A New Group Wants to Open Up Public Projects to Smaller Architecture Firms

Right now, the new pavilion for St Anne’s Park in Clontarf is just on paper. Templelike, once built, it should serve as a gatehouse to the tennis and bowling courts behind it.

It is one of the only public projects that Taka Architects – a small award-winning architecture firm in the city – have picked up from state bodies.

That’s because the council’s procurement process – and that of other state agencies – are stacked against smaller firms, says Alice Casey, partner at Taka Architects.

“If it was 20 years ago, practices like ours would be doing bigger work,” says Casey. In the last 10 years, she says, it’s become almost impossible to do public building work over a certain value.

This results in smaller, talented architecture firms being pushed out, says Casey, creating a closed-loop system of big firms continuously getting larger contracts for public buildings – at the expense of communities.

A Push for Change

Andrew Clancy, partner of Clancy Moore Architects, says his firm faces similar problems to Taka Architects.

“We’ve been trying really hard to get state work and we’ve been confronting a number of obstacles,” says Clancy.

He’s sitting with Casey at a large grey table in his office hidden on Meath Street. A welcome morning sunshine diffuses through the window, softly lighting the exposed concrete ceiling in the open plan office.

Last year, both Clancy Moore Architects and Taka Architects jointly won the Peter Davey Prize, an international award from the Architectural Review for emerging architects for their work on the Merrion cricket pavilion on Dublin’s southside.

Judges noted not only the firms “exceptional work” but also their efforts “to generate a political shift in Ireland’s stifling procurement system, creating a better culture of architecture not only for themselves but for future generations”.

Recently, architects at both architecture firms – who primarily work with private clients at the moment, save for a couple of smaller public contracts – have helped set up a new voluntary group called We Can Build Better.

Its aim is to change how procurement is done in Ireland, to show how the current system limits small and medium-size businesses (SMEs) in the construction sector – and, by doing so, stifles the variety of design for state buildings.

Says Casey of Taka Architects: “All we’re trying to do is to highlight this barrier that exists and to free up the extra capacity that is all there.”

“If we’re considered world leading,” says Clancy, “it’s only because the Irish taxpayers have educated us to be so. All we’re asking is for the government to recognise this excellence exists and that they can tap into it.”

Buying for Ireland

When a public body, say a council or government department, buys goods, services, and construction, that’s known as public procurement.

In Ireland, the Office of Government Procurement is responsible for setting the guidelines on how public bodies procure goods and services.

But it’s up to the contracting authorities to decide what is proportionate criteria, said a spokesperson for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, which set up the Office of Government Procurement in 2014.

The guidance is there to help. “But a contracting authority may depart from that guidance where the requirements of a project warrant the application of different standards,” said the spokesperson.

Public procurement rules are key to efficient public spending, and cutting red tape to make sure SMEs can bid for contracts, according to the “Public Procurement Guidelines for Goods and Services” from the Office of Government Procurement.

For architects Casey and Clancy, this concern for SMEs is not being reflected in their experience of public procurement.

EU law is clear that SMEs shouldn’t be unfairly discriminated against in procurement either, says Clancy. But public bodies are putting up unrealistic barriers that prevent smaller architecture firms from tendering to design public buildings, he said.

A 2018 survey by the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland found that almost half of architectural practices don’t compete for public projects.

The state is missing a trick, says Clancy. It needs houses to be built, yet it’s excluding many architecture firms, affecting engineers and builders too.

Barriers to Tendering

Several barriers prevent SMEs from tendering, says Casey, with regard to public buildings be they schools, libraries or housing projects.

One challenge is how procurement bodies assess whether architecture firms have the capacity to design a public building, says Clancy.

They do this with different metrics – from company turnover, to rates of public indemnity insurance and a preference for companies who have designed similar buildings before thereby creating a closed-loop system, he says.

These barriers automatically limit lots of smaller architecture firms, he says. Many don’t have the turnover necessary to tender but are well able to carry out the work, says Clancy.

Others can’t afford the high costs of insurance or haven’t designed a public building before.

The Irish state focuses on “easy metricable aspects”, says Clancy, and in particular ways to assess capacity.

Not everywhere does that. “There’s lots of ways to procure buildings,” he says.

A spokesperson for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform said, by email, that considerations around quality – rather than just capacity issues – are taken into account in their procurement guidelines.

Says Casey: “The guidelines are there and the OGP has done a really good job of setting them out.”

“But it feels like there’s one person in a local authority that knows something about procurement and they’re then deferred to, you know, by all the departments,” she said.

It comes down to their interpretation, she said.

Dublin City Council spokesperson said any questions about procurement and how it goes about that should be sent to the OGP.

Other Issues

Other issues relate to the nitty gritty of the procurement process. There’s too much tender documentation for SMEs to handle, says Casey.

The first stage for building design tenders is 800 pages to fill out, she says. “Nobody reads them, yet we have to write them.”

“You’re writing all these things so a non-expert can kind of compare against,” says Casey.

There’s a focus, too, on how the service is to be delivered rather the service itself because the tenders are assessed by panels who don’t know about the services or products that they’re procuring, says Casey.

That also means bidders end up creating lots of documents to explain procedures to non-experts too, she says – which is both time consuming and expensive.

A spokesperson for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform said it’s not possible to comment on the make-up of the assessment panels.

Last year, says Clancy, his firm put in a joint tender along with Taka Architects to get on to Dublin City Council’s Housing Framework. They were unsuccessful and it cost both firms €30,000 so they’re unlikely to put in again, he said.

Shaping the City

For We Can Build Better, it’s not just about SMEs, says Clancy. The group wants to make people realise that a diverse construction industry will create a more heterogeneous and vibrant public realm.

The diversity of small and medium sized architecture firms are being excluded from designing, he says.

“The truth of it is you can make a contribution to society by doing public work, even small public work. People are not doing it for turnover or revenue, they want to do this to make a difference,” says Clancy.

Excluding loads of diverse architects creates a monoculture, cookie-cutter places, argue the architects in their We Can Build Better manifesto.

It forces the work to major practices in major cities, too, he says. “Now that might be fine for bigger projects but actually for a specific site like in Ennis, you need local knowledge.”

“The common good is better when things are given proper care and that does not mean things are more expensive to design,” says Clancy.

“That’s the thing,” says Casey, “you can use very modest means to do that.”

“It would be very easy to change these things,” says Clancy. “There’s no lobbying at a European level required, there’s no adjustment of major governmental policy required.”

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Sean Finnan: Sean Finnan is a freelance journalist. You can reach him at sfinnan@dublininquirer.com.

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