Building schools: could do better
When the Scottish architectural practice ARPL set out to design a new 1,000-pupil secondary school for Kingswood in Tallaght, south Dublin, one of its primary objectives was to create a “functional, stimulating, innovative and exciting learning environment for students, staff and the community . . . a city in microcosm”.
ARPL ended up winning a Department of Education competition for the project – the first such contest since 1973 – much to the surprise of many Irish architects, who would have given their eye teeth to secure such a prestigious project. Dublin-based de Blacam and Meagher Architects and the Coady Partnership were joint second.
The fact that there were 154 entries in the competition reflected the importance of quality design in school buildings, according to Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn, who said he “wanted to bring fresh thinking and creativity to the design of our schools . . . given the changes that are under way both in terms of curriculum and how our students are taught”.
In September the Minister forecast that more than 100 school buildings would be constructed over the next five years to cope with a huge rise in the number of children who will need school places, and stressed again that this challenge was also a “real opportunity to seek innovation in the design of these new schools”.
The runners-up in the Kingswood competition are expected to be commissioned to design other schools. They include Grafton Architects, which won the Silver Lion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale and the first World Building of the Year award in 2008, for the Bocconi University in Milan, as well as Michael Kelly Architect and BDP Dublin.
Quinn is a trained architect himself, even though he has not practised for many years, so one would expect that he would be keen to promote quality design. Yet there is widespread dismay among architects about the way schools are procured, with design quality ranking way down the list of criteria.
According to Paul Keogh, a former president of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI), the current procedures are “basically unsound”, because they rank the cost of architectural services ahead of quality, awarding a total of 75 marks for fees, hourly rates and resources and only 25 marks for the architect’s ability as a designer. As a result, he says, some architectural practices “have cracked the ‘secret code’, thus giving them an advantage in winning tenders”.
They do this usually by bidding fee levels as low as 2 per cent of a building’s estimated price. This would in no way cover the cost of design unless the architects involved were skimping.
“There is now a widespread recognition in Government circles that the fee-tender levels currently required to secure public-sector projects are unsustainably low, whether to deliver effective professional services or quality design outcomes, and I believe there are massive potential legacy risks to the State in persisting with the existing models.”