Reflecting on BSF, Looking Forward to PSBP

Andrew Covell
With the announcement of the first wave of schools to be rebuilt under the Priority School Building Programme (PSBP) expected imminently, it is perhaps an appropriate time to look back on the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme and consider what lessons can be learnt and applied to PSBP.

With the announcement of the first wave of schools to be rebuilt under the Priority School Building Programme (PSBP) expected imminently, it is perhaps an appropriate time to look back on the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme and consider what lessons can be learnt and applied to PSBP. This was the subject of a panel debate at the recent Building Future Exhibition, which Faithful+Gould participated in.

A clear and consistent message arising from the panel debate was the desire to ensure that the new PSBP programme did not simply assume that everything associated with BSF was negative and not take advantage of the positive outcomes, the best practice established and the lessons learnt. Sometimes in order to demonstrate improved methods of doing things it is very tempting to start with a blank sheet of paper - the risk with this approach is the potential to repeat mistakes made before.

With this in mind, we set out some considerations and pose some questions on what BSF told us about school rebuilding programmes as we look forward to the opportunities and challenges that PSBP will bring.

We need to move away from the previous situation, where much of the upfront work carried out by technical advisors was not used again, could novation of designers be a possible solution?

Firstly we need to ensure that we are all working to clear and straightforward guidance, with clear divisions of responsibilities between all stakeholders at all stages. This will reduce duplication, prevent the creation of unnecessary work and ensure that everything is ready when it is needed thus avoiding programme delays. Linked to this we also need to ensure that we are more efficient and less wasteful in the briefing and design development phase. We need to move away from the previous situation, where much of the upfront work carried out by technical advisors was not used again, could novation of designers be a possible solution?

Secondly we need to continue the work done on standardising documents including contracts, specifications, room data sheets etc. Under the BSF programme, bespoke documents were often considered necessary for each and every project, because the standard documents were not considered specific enough. It is important to encourage the sharing of any updates made to suit particular situations or to address any deficiencies discovered as the documents are used. To reduce bespoke specifications, we should perhaps offer several standard alternatives to room sizes and area data sheets. In return for making clear that one of these standards must be used, schools could then retain some flexibility to mix and match within the overall funding / area constraints. It’s also vital to ensure that this standardisation flows down through the supply-chain (and back up again if change is valid) to avoid some of the last minute renegotiation when sub-contracts are finalised and risk step-downs clarified.

A key issue that does need to be addressed is a standardised approach within the documentation to the scope of refurbishment works. At what point do we expect a new build standard to be met and in particular what standard is required when replacement occurs during the concession period – as existing, or as new? Key to this is a sensible debate about retained risk and which party is best placed to hold and manage it (they may not be the same person after all!). Better risk analysis and risk sharing will drive out unnecessary risk allowances. This will need give and take from both sides and probably some increased expenditure upfront to investigate possible issues in a robust and appropriate manner to the required level of detail.

A key tenet of PSBP is that it will deliver more for less when compared with BSF and standardisation of the built elements is seen as a key tool in the requirement to significantly reduce costs. As we have seen in the retail and budget hotel markets, there is no doubt that standardisation can offer benefits and achieve the value we need to deliver, but as an industry we need to agree what this means and in turn present this to stakeholders in a way that they can understand. Some stakeholders may simply see standardisation as a return to cheap and shoddy buildings that are quickly thrown up and just as quickly start to deteriorate, or may even expect the widespread use of temporary units. School head-teachers in particular will need convincing that any form of standardisation can possibly deliver the unique environment they feel their school community requires.

Visits by stakeholders to example facilities should be encouraged to help frame their requirements and ambitions.

Engagement with all school stakeholders must continue, but this should concentrate on the big picture, for example considering room relationships and overall themes and ambitions, rather than being concerned with how many waste bins a classroom needs – this can be left to the standardised area data sheets. Visits by stakeholders to example facilities should be encouraged to help frame their requirements and ambitions; however these must be representative of buildings that are deliverable within the budgets available, rather than creating unrealistic ambitions!

Finally we need much better data collection and sharing, particularly of cost and we shouldn’t just concentrate on the initial building works - we need to capture data all the way through the life of the building. We need to consider how we demonstrate value improvements alongside cost reductions, and in particular how we identify the long term costs associated with managing assets in order to deliver the best long term value for money. This will build confidence that the projects scoped early in the process can be delivered and it will also support trend analysis to determine best practice and the most cost effective solutions to particular issues. Armed with this data as an industry we will be in a much better place to support the Education Funding Agency in securing appropriate funding in future Comprehensive Spending Reviews.

The PSBP is a potential game changer for the industry. The economic situation we find ourselves in is vastly different to that when BSF was launched; we can expect to be scrutinised at every turn and failure is not an option for the government as we head towards a 2015 General Election. If we are to deliver this new programme we should look to the future but not forget what went before.

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