charged with putting the firm back on track after an eventful nine months at Atkins saw a catastrophic IT systems failure, a profit warning, 400 redundancies and the undignified departure of chief executive Robin Southwell.

Ken Shuttleworth left Foster and Partners in November, after 29 years with the practice. In an interview with Building in January, Shuttleworth emerged as the penman behind Foster triumphs such as the Swiss Re and the GLA building. Reports of a rift with Norman Foster followed rapidly after publication. Shuttleworth will now be setting up on his own, after a move to Hamilton Associates fell through.

And just a couple of weeks ago, London's Conservative Party mayoral candidate Steven Norris controversially took the top job at Jarvis after Paris Moayedi quit. The question is: can Norris can improve the company's reputation and please the voters at the same time? 9 Libeskind's World Trade Centre win
The competition to rebuild New York's World Trade Centre was won by architect Daniel Libeskind in March. Much of the project will be completed in just four years, he told Building.

The design is highly symbolic. The 30 ft high slurry walls of the excavated site are to be retained as a giant memorial to the 2800 people who died on 11 September 2001. The foundations of the two towers will also be marked on the site, and a 1776 ft spire soaring over the angular glass buildings represents the year of America's independence.

10 RICS rows
In its drive to become the world's foremost surveyors' institution, the RICS irked members who felt its attention should be directed closer to home. A vote to raise subscription levels by one-third was the last straw. Open warfare broke out, with the UK's nine largest project management companies claiming they weren't getting value for money. A group of rebels launched a bid for an extraordinary general meeting to rescind the fees hike. President Peter Fall argued that most members didn't oppose the raise, saying: "The vote has been taken and it seems pointless to do the whole thing again." Fierce battles on Building's letters page culminated in the establishment of the Quantity Surveyors' Institution in October. The organisation will get 1000 members this year and hopes to have 6000 in five years, according to its founder Roger Knowles.

Extra sensory perception at the laban Dance centre

Building architecture editor Martin Spring picks his five buildings of the year, beginning with The Laban Dance Centre. This was opened in January in Deptford, south-east London, and nine months later fulfilled its many fans’ predictions by winning the Stirling Prize. Herzog & de Meuron, the project’s celebrity Swiss architect, not only produced a spectacular and stunningly original work of architecture, but also managed to introduce a whole new state-of-the-art architectural aesthetic to Britain. It is a supremely sensory aesthetic, in which tinted polycarbonate sheeting creates dazzling overlapping optical illusions of transparency, reflections, refractions and colour. “It hits you straight between the eyes as soon as you get there,” commented Julian Barnes of the Stirling jury. “It has the same movement, youth, agility, pizzazz, and front to it that its students have – it’s very seductive.”

New design curriculum: Classrooms of the Future

The annexe to St Francis of Assisi primary school in west London, designed by Studio E Architects, has more in common with a colossal mutant insect than a conventional school building. Developed by Kensington & Chelsea council, the dome-shaped building with its translucent ETFE-clad roof is one of 27 “Classrooms of the Future”, sponsored by the Department for Education and Skills. Whereas schoolchildren have been shackled by a new curriculum, school buildings are being liberated from mind-numbing design orthodoxies. Following on from Classrooms of the Future, Mukund Patel, head of the DfES design unit, has commissioned a clutch of 11 highly imaginative “exemplar designs” from design-orientated architects, including Alsop Architects and de Rijke Marsh Morgan. Once these notional designs are unveiled in the new year, education authorities will be invited to commission the same architects for real buildings.

Through the hospital window: CABE’s healthy prognosis

This alluring four-person hospital ward with its curved panoramic window has been designed by Jane Darbyshire and David Kendall. Sadly, you’re not likely to come across it in the UK’s current healthcare development bonanza, which this year commands a public sector budget of £4bn and contributes to a 10-year programme of 100 acute hospitals and thousands of health centres, clinics and GPs’ surgeries. Unfortunately, it is a purely notional design commissioned by the Commission for Architecture and Built Environment as part of its campaign to improve architectural standards in healthcare buildings. Research by CABE proves the commonsense observation that well-designed healthcare buildings make patients and staff feel better, and therefore increase throughput and lower the costs of the NHS.

Reaching higher: Swiss Re changes the city skyline

As exemplified by Foster and Partners’ Swiss Re building, currently being fitted out in the City of London, 2003 has been the year of the skyscraper. Though a few metres short of the 1970s Tower 42 next door, the Swiss Re headquarters, aka The Erotic Gherkin, transforms the high-rise tower from a stretched shoebox into a bulging, curvilinear cigar. It also sets out to curb the energy-guzzling tendencies of this building form, incorporating spirals of atriums to operate as fresh-air flues and ventilate the surrounding offices. In November, the born-again skyscraper movement rose to new heights in Britain, when the proposed London Bridge Tower finally won planning approval from deputy prime minister John Prescott. Designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, the tower should rise to 310 m, making it Europe’s tallest building.

Blue is the new black: future systems’ fashion statement

The burghers (and shoppers) of Birmingham will remember 2003 fondly. This was the year architect Future Systems’ stunning Selfridges store opened. It is the jewel in the crown of the redeveloped Bullring shopping centre. Within days of opening, the building became the new icon for the city – a positive image for the city centre to replace its concrete-encased past. The building’s bizarre appearance – the result of 15,000 aluminium discs attached to its sensuous, blue, curving concrete facade – was inspired by a wallet-busting designer frock. Now, three months after it opened, the only wallets busting are those of the hoards of Christmas shoppers swarming the store’s aisles.

Review of the year - 2003