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More than a Structural Defect

The news that seventeen schools in Edinburgh have been closed as a result of structural defects comes as no surprise to me given that the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) / Public – Private Partnership (PPP) under which they were constructed was a conceptual disaster from the outset.

The traditional approach to procuring a building involves establishing a brief, selecting the best design to meet the brief and then identifying the builder. In PFI the process is more or less reversed. Private sector consortia finance, design, build and operate projects through long term concessions in return for a regular income stream over the life of the concession. Bids are evaluated primarily on price. The architectural input is often minimal by architects selected for their low fees alone and the role of the architect on site is removed to cut costs with the ‘architecture’ consisting of meeting the brief at the lowest cost leading to a kind of PFI aesthetic – cheap, ‘boxy’, bland.

It shouldn’t be like this. Creating good buildings is a primary cultural act. It is too important to be the secondary outcome of a complex financial and contractual process that places insufficient emphasis on high quality design and construction.

I don’t know more than is in the press about the Edinburgh case but it simply isn’t possible to overlook something as fundamental as external cavity wall ties and internal masonry wall head ties. It looks like a clear cut case of ‘cutting corners’ in a hidden area where the saving will not be detected (until a wall falls down and kills someone).

No doubt some of those responsible for the defects in the Edinburgh schools will be called to account but the politicians, bankers, investors, lawyers and bean counters who dreamt up this defective ‘back to front’ way of building won’t be amongst them.

Iain Miller