The University of Sheffield has come under heavy criticism from an architecture campaign group for how it handled the procurement process of a new proposed university building.

Project Compass, a non-profit campaign group that aims to improve the ways in which architectural firms are sourced for projects, said that the way in which the University appealed for designs for the future PEARL Music and Theatre building was ‘highly unusual’ and ‘unfair’ on architects.

Russell Curtis, Director of Project Compass, said: “They asked for architects to submit proposals and effectively tender for providing an architectural service. It’s an interesting brief, a high-profile building, and one that most architectures would cut their left hand off to get to design.

“What we’re frustrated about with this particular project is that the University hasn’t gone down the restricted procedure route. Instead, they’ve done an open procedure, meaning that anybody interested, can submit a design including proposed price, from which the University chooses from, and there’s not going to be a shortlisting process.”

The issue with not having a shortlisting process, the group argues, is that firms are expected to put time, money and resources into producing a design in an attempt to win the bid but don’t know how many other firms they’re going up against.

Russell said: “It’s unethical because companies can’t build a business when trying to play the odds in such a speculative way. I think they have misunderstood what the issues are, they really should be trying to minimise the abortive or speculative work that’s undertaken by the various practices. They’re exploiting them in a way because they’re not going to pay them for the effort gone into it.”

According to the contract notice: “The new building will enable Music, Theatre Studies and Creative Writing to develop, and expand teaching, research and grant capture, while also offering all university students and staff enhanced performance opportunities, and contribute to the University’s pledge to support a strong and vibrant city.”

Project Compass said that a very large majority of projects of this size and complexity go through some kind of shortlisting process first, then only the shortlisted team have to prepare designs. The shortlisted teams are often paid for their design work.

In response to the criticism, Keith Lilley, Director of Estates and Facilities Management, said: “This is a very exciting specialist project and, whilst we have our own framework of approved suppliers, we really wanted to open this up to give all those with the relevant skills and experience the chance to demonstrate what they could bring to the project.

“Given the specialist nature of the building it was essential to find out who could offer the best solution as well as providing the University with the best opportunity of securing high quality and value for money. The amount of information required at this early expression of interest stage was relatively small.

“We have made the process as open, fair and transparent as possible to encourage interest from a wide range of potential bidders – and have had interest from as far afield as New York and Holland. We had over 150 expressions of interest, dealt with over 50 clarification questions, and have undertaken more than 25 site visits for potential bidders – all of which demonstrate clearly that there is a real appetite for this exciting opportunity.”

At this point, the University is not expected to amend the process.

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