Frightening, stimulating, argumentative, bewildered by its own bureaucracy but still willing to take chances (don't believe everything the media tells you), the BBC is the best client in Britain for firms who don't just want an easy life.

Jilted partners, stormy relationships, bitter divorces … the BBC's recent property history has as many twists and turns as an Eastenders special. In 2000, then director general Greg Dyke vowed to embark on a £2bn commissioning spree to turn around the corporation's "disgraceful" property record. The "artistic renaissance" that followed led to the BBC being crowned Client of the Year at the 2004 Building awards - but was then tarnished by public spats with two of British architecture's biggest names.

Now, two fresh plotlines are unfolding. By 2010, 1800 staff will be relocated to the north west - last week the board of governors announced it would enter exclusive talks to build a £400m media village at Salford, the climax to months of feverish competition between Salford and Manchester councils. And next week a new framework agreement begins, after a £2bn, 30-year development and outsourcing deal with Land Securities came to an abrupt end 25 years early.

Tony Wilson, the BBC’s head of workspace solutions, standing on the central staircase of the White City development in west London
Tony Wilson, the BBC’s head of workspace solutions, standing on the central staircase of the White City development in west London Photograph by David Levene

A demanding customer

Given the scale of the BBC's grand architectural ambitions, it's hardly surprising that there have been some hiccups in fulfilling them. But the BBC as an organisation is also sprawling, segmented, intensely bureaucratic, rife with internal politics and always, always under political and media scrutiny. Construction firms who work with it rarely find the experience a simple one.

So when I meet Tony Wilson, the BBC's intriguingly titled head of workspace solutions, the first thing I ask is how he thinks the industry perceives it. He laughs. "I've worked at the BBC for six years now and typically companies are always keen to come and work here. There's a certain cachet and glamour, but the reality is much tougher because of the complexity of the organisation and because of the culture. There are companies that enjoy the challenge and others that are scared witless and we don't see them again for many years."

I run through a checklist of gripes from companies who've been on both sides of that divide to see if Wilson feels they're well founded. Different bosses pulling in different directions? "Yep." BBC not knowing what it wants? "Yep." No clear guidance? "Um, well there's lots of guidance - sometimes it's conflicting." Ever-changing requirements? "Yes." Decision-making people spread pretty thinly? "No. I think the decision-making route is clear but I think nowadays there's probably an even more rigorous decision-making process to get something approved, so I think it's quite thorough." Difficulty meeting own deadlines? "Yes." Uncertainty over who's doing what, particularly with Land Secs? "No, I wouldn't have said so. I think Land Securities' role is quite clear. Our needs from the relationship have changed but I think it's clear what they're delivering."

To be fair, the BBC is endeavouring to be a more transparent client and iron out some of the more frustrating quirks of its procurement regime. Wilson is about to put his 10-strong team through training in a new project management process. "There was a lack of consistency. Now it'll be the same across all projects, whether they're worth £10m or £100,000," he promises.

The Broadcasting House refurbishment in central London has a chequered past
The Broadcasting House refurbishment in central London has a chequered past Photograph by David Levene

Ruthless cutbacks

In the past year, voluntary redundancies have halved Wilson's department to 47 core staff, in line with the ruthless cost-cutting that director-general Mark Thompson initiated when he took the post in 2004. Thompson appointed Chris Kane from the Walt Disney Company as head of corporate real estate and charged him with streamlining the department and refocusing it on Thompson's goal of putting the BBC at the forefront of 21st-century broadcasting.

This seems to be the thinking behind the name change from BBC Property to BBC Workspace, which smacks of exactly the kind of "blue-sky thinking" the BBC has been criticised for spending so much on. Happily, Wilson prefers to speak in plain English. "My proper title should be ‘All projects except Broadcasting House'," he says, referring to the landmark project that is managed by Wilson's colleague Keith Beal. "Workspace solutions is an awful, fancy, jargonised term, really. But it spells out a lot about the change in culture we're trying to bring about. Property is associated with the landlord, bricks-and-mortar role, but we're trying to focus on what the organisation needs to make it work best. The vision is to provide the best workplace for the most creative organisation in the world."

Best workplace perhaps, but Thompson's value-for-money mantra has undoubtedly diminished the BBC's reputation as a client with a commitment to brave architecture. It's a criticism that gets to Wilson.

"There's an oversimplified view that Greg was about good times and good buildings and Mark is the party-pooper that forced job cuts on everyone. If Greg had survived the whole Hutton thing, he would have had to drive forward exactly the same uncomfortable agenda. Yes, over the past year there has been an increased focus on value for money, but that doesn't mean our commitment to good quality design has wavered at all."

Others have suggested that the two architects that have made it on to the BBC's framework - Building Design Partnership and TP Bennett - are more conservative choices than the corporation might previously have made. This is perhaps a response to its well-documented disputes with Sir Richard MacCormac on Broadcasting House and David Chipperfield on Pacific Quay.

But Wilson points out that the new framework was set not set up to deal with multimillion-pound flagship projects.

"It's nothing to do with safeness or conservatism or value for money. It's about appropriateness. You wouldn't want Zaha Hadid refurbishing a local radio station."

He points out that developments such as the Mailbox in Birmingham - designed by BDP - and the BBC Look North headquarters in Hull by TP Bennett and small practice Studio Baad both won British Council for Offices awards in 2005. "Big names and big buildings will attract a lot of attention and that's all still happening. But for me it's about getting that design quality across everything we do. This sense that Mark Thompson said ‘no more good design' couldn't be further from the truth."

The BBC hopes future projects will follow the award-winning Mailbox in Birmingham
The BBC hopes future projects will follow the award-winning Mailbox in Birmingham Photograph by David Levene

A casualty of cost cuts

The Land Secs deal was a casualty of the need to drive cost out of the BBC, although Wilson says it was nothing to do with screaming tabloid headlines over how much it charges to change a lightbulb. Rather, the BBC discovered a more efficient way to finance its property portfolio through the bond market and bought Land Secs' stake in White City for £366m. "That changed the dynamic in the relationship quite fundamentally because Land Securities was no longer owning and operating, it was just operating. By their own admission, they're not facilities management providers - they don't bid in that market. We were moving to a much more conventional FM-type arrangement and a development management arrangement. Land Securities still provides that at Pacific Quay and Broadcasting House and will continue to do so." From 1 July, Johnson Controls will take on the FM role.

Wilson does not believe the deal was wrong - there was no way the BBC could have funded developments such as Broadcasting House or White City on its own. But he considers the point that in some ways the BBC has ceased to be master of its own destiny. "There's this tension between risk transfer and control and it's interesting how the industry has moved on over the past four or five years. At Heathrow Terminal 5, rather than trying to transfer the risk, BAA decided to identify it and manage it in the most appropriate way.

"A few years ago we were in the position of trying to transfer risk as a way of getting the best of both worlds. Today perhaps we'd look at it a bit more accurately, and ask, ‘Are you going to pay a big premium for risk transfer and do you actually achieve effective risk transfer?' We've become a bit more on the ball when it comes to managing risk."

The new framework

The BBC will be retaining more risk under the new framework of 11 firms, although the jobs will be much smaller in value. When the arrangement begins in a week's time, Wilson says his role will be more about managing relationships than projects. Whereas under the outsourcing deal there was only one relationship to manage and the BBC saw little of the consultants and contractors behind Land Secs' in-house team, now Wilson views the firms he's selected as "an extended team, a virtual team whom I'm really looking forward to working with - not just on day-to-day projects but on a broader strategic agenda." To build the BBC's internal management expertise he has recruited a new contracts and commercial manager, Lee Richardson, and is looking for three interface managers. "The titles here are dreadful," he apologises.

Some of the firms on the framework have worked with the BBC before, some have not. Wilson says his selection criteria are design quality, approach to health and safety, an understanding of his business and, of course, value for money. Firms demonstrated these through a case study of the relocation of a local radio station; the selection process also included a mini-competition to win legacy projects that are already under way. The consultants list is a Noah's Ark of two architects, two engineers, two QSs and two project managers. One firm in each category will take on the 25 BBC-dedicated staff at Land Secs and there are also three contractors who will carry out minor works to a pre-tendered schedule of rates. For larger jobs, Wilson says it will either commission them directly or hold a limited competition within the framework.

