Portcullis House is a building with a unique function on a uniquely difficult, uniquely expensive site – you'd expect it to come in a little over the odds. But Building has obtained a full cost breakdown that tells a tale of exorbitant specifications and horrendous professional fees.
The new parliamentary office block rising next to Big Ben will be the most expensive building ever built in Britain. The total cost of others may be higher, but in terms of cost per user – £1.2m for each MP –and per square metre, Portcullis House is in a league of its own.

Although its £250m price tag is public knowledge, no one has revealed exactly how it is possible to spend so much money on office accommodation. Now Building has obtained a full cost breakdown that solves the mystery.

Part of the answer is in the specification. According to senior industry sources, the Sir Michael Hopkins-specified furnishings are three times more expensive than those in a typical office building. The cost breakdown shows that £14 761 per member is going on furniture, including English oak tables and chairs, and worktops with solid English oak edge lippings. One source says: "This would be what a top bank would specify. It would be OK for Jacques Attali, but for MPs? Not for nothing is it called the Palace of Westminster." The amenities are similarly luxurious. Plants for a restaurant in a covered courtyard are costing £200 000. Paving is another £1.2m and the restaurant furniture and fittings come to £500 000.

The building's £33m bronze cladding and £13.2m roof package are also excessive, according to experts – four times the cost for a good-quality City office building. "You could get a very nice building for £33m alone," says one. The £1.9m for external glazed screens, and £300 000 for canopies and valances are also judged extravagant. Precast concrete units for floors come to £5.2m – three times the going rate. "It's over-designed, for Christ's sake," says one source at the project's construction manager Laing. "Over the top – but maybe that's what the MPs want." However, Portcullis House's no-expense-spared trimmings are not the full story.

At £42m, fees are, in the words of one source, "horrendously high". This figure includes legal costs for the acquisition of the 22 600 m² site, but not the £1m-plus cost of fighting a court case with a losing package contract bidder.

Professional fees are likely to be calculated as a percentage of the final construction cost. The endless delays and variations to the project have allowed consultants to claim more; and as one senior industry source says: "On a project like this, architects like Hopkins can demand almost anything they want." Advocates of the Portcullis House project are passionate in its defence, pointing out that the brief for its design and construction is absolutely unique. You don't get a building designed to last 200 years on top of a new Tube station on a tight Thames-side site that is also an architectural landmark for nothing, is their line.

Despite the high price of the package contracts, the cost breakdown does go some way to supporting this view. The Tube station in particular – the Jubilee Line Extension's Westminster stop – contributed heavily to the £31m sum budgeted for risk provision and general contingencies. A project source says delays in taking possession of the site sapped morale on the project as London Underground continually pushed back the handover date for the site. The Parliamentary Works Directorate is planning to claim back some of this £31m.

Delays and recoveries

After eventually starting on site early last year, the project team, which includes project manager TBV, engineer Ove Arup & Partners and QS Gardiner & Theobald, got off to a reasonable start. But the timetable soon slipped, and, by July, the project was running an alarming 12 weeks late after only 24 weeks on site. Soon after, insitu concrete stitches connecting sections of precast concrete arches failed, causing further delay.

Having slipped 20 weeks behind schedule by September, the project team took up 13 weeks' slack in their programme, leaving them seven weeks behind. A review of the programme threw up the option of accelerating work – at extra cost – to make up the seven weeks, but this was rejected. The finish date has been put back from January to early spring 2001.

Happily, the programme has since remained on course. Good progress was made from last November, with the project reaching the fifth floor by Christmas.

Syd Rapson, Labour MP for Portsmouth North, who sits on the House of Commons Accommodation & Works Committee overseeing the project, is philosophical: "Whether or not £250m is good value is beyond our control now. We've got to ensure the cost doesn't escalate any more.

This would be what a top bank would specify. It would be OK for Jacques Attali, but for MPs? Not for nothing is it called the Palace of Westminster Senior industry source

I was concerned that the cladding was too expensive, but it was chosen for the long term.

