Alan mack thought it would be a quick, prestige job. Four years later, he's still there and the scottish parliament is mired in more controversy than ever.
Alan Mack interrupts the interview to take a call. There is a problem with hanging heavy panels of some kind. Go with structural fixings, he says. I assume it's to do with one of the package contractors. There are about 1000 people on site working on a dizzying array of fronts. Still, it seems a rather basic thing to be bothering the project director about, so I ask.

He's telling someone how to hang some large mirrors at the flat he's bought in Edinburgh. It's a small flat and needs mirrors to open it up, but the plasterboard won't take the weight.

So, you might think. This is what the guy in charge of what some might say is the worst project in Europe is occupied with? It would be just as accurate to say that it's so absorbing that he's had to buy a home in Edinburgh because the commute to his home in Hexham, Co. Durham was getting too much.

Holyrood eats resources: time, money, careers – even lives, if you cast a superstitious reading on the fact that the project's two main champions, Scottish first minister Donald Dewar and Catalan architect Enric Miralles, both died soon after the project hit its first crisis in 1999.

Mack is supposed to be operations director for Bovis in Scotland and the North East, but in reality he spends practically all his time on the Holyrood site. Half the Bovis northern and Scottish headcount reports to the wet, 4.5 acre patch on the Royal Mile.

Mack, 53, has never worked on a project like this before. It's the most frustrating and the most exhilarating in his 31-year career.

First there is the sluggishness of the design process, over which, as construction manager, he has limited control. The design team is a joint venture between Miralles' studio in Barcelona (EMBT) and the Edinburgh office of RMJM. The Barcelona team generate the concepts, the locals finalise the details. Mack says the Barcelona team can be "cavalier" about returning to the drawing board.

Design issues
"It's iterative, the design process," Mack says. I detect a flicker of a smile. Iterative. Like having another go? I ask if "iterative" is a word he's used on former projects. He says yes, but that he is "not quite accustomed to it encompassing such a wide zone of design developments."

"You mean they keep changing their minds?"

"Look, in defence of the design team, and this is unusual for me, but they are just trying to stay faithful to Miralles' ideas."

Miralles' ideas. You could say it was Miralles' ideas that got the project into the stew it is in today. The charismatic Catalan captured Donald Dewar's imagination, and the imaginations of everybody on the panel that selected the architect back in 1998. According to John Gibbons, chief architect of the Scottish Executive, and now client advisor to the Scottish Parliament, Miralles' principles and his ability to articulate them were his most powerful tools.

"He was very engaging," Gibbons said. "He made everything interesting. He showed great empathy for Scottish democracy. There was a great rapport between him and Dewar."

His ideas include the long, landscaped mounds that curve down to the bottom of the Salisbury crags, recalling the paths trod by highland chiefs going to council; the upturned boats (now towers), inspired first by upturned boats on English Lindisfarne, later revised awkwardly to reflect Scotland's belly-up ship building industry; and the bay windows at the end of each MSP's office, in which they can perch and look at the crags. Apparently the shape of the bay window recalls a famous Scottish painting of a religious minister on ice skates.

"Miralles would be laughing now if he heard all this," Gibbons says merrily over lunch. "He had a way of throwing something out to generate discussions."

Mack isn't laughing. This is the least buildable building he's built. There is hardly any repetition of elements. There is extensive use of precast concrete, but practically every piece is unique. Not even the windows in the MSPs' contemplation pods are identical. Taking me round the site we pass under the longest cantilevered first floor I've ever seen. It's bristling with props to keep the in situ slab in place while it cures.

"What I wouldn't give to put a proper column here," he grumbles. "Just the one."

Art or architecture
Mack has worked on some high profile buildings before, even another signature project, the Richard Rogers' designed Daiwa HQ in the City of London. His most recent job was the Museum of Scotland. But before that it was a mix of office blocks and shopping centres.

"I could always visualise in three dimensions what we were trying to do on those," he says, leaning close and dropping his voice. "Here, I still haven't got it. It's just so complex on every front. Not just the shape, but the materials and the way those materials interface." As an example he describes 112 stainless steel nodes, each weighing a tonne, which form a load connection between glue-laminated oak beams and tie rods in the roof of the debating chamber. Each is slightly different and costs £11,000.

