Building walled gardens

Estate building is big business in higher education. With so many projects on the go, the simplicity of a limited group of suppliers is increasingly appealing. Julie Ferry investigates the rise of the framework

Visit any university city around the UK in the past 10 years and you will have likely witnessed multiple building projects in full swing. According to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), the sector invested around £20bn in capital between 2005 and 2014 and recent figures released last year confirm that capital investment continues to rise. While the picture is mixed across institutions, with particular universities such as Cambridge committing to ambitious plans in the immediate future while other universities with more limited resources concentrate on smaller improvements, there is no doubt the sector realises the value of facilities to appeal to prospective students in an ever more competitive market.

Estate management teams that are tasked with delivering these builds must be clear that they are delivering innovative, fit-for-purpose buildings, on time and on budget, no easy feat when most projects include a number of different stakeholders and contractors. Increasingly, universities are turning to frameworks to simplify the process.

“We have a multidisciplinary design framework which consists of a lead consultant who will be an architect, a structural engineer and a mechanical electrical engineer,” explains Matthew Home, head of categories, estates and hospitality and accommodation services (HAS) at the University of Birmingham.

“We go out to tender and we appoint six lead consultants to sit on the framework and then when we have a project come up we do a mini tender with those six lead consultants who provide us with their experience and a cost to design a particular building. Once given the contract it is up to the lead consultant to go and appoint the structural engineer and the mechanical electrical engineer.”

Frameworks have clearly become a popular means of managing multiple building projects over a number of years. In Birmingham’s case the framework is currently in place for four years. From the perspective of the university it enables management to identify and put in place the most technically capable and economically advantageous suppliers and build long-term relationships with them. By appointing a select group of architects to a framework after a rigorous and careful selection process they can be confident that they can move forward to each individual project having already researched the ability of the consultant to fulfil the brief, therefore saving a lot of time and the need for copious amounts of administration.

“For every project that is above a certain amount we have to advertise it in Europe through OJEU (Official Journal of the European Union). If we didn’t have a framework every project we did would have to go through an EU tender,” says Home. “That could mean looking at a hundred applications or more for each project, which would be an awful lot of work. With the framework we have already completed that process once to appoint to the framework and then we are looking at only a few architects competing for individual projects.”

 You can use the outcome and feedback of a project to positively affect the next project 

The University of Birmingham has embarked on a large building programme in recent years, adding a £55m sports centre including a 50m swimming pool, a new library with over 40 miles of shelving, a major landscaping project called the Green Heart and a collaborative teaching laboratory, which aims to revolutionise the way that STEM is taught. It is also committed to delivering a significant academic building every year for five years between 2022–2026. To ensure these ambitious targets are met, Home is clear that the framework has to work effectively. 

He is so confident that working in this way has been successful that he is hoping to extend the period each framework operates for.

“I am going out to tender again for the framework this year and I’m hoping to put it in place for 10 years. The reason for this is that with some projects you can start talking to an architect about a building but it might not start to get designed for six years because of changes to the university’s capital plan. Therefore, we don’t want to have those conversations and then in four years’ time when we get the go ahead, find that the architect is no longer on the framework. If that happens I am going to have to engage another architect and start at the beginning again.”

For architects, the process similarly makes sense. While the application to be appointed to a framework is long and detailed, once the final decision has been made they are part of a small group with an increased chance of securing a contract.

Rod Duncan is a director at jmarchitects, which sits on the framework for Lancaster University. He says that the experience has been a largely positive one and while it doesn’t guarantee work it ensures that his practice is at the forefront for consideration on upcoming projects. Duncan and his team had to go through a four-stage process to be appointed to the framework, which he acknowledges was a significant investment for the studio, although he is careful to stress that jmarchitects “selects wisely which frameworks to go for based on our understanding of the requirements and whether we think we have the appropriate experience to be selected”.

The Lancaster Framework included an expression of interest (EOI), a pre-qualification questionnaire (PQQ), an invitation to tender (ITT) process and a final interview with successful applicants being taken forward at each stage. 

Once appointed to the framework the practice is still required to complete a mini tender to secure a project at the university but he says this is one of the benefits as the procurement of the architect is quick and easy following the initial time investment to get on the framework at the outset.

The majority of architects see the advantages of frameworks because they enable them to build strong relationships with clients and other consultants over a long period of time. Duncan agrees that this is one of the most positive aspects of the set up.

“Most of the frameworks we are part of work well with the benefit of repeat teams and the strong relationships that are born out of those projects,” he says. 

“You can very quickly review the outcome of a project and use that experience and feedback to positively affect the next project. This not only strengthens the relationships between the relevant consultants but also the relationships with the direct client team. The process builds trust in terms of how projects are briefed and taken forward, while saving time, saving resource and supporting the creation of great design.”

So far, so good, but do frameworks have their downsides? Conversely, the aspect that is positive in so many ways, the fixed duration, can have its negatives too. For example, consultants must ensure the fees they have outlined are viable as they will be fixed for the period. Another potential difficulty is that a client’s priorities could alter during the framework, which can impact fee levels.

Home also recognises that working in this way can throw up challenges as well as benefits. One such challenge is that frameworks created for a number of years could limit the pool of talent he has to draw from.

There’s a risk there could be an architect out there that could be better for a particular job

“There’s always a risk there could be an architect out there that could be better for a particular job and you are not getting involved with them but I’d argue that the efficiency savings and relationship-building that come as a result of the frameworks mean there are a lot more pros than cons.”

And frameworks can also be used to simplify other areas of educational procurement, although the savings are not guaranteed to stack up. St Hugh’s College, University of Oxford, struck a deal with Pelican Procurement Services to replace its existing food supply framework. Domestic bursar Rahele Mirnateghi says, “Following a bespoke tender with key lines including wholesale, fruit and vegetables, butchery, dairy and fish, we have identified financial savings of 14%. This is impressive when you consider we’d already been involved with a purchasing framework, plus the uncertainty of Brexit is impacting prices.”

Ian Holliday, Pelican’s business development director puts it down to finding the right solution for each institution. “When it comes to high-volume, low-value products, frameworks agreements work well for small institutions like primary schools,” he says. “However, universities are big business for suppliers, so their procurement departments are able to attract very competitive rates and generate significant savings when compared with frameworks. This is simply because the university has the power to decide who wins the supply for their institution, and the university’s own tender document will reflect 100% of what is purchased.”

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