School Prize Win Courts Controversy
The Stirling Prize jury has courted controversy again this year by awarding the architecture industry's annual Oscar to a school.
The Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton, London, was designed by 'starchitect' Zaha Hadid, but it's not the design that has come under fire, it's the cost. It is claimed that at £36.5million the Academy is around 40 per cent more expensive than the average secondary school.
Former RIBA president George Ferguson branded the decision "politically dumb". Against the backdrop of public sector cut-backs and austerity, the award seems somehow out of step with the current zeitgeist.
There were some voices of support for the win. Ken Shuttleworth, of Make and the architect behind Birmingham's Cube, was among them. He said: "I think it's a great decision and great at a time when Gove is attacking schools."
Whatever your views, the win is significant. It is the first time the prestigious Stirling has gone to a school and it sends out a message that school design is important. It gives designers something to aspire to. And why shouldn't young people have the best? As the winner herself said: "Schools are among the first examples of architecture that everyone experiences and have a profound impact on all children as they grow up."
The Evelyn Grace Academy is a great project, but probably won plaudits at the wrong time. The focus now is "more for less".
Construction has a history of getting it wrong. According to the National Audit Office and Construction Excellence more than 50 per cent of public buildings are delivered late and over budget.
It is possible to build good schools for less, the key is standardisation.
Willmott Dixon typically has 80 schools on site at any one time. On the back of this experience we have worked with Scape (a national public sector procurement framework) to develop a suite of products under the Sunesis brand. Our approach to the designs was to streamline the procurement and construction processes, which cuts costs, reduces risk and fast-tracks the build programme and furthermore reduce the whole life cycle and energy costs.
Standardisation does not mean off-the-shelf or flat-pack: our schools can be customised. However, reducing choice can reduce costs - as much as 30 per cent on normal procurement methods, while timescales are around 18months shorter than industry norms. The Evelyn Grace Academy has 330 students on its register. Through Sunesis, Willmott Dixon can deliver a 900 pupil school for £11.5m.
I very much doubt projects like the Evelyn Grace Academy would get off the ground now, but by getting some limelight it has put school design on the map. We are in different times, but that's not to say that the Academy is not an inspirational building and, despite its hefty price tag, I'm sure that it can provide lessons for designers and contractors going forward.