RIBA Stirling Prize – Goldsmith Street

“​Architects want a traditional contract because they want quality”​ – the Design and Build Architect’s response

The Architects Journal recently published an interview with the RIBA Stirling Prize winners Annalie Riches and David Mikhail of Mikhail Riches Architects. Their Goldsmith Street housing scheme in Norwich is 100% social housing and built to Passivhaus standards. It genuinely seems to be a worthy winner with lessons to be learnt across the housing sector. You can read a great article about the architectural merit of the scheme by Piers Taylor on Dezeen, but I am more interested in the Architects’ comments about Design and Build.

AJ Interviewer: “The biggest cheer of tonight was for the scheme’s traditional contract. But you had to cut costs. How did you do that without an impact on quality?”

Mikhail: “We had to save £2 million on a £14 million project, which is no mean feat. Yet the value engineering was a really good process. Our client had decided not to go down the design and build route. So, while we worked with a contractor, we were not led by them.

The contractor did have good ideas, though. For instance, lots of the three-bedroom houses had dormers on the roof. The contractor pointed out that working at height is really expensive. So we changed the three-bedroom houses to two-bedroom houses without a dormer which, actually, sat quite happily with the council’s needs.”

Fundamentally, this highlights the general opinion of Design and Build in the construction industry: a contract type which allows contractors to cut corners and butcher an architect’s design in order to meet budgets.

It’s also worrying to see how our of touch Architects are with the cost of construction – surely it’s obvious that a dormer is more expensive than a standard roof? Yes it’s a cost effective way to increase floor space but if 3 bedroom homes weren’t required why weren’t they 2 bedroom in the first place?

According to the article, Architects like traditional contracts because they want quality and they want to be in control. What they don’t mention in the article is that while Architects want control, they don’t want responsibility, liability or risk. They mention working with the contractor but not being led by them, and a traditional contract allows them to maintain their position as the one in charge and the contractor just does as they’re told. This is not collaboration and it will not result in the best possible outcome.

I’m really disappointed to read that Architects are still hankering for the traditional contract and aren’t getting on board with true collaboration. To me, an architect can work with a contractor while not being led by them in what I call “Architect-led Design and Build”. The difference is that Architects not only lead the Contractor; they are responsible for the them or, ideally the Architect and Contractor are one and the same.

Is it really that scary? For an architect maybe; the idea of going from a service-oriented business model with low financial risk to a product-oriented business with massive financial exposure is, quite frankly, not appealing. So I fully understand why Architects are not jumping on this bandwagon. Contractors however, are, because taking on some low-risk technical staff is a pretty easy decision to make in the grand scheme of their business. So if Architects don’t want to be led by Contractors, they need to be brave and get on board with Design and Build because collaboration is happening, construction is changing and “traditional” is not keeping up.