Engineer and architect for new parliamentary building grilled over cost and flexibility.
Project team members on the £250m new parliamentary building came under severe pressure to justify its price tag at an industry conference last weekend.

The British Council for Offices annual conference, held in Glasgow, included a seminar on the controversial Portcullis House that focused almost entirely on its cost.

David Selby, associate at architect Michael Hopkins & Partners, and John Berry, director of engineer Ove Arup & Partners, were grilled on the project by an aggressive audience made up of executives from contractors, QSs and architects.

The building, which was designed to last 200 years, was also criticised for its inflexible layout – the individual office spaces for 200-plus MPs cannot easily be changed.

Selby admitted that, with hindsight, the project might have been designed differently, possibly with more reference to likely changes in its use.

He said: "One might have attempted to look into the future in some way. That is possibly an area we might have discussed more." He said there had been no precedent for open-plan working in the Palace of Westminster, but the audience insisted that the building layout might need to be rethought within the next 30 years.

The audience also pressed the project team to explain how the project brief was drawn up.

There was a feeling in the audience that the professionals might have reined in the MPs, instead of agreeing to a brief that has now caused them embarrassment.

Asked about Hopkins' role, Selby said: "The brief was written by the Parliamentary Works Directorate in consultation with the design team." Selby said if the building had only been designed to last 60 years, bronze cladding might not have been used. But he defended the process by which MPs approved the project, insisting that they are "quite good at scrutinising themselves".

Cyril Sweett & Partners chairman Francis Ives, who sat on the panel for the seminar, The Price is Right or is it? A Review of the New Parliamentary Building, dissected its costs in detail.

He said the building got "nought out of 10" for flexibility and said he was sure that technology would begin to overtake the current design over the next 60 years.

He also questioned the project team's persistent assertions that the building is on budget, given that its cost has grown by more than £100m.

Much of this has been blamed on inflation, but Ives doubted that this could account for the total rise. He said he "struggled" to understand how the building could cost £250m, despite its 200-year life and the problems caused by delayed work at Westminster Station, which is situated underneath the building.

But Ives said the building did deserve praise for its water conservation.