"This is not constructing a building," he says. "It's constructing a sculpture that will be used as a building."

As if the design were not complex enough, Mack reports to a very difficult client – 129 MSPs, a shifting proportion of whom are vehemently opposed to the project itself. The most prominent is Scottish National Party member Margo MacDonald who has vowed to kick up a stink about the project until "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is known by everyone paying for the parliament building". (The Scotsman, 20 November 2002.)

Tory leader David McLetchie is a staple source for anti-Holyrood ranting. He's better at phrase mongering. "The Scottish people have been treated like mushrooms," he told The Scotsman. "Kept in the dark and fed manure."

Changing brief
For Mack, it's like reporting to a client with a split personality. They want it, they don't want it. The universally bad press also makes the job more expensive. Mack refers to a widely acknowledged "Holyrood premium" charged by subcontractors among the 52 current live packages. In some cases it has been difficult even to attract tenders.

Opponents make compelling arguments. The cost has spiralled out of control. Miralles was inexperienced. He was too far away. The form of contract (construction management) practically begged the consultants to dawdle.

John Gibbons is glad for the chance to respond. His main point is that the building has had two clients. First, after the September 1997 referendum in favour of devolution, it was the Scottish Office. The brief was the best building in the world, and built to last. Gibbons and his team got to work. Miralles was selected, a site chosen and Bovis appointed before the MSPs were even elected, before anybody knew precisely what sort of a building they needed or even how many MSPs there would be.

When they were elected in May 1999, they changed the brief. They demanded more than double the space, a smaller car park, a tighter curve to the seats in the debating chamber. Costs rocketed. But Gibbons and his team had been expecting this, and it was precisely why construction management was chosen.

"Can you imagine the disruption and the cost in claims we'd have faced if the contract were traditional?" he said. "We knew we were moving from a theoretical design for a theoretical client to a real design for a real client. We chose Miralles because he was the most flexible and construction management because it was the best procurement method under the circumstances."

High stakes
After 11 September the client group started to worry more about terrorist attacks. The site is surrounded by public roads, which meant blast protection had to be designed in everywhere, in some cases retrospectively, and this propelled costs through the roof yet again. It was costly because most elements had been designed specially for this building.

"Blast protection is fine if you're building a big white box," said Gibbons. "You'd be sure to have a series of deemed-to-comply notices from the Ministry of Defence. But there are so many bespoke elements we have to take everything and blow it up."

So is Alan Mack to be pitied or admired? Is Holyrood a prize or poisoned chalice? You might say that because it's a construction management contract where Bovis charges a percentage of the overall construction cost, the more complicated the design, the higher the overall price, the bigger the fee.

Mack says this is rubbish. "Commercially, a job like this can be suicide," he says. "You've got 70 of your best people tied up in one project. It would be far better to have five PFI jobs adding up to the same value. There would be less exposure to publicity and less risk."

He points out that construction management contracts may actually be riskier than others because the contractor must advise the client and if the client decides later it got duff advice, that can be the basis for a claim.

"In this job you've got what feels like 129 different clients looking over your shoulder, all with their own agendas, and already some are making comments to the effect of 'someone's going to pay for this'," he said. From Mack's perspective, all it would take would be a Tory majority later this year, a massive audit and Bovis could be left with unsettled accounts and an acrimonious client.

Personally, a job like this clearly is a kind of peak but also takes its toll. On a recent career development form he listed as a main aspiration to sleep in his own bed beside his wife.

"Remember we came in 1999 to do a £50m job to be finished in 2001. We're still here. I've had a house in Northumberland since 1985 and I still don't know my neighbours."

The worst job in Europe?

  • January 1999: Bovis wins race for the contract, priced at £50m, later revised to £70m. Completion date set for Autumn ‘01
  • May 1999: MSPs elected. Scottish Parliament Corporate Body becomes client
  • June 1999: Cost estimated at £109m
  • March 2000: Independent assessor John Spencely says job will cost £230m
  • April 2000: MSPs cap cost at £195m
  • May 2000: Client seeks design changes
  • November 2001: Estimates rise to £240m
  • Spring 2002: Estimates rise to £280m
  • October 2002: Up to £308m
  • November 2002: Blast requirements push cost to £350m
  • December 2002: Bovis sets August 2003 finishing date for debating chamber