Public building contracts ‘unattractive’ to architects

RIAI blames State bureaucracy, time frames, risk shifting and poor procurement skills

President of the RIAI David Browne:   urges the Government to establish cost and performance benchmarks for buildings, as well as standardised pre-qualification processes for both public and private sectors. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

President of the RIAI David Browne: urges the Government to establish cost and performance benchmarks for buildings, as well as standardised pre-qualification processes for both public and private sectors. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

 

Almost half of Irish architects shun public contracts because of excessive bureaucracy, uncertainty and working practices which add both time and cost to projects, new research shows.

A study by the Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland (RIAI) found that 49 per cent of member firms do not bother to compete for public sector works, while others feel they are shut out of the public procurement process entirely.

RIAI president David Browne, who is also managing partner of RKD Architects, said public sector work is hamstrung by excessive bureaucracy.

“There is a huge amount of paperwork, and it differs from agency to agency,” he said. “The information sought is obviously largely the same, but the requirements of different commissioning bodies mean it must be presented in a different way each time.

“That’s a disincentive to busy architects who can’t put the time into it, particularly if you’re looking at a one in 10 chance of securing work,” he said.

Mr Browne said that State contracts also focus on “pushing risk to either designer or the contractor”.

This means that when something goes wrong, “the first thought is ‘how do I make sure I’m not in the firing line’ – it leaves people in quite a defensive mode throughout a contract”.

He said public sector aversion to risk means that contractors have to take on unanticipated problems and this leads to a higher price tag for the project. “You are adding to the cost rather than getting to the optimum solution.”

Cost focus

Meanwhile, a relentless focus on the lowest-cost tender winning out was having knock-on effects on quality throughout public sector procurement, Mr Browne said. Ultimately, this would lead to buildings that are cheaper to construct but cost more to run in the long term.

“You can pinch a bit here or there in the capital cost, but the outcome of that can result in far-greater costs in the performance of the building,” he said.

The State is also overly committed to setting a budget for a project before it is properly scoped, something that is uncommon in the private sector. “These things that I’m talking about are items that are common to the type of issues that projects such as the national children’s hospital has faced,” Mr Browne said.

A lack of focus on decision-making can also lead to projects dragging on. “In the public sector you get to a stage where it’s sent in for approval, and it could be one month, six months or even a year before you get approved to go to the next stage,” he said.

Weak briefs

Meanwhile, there is a general lack of expertise in public procurement, which has knock-on effects throughout the process. “If you have a poorly drafted brief, you’re far more likely to have a poor outcome, with cost overruns, poor quality and poor long-term performance,” Mr Browne said.

In a paper released on Friday morning, the RIAI also blames poorly drafted briefs, uncertainty about the parameters and timescales of commissions and forms of contract which do not encourage collaborative work processes.

These all combine to make public sector contracts “unattractive” according the RIAI, which is the regulatory body for the profession in Ireland. “Administrative issues such as minimum turnover levels and evidence of previous experience effectively rule many small firms out of competing for public works,” the body said.

The RIAI is calling on the Government to establish cost and performance benchmarks for buildings, as well as standardised pre-qualification processes that can be applied to both public and private sectors. It wants the Government to introduce new forms of contract and implement the Construction Industry Register Ireland on a statutory basis to protect standards.