It’s time to re-assess the relationship between perceived risk and quality.

In the third of a new series of columns written by Architecture Foundation Supporters, Biba Dow (Dow Jones Architects) discusses  the risk-adverse nature of competitions. 


Why is risk-management allowed to control so much of how buildings are commissioned? Most PQQs and competitions ask for examples of similar projects previously completed, and evidence of a turnover that is supposed to be proof against financial vulnerability. With security uppermost in mind, it conjures a world of identical buildings, where a safe pair of hands wins over fresh thinking, closing the door on opportunity.


My hopeful quest for projects as we assess potential competitions becomes an essay in managing our own exposure to wasted time and resources, described so vivdly by Hari Phillips in last week’s Architect’s Journal. Reading competition lists, I allow myself the pleasure of imagining potential projects, then put them aside, knowing we fall short on a technicality.


I used to think that this was a quirk of the scale of my type of practice. We are a small practice by most standards. We employ fewer than ten people; I know this means we can work coherently, with everyone in the office familiar with each project and Alun and I close to each project. Our turnover is modest but steady. We love our work and our way of practising. It’s also a way of practising that can be scaled up and down. I also know that, in the eyes of a procurement advisor, we are minnows.


It is not just practices like mine, though, which are limited by thresholds and quotas. Colleagues in practices of all scales and ranges of experience complain of being excluded on the same grounds. Clearly, this method isn’t working. Wouldn’t a better way of assessing architects be to look at their work, to meet them and talk about ideas, rather than generating enormous amounts of paperwork that take all parties hours to produce and to read, promising surety but not engaging with creativity and ingenuity? It seems to me that due diligence could be handled in a more creative way as a check rather than a gate-keeper.


Discussing architecture as part of assessing buildings for an award last Autumn, Edward Jones commented that the best experience for designing something is not to have designed one already. I think any architect would agree. I love the intensity that comes with responding to new things. Experience is brought to play obliquely rather than literally.


Our building for Maggie’s Cancer Care opened in Cardiff last month, and we celebrated with an evening of discussion about art, landscape and architecture. One of the questions related to Maggie’s brief, which is the same for all their buildings, each by a different architect. You might imagine that, more than twenty-five buildings on, it is honed to specification level. Rather, it is a list of spaces and a discussion about thresholds, combined with Maggie Keswick Jenks’ essay on her own experiences as a patient and her hopes for a different response, A View from the Front Line. As a result, Maggie’s have commissioned an extraordinary series of different buildings from all sorts of architects, none of whom had designed something similar before. No-one asked us what our turnover was when we first met. Instead, they went to look at one of our projects, and came to talk.


I think it’s time to re-assess the relationship between perceived risk and quality. Being able to produce examples of very similar projects demonstrates ability and experience, but it does not produce better buildings. It seems to me to be a measure which excludes the imaginative leap. If everything is pre-defined, where is the space for creativity? Equally, a more accurate commercial picture would contextualise turnover against staff levels, numbers of active projects, and comparing fee and resourcing schedules.


Competitions and commissions that invite new opportunity are important for all of us, for the quality of architectural discourse and of our built environment that we all experience. It’s important to all of us that established practices of all scales are able to contribute creatively, and it’s equally important to keep opportunities open for young practices to try new ideas and challenge us all.



Biba Dow (Dow Jones Architects)

Biba Dow (Dow Jones Architects)