Wilson intends to balance the workload across all the firms - he doesn't want to preside over a media version of troubled healthcare framework Procure 21.

"Companies go through the mill to get on these things. If you're successful and you're sitting there and no work comes in then you can see why companies get a bit hacked off about it."

The proposed design for the £400m media city development at Salford. It will house 1800 BBC staff by 2010 and be home to other media organisations such as Granada
The proposed design for the £400m media city development at Salford. It will house 1800 BBC staff by 2010 and be home to other media organisations such as Granada

Going north

As for the move to Salford, Wilson and his team are faced with the near impossible task of predicting how far the broadcasting revolution might have moved on in five years' time, and how that should affect their property strategy. In contrast to previous developments, it will not only house the BBC: "We want a thriving media community of which we are part but not necessarily dominant; it should brings together the likes of Granada but also the smaller production companies. We've got to make sure the development is sustainable for all those companies and not just dependent on the BBC."

But future-proofing a strategy at the BBC is nigh-on impossible, as Wilson found two years ago when he project-managed the White City media centre development. This was condemned in a National Audit Office report for being under-occupied - hardly surprising given the dramatic reduction in head count at some departments. "Six months before we were due to occupy White City, the strategy changed dramatically and we were left scratching our heads because all of our original assumptions had changed," he says.

To paraphrase Wilson, if you prefer working within the kind of top-down, bottom-line driven organisation where people unquestioningly do what they're told - he cites BT, where he spent eight years prior to joining the BBC - you might as well not apply. "In the BBC there's an adage that says

‘a decision is the starting point for a debate'. It's that kind of enquiring mind that people throughout the BBC tend to have. They will challenge things rather than accept the first thing that's put in front of them. I guess you have to have a sort of perverse side of your nature to enjoy that kind of challenge."

BBC at a glance

  • Annual budget Between £20-50m a year, excluding major works. Likely to be about £25-30m for each of the next few years.
  • What’s in the pipeline? The largest jobs for the framework companies will be adapting the White City development, moving departments around, and refurbishing local radio stations across the country. Major works include a £400m relocation to Salford and the long-delayed £25m Music Box development at White City, which Wilson hopes will go ahead in the autumn.
  • Who’s on the framework? Contractors: Interservice, Overbury, Mansell. Cost consultants: Currie & Brown, Cyril Sweett. Designers: Building Design Partnership, TP Bennett. Project managers: Dearle & Henderson, Capita Symonds. Engineers: Jacobs, Faber Maunsell.
  • What’s the contract? The BBC is using the NEC contract for the first time. “It’s claimed to encourage good behaviour between the parties; we’re looking forward to having much closer relationships,” says Wilson.

What Wilson wants

What could firms say to impress you?
The ones who stand out are those who understand what makes the organisation tick and tune in, as opposed to saying “Here’s what we always do, does it fit?”

What’s your biggest problem with the construction industry?
A lack of integration. Six years ago when I joined the BBC, a major piece of plant had been installed in the air-conditioning at Woodlands and there was an argument between the contractor and the facilities management supplier over whether it had been properly handed over, so the FM company refused to maintain it. It didn’t get maintained for five years, at which point it had to be replaced because it was worn out. That sort of lack of integration is what we’re trying to avoid. We’re going to get contractors on board much earlier in the process in the design stage, which should drive savings.

What are you looking for from your buildings?
Flexibility. The Davis Langdon study in the National Audit Office report into White City said we had paid 5% over the typical British Council of Offices rate for buildings of that sort, but the specifications had greatly increased flexibility. We paid for deeper floor voids for cabling, higher floor-to-ceiling heights to allow us to put in technical rooms for editing if we need to and we’ve got the cooling and power capacity to move other functions there.

What stood out about your framework contractors?
One thing was their approach to health and safety. At Jacobs Engineering, it’s core. People walk in the room and you almost smell it off them; their whole culture puts it at the top of the agenda. It’s little things like employees not being allowed to use a mobile while they’re driving, even if it’s hands-free.

At Pacific Quay, Bovis had an on-site nurse who discovered that someone had high blood pressure in a routine check. He was rushed to hospital and undoubtedly a heart attack or something worse was prevented. We want to work with companies who’ve got that approach.