"The material for the furniture, too, has been chosen for longevity. In Europe, MEPs have shower and toilet facilities – we blocked that for this building. But at this stage, it's very difficult to slim down the specification," he says.

Committee chairman Sir Sydney Chapman, an architect himself, also defends the new building, pointing out that it costs far less than the £758m Millennium Dome, although the two are not really comparable – more than half of the dome's cost is being spent on site clean-up, transport links and staffing.

However, Portcullis House does compare quite favourably with the new European Parliament buildings in Brussels and Strasbourg, whose high costs were also criticised.

Sir Sydney also claims that the project is "a once-in-a-lifetime chance to develop a site next to the best-known complex of E E buildings in the world. It needs to be good and durable, and it will be an asset to the nation." The unique function of the building also imposes expensive restrictions and requirements. The bronze cladding, for instance, as well as being designed to mellow into an "aged" dark brown, has to be able to resist a bomb attack. And opting for a cheaper and less problematic site elsewhere in Westminster was not an option because the building needs to be within minutes' walk of the Commons for emergency votes. The same restriction means that the materials and structure has to be hard-wearing, as a later refurbishment involving MPs moving into temporary accommodation would be out of the question.

The road ahead

It is vital that the cost of the project is kept on track from now on. Further escalation will be avoided if the construction progresses smoothly through its current crucial phase, the erection of the roof.

This is to be formed from giant precast sections supplied by Watson Steel that have to be transported from the company's Bolton base. Installation of these sections will be hazardous because the upper part of the building is very exposed – the team has already been driven off by wind once. Laing will also have a tough job dividing use of the site's two cranes between the cladding and roofing contractors in coming months.

MP Rapson believes that by May, when the roof is on, the public will have a view on the building: "That is when people will be critical or not of Hopkins' design." Once the roof is in place, work on the cladding will continue, concrete partitions forming the offices – costing £3.3m – will go in, and £8.5m worth of joinery will be installed. The plan is for these stages to be complete by mid-2000, so that furniture can be fitted.

Criticism of the cost, though, is set to run and run. As one senior industry source says of the cost of packages let: "Those are pre-final account." However, there is a certain amount of cash set aside for escalation.

Although those working on the project are passionate about it, many outsiders see the concept behind it as flawed. They admire the building's quality but question the idea of creating a building to last 200 years. Nowadays, most major clients commission buildings for a 30-year life at most and are prepared to write off the cost of replacement at the end of the term. They accept that anything they commission for longer will become obsolete.

Pricier than thou? How Portcullis House compares with other prestige projects

Cost comparisons for Portcullis House are difficult, and in nearly all cases unfair, because the building has been designed to a unique brief on a difficult site. But Building decided to assess its £11 061/m2 cost against two contemporary offices and the existing Palace of Westminster, to get a feel for its price. 1 Garrard House The 19 509 m2 City of London office block was completed last year by Bovis for client Schroder Investment Management at a cost of £21m. It was built using value engineering and site innovations to save time and money. Complications included an atrium and groundworks that had to take account of archaeological risk. However, it was not built to last 200 years and is not sited above a late-running Tube station. Cost £1076/m2 2 British Airways Business Centre Costing £162m, the 120 000 m2 office near Heathrow Airport opened last year. It was designed by Norwegian architect Niels Torp and is built to a high, but not lavish, standard on a reclaimed former council tip. An internal glazed street added to its cost. Cost £1378/m2 3 The Palace of Westminster Designed by architect Charles Barry, the building took 32 years to build, finishing in 1860. The trials being endured by Portcullis House sponsor Andy Makepeace seem trivial compared with Barry’s tortured process of redesigns and delays. A top QS cost advisory service, calculating building cost inflation for the past 150 years, estimates that the £2.4m final bill would today equate to £784m – although the building does cover a 3.2 ha site.