img(height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="")

Jumbo sized issues

Jane Duncan

There is an elephant in the procurement room

The biggest risk is not taking any risk... In a world that’s changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks – Mark Zuckerberg

As architects we advocate a sustainable legacy for built work, and quality is the key. However, in parts of the high turnover construction world commercial risk avoidance has become such a priority that quality is jeopardised. Of course public clients need to manage their risk, but this must be balanced with an equal need for innovation. 

Procurement that results in the most creative and appropriate design requires a well briefed client and appropriate competitive access, where projects are offered to the widest possible market on a level playing field. 

Smaller practices were told to cheer the arrival in 2015 of the EU Procurement ­Directive in Britain, promising simpler and less exclusive processes. What will follow Brexit is unclear, but the UK will need to think smart and act intelligently to pull the quality rabbit out of the volume building bag. 

Reducing the cost of procurement processes will be vital. An EU commissioned analysis estimated that the economic cost of procurement, to clients and bidders, often approaches 30% of contract values.  

Effective public procurement that prioritises good design outcomes and demands post occupancy evaluation to drive continuous improvements on all projects can maximise the social, environmental and economic benefits of development. RIBA Client Advisors are poised to offer assistance.

How do we extract the best possible outcome through BIM from a procurement strategy which is still based on zero risk, lowest cost tendering and negative selections?

The RIBA Procurement Guidance: ‘Ten Principles for Procuring Better Outcomes’ clarifies how clients can get the best possible outcomes when they procure architectural services, and includes key proposals for investment in initial stages of work 0-1, setting and agreeing procurement procedures and sensible fee levels – reminding clients that they get the quality of service they pay for. 

Design quality is mandated as a means to shortlist or award contracts, considering whether frameworks are suitable, and dividing them into smaller lots. Consortia bids from smaller practices are suggested, with selection and award criteria proportionate to the scale and complexity of the project.

When it comes to delivering buildings, the coalition government’s Construction Strategy 2011 pinned its hopes on the industry to deliver salvation: lower building costs, faster delivery, lower emissions and improvement in exports. Its eggs were firmly placed in the BIM basket. At its best BIM reduces construction time, waste, cost and claims if used by knowledgeable, collaborative and clued up and wholly committed project teams. A big if. 

How do we extract the best possible outcome through BIM from a procurement strategy which is still based on zero risk, lowest cost tendering and negative selections? Lowest price lump sum tendering incentivises conflict, leading to claims for extra cost.  

For BIM to help the public sector to realise its transformative potential, investment and change is needed across a sector hindered by low productivity, waste, and poor co-ordination between the sector’s many and fragmented stakeholders. If BIM is to save us, it has to be taken forward by builders, users and maintainers – not just designers. 

To tame risk, our profession needs more effective ways of demonstrating our capability. I’d like to see more practices of all sizes collaborating to compete for complex projects, and more realism from clients about the actual levels of risk, reflected in sensible and appropriate PII and turnover requirements. 

As Brexit looms, we need a working ­partnership between the government and industry to set a policy context that is a catalyst for the design quality revolution we need. 

I’m a huge supporter of the idea that if you want to get good architecture you get a good architect. Simples – Richard Murphy


This article was written before the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower. The RIBA’s response to Grenfell Tower is available at

Design for learning

The RIBA has announced plans to create a new learning centre at its London headquarters, generously supported by the Clore Duffield Foundation. Details of the design competition for the new learning space can be found at