Spotlight: Peabody looks to include smaller firms

Future of London member Peabody have been shaking up housing procurement with their drive to involve more small firms in their new developments. In a move spearheaded by Development Director Claire Bennie, the housing association has been seeking alternatives to the restrictive OJEU procurement system, which it says can lock out innovative smaller practices.

After a successful trial on the Three Colts Lane development in Bethnal Green with architects Pitman Tozer, Peabody will use a competition to select a panel of small practices to work on projects small enough to be exempt from OJEU procurement guidelines.

Three Colts Lane: CGI courtesy of Pitman Tozer
Three Colts Lane: CGI courtesy of Pitman Tozer

Peabody’s initiative complements a 2012 RIBA report, Building Ladders of Opportunity: How reforming construction procurement can drive growth in the UK economy, which argued that the OJEU procurement guidelines were inefficient, stifled competition, and led to bland design outcomes.

The report noted that minimum turnover thresholds exclude 85% of the UK’s architecture practices, and that awarding contracts based on the principle of “most economically advantageous tender” acted as a disincentive to value other outcomes such as design quality, sustainability and whole-life cost.

RIBA’s then-president, Angela Brady, said:

“The current public procurement system is frustrating and wasteful, too often resulting in buildings of a poor quality that cost too much money to build and run. We need an improved and streamlined procurement process that strives for better outcomes.”

Claire Bennie answered our questions on Peabody’s new initiative and explained how it could benefit public sector organisations.

FoL: Can you summarise Peabody’s new initiative?

CB: It is our intention to procure two panels: an informal panel of 6 to 8 small practices which will work on schemes of 20 homes or fewer, and an OJEU-procured panel which will work on everything else. The small panel will be selected via a design competition due out in November 2013 and due to be selected by end January 2014.

FoL: What prompted the shift towards involving smaller consultancies?

CB: Scheme size: Peabody gets involved in a wide variety of schemes, from four houses through to whole estate regenerations. The small schemes are important to us as they are often on gap sites on our own estates and provide opportunities for our residents to move within their own communities. But they are also intensive, involving a lot of consultation work and sensitivity to context. We need smaller practices to provide the commitment and personal service which these projects demand.

Service and innovation: We know that small practices can provide a first class and dedicated service involving senior staff. Newer practices can also bring innovation and fresh thinking to housing design and we want to tap into that.

Lock-out: I qualified as an architect myself in the 1990s and have watched contemporaries and colleagues develop their skills over the years. I know first-hand how much talent they have which is dormant because the public and third sectors often exclude practices who cannot meet onerous entry criteria. This is our opportunity to get hold of the famous practices of the future whilst they are still in embryo! Peabody has a history of nurturing emerging talent: AHMM was one of our early finds in the 1990s and they now employ more than 200 staff across the world.

Proposed housing in Whitechapel: Photo courtesy of Níall McLaughlin
Proposed housing in Whitechapel: Photo courtesy of Níall McLaughlin/Picture Plane

FoL: What effects do you hope to see from the change? Have you been happy with the results so far?

CB: We would like to think that emerging practices will grow as a result of being able to work with us, and then make it on to our main panel after four years. We would also like to see our smaller contractor partners working well with these practices to achieve the kind of detail and finish we value. Of course, we are also expecting fresh and beautiful designs for our new homes which our residents will love and want to move into! We have already been working well with Pitman Tozer, David Mikhail and Niall McLaughlin to achieve these aims.

FoL: Do you know of any other organisations that are actively pursuing this agenda (aside from RIBA)?

CB: I believe that Newham council is doing something very similar in a bid to grow its own new build housing programme. We applaud them for that.

FoL: How do you intend to move forward with this after the November 2013 competition?

CB: The outcome of the competition will be to establish a panel of 6 to 8 practices. We will then work with them over the next four years to look at all our small sites and either run mini-competitions for individual sites or assign them to the panel members depending on size and how busy the practice is. Eventually, when we are less frantic with our development programme, we want to extend the small practice idea beyond architects to our other consultants.

FoL: Has Peabody had to adapt the way it works to take account of differences in working with smaller firms? What barriers have you had to overcome to implement this strategy?

CB: No doubt there may be some challenges when it comes to asking our contractors to work with what they may see as “untested” firms in terms of working drawing packages. We have had a very good experience recently of asking Galliford Try to work with Pitman Tozer Architects: both parties have benefited hugely from the partnership and it is a tribute to a large contractor like Gallifords that they have put their faith in Pitman Tozer’s ability to deliver in a ‘Design and Build’ context and had that rewarded with an excellent and timely set of working drawings. We are all proud of that building which is just about to complete and is currently selling well.

FoL: What advice can you give to organisations who would like to involve more small consultancies?

CB: Don’t be afraid of taking some risk and saying ‘no’ to the cumbersome and laboured pre-qualifying processes which exclude so many good people. Smaller schemes allow for some learning by all parties without risking your organisation unduly.

FoL: Is there anything government could do to make the use of small consultancies easier?

CB: Procurement law in the UK could be made much more SME-friendly – but it’s less that, and more about convincing public and third sector clients that small and emerging practices will provide a good, if not better service than their more established peers.

Peabody’s Small Projects Panel competition will launch on November 15th 2013, when further information and submission documents will be available at www.peabody.org.uk/projectpanels