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Review of CABE's Minimum Design Standard for schoolsOctober 2009

The building press has long been publishing lurid headlines about a lack of quality in school design. CABE's Minimum Design Standard aims to stop all that. Roderic Bunn casts a critical eye over the process.

Hands up all those involved in delivering schools under the UK's Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. So that's all of you then. OK, hands up all those who do lots of unpaid design work in the hope of winning a competitive bid. Still all of you? Right, hands up all of you looking forward to a 75-week procurement period, from pre-qualification to financial close.

I'm only guessing of course, but I'm betting a fair number of hands have gone down, probably slightly more sweaty than they were before.

Welcome to the world of the Minimum Design Standard (MDS), the compulsory procurement process now in place for the BSF programme. The idea of the MDS is to identify school designs judged to be of poor quality and give the bid teams the chance to improve them. Those that can't, get weeded out. Only the very best school designs survive the process. That's the plan.

Time was when the Schools Capital Design Unit at the Government's education department held the reins of design quality. Now that we have a quango delivery vehicle for schools, Partnerships for Schools (PfS), someone else has to measure design worthiness.

Enter the Commission for Architecture in the Built Environment (CABE). The theory is that CABE-appointed architects are talented peers who know the difference between a duff design and one that is buildable, managable, long-lived, flexible, adaptable and technically robust.

The chair of CABE, Sir John Sorrell, certainly thinks so, reporting that 87 per cent of school designs that were returned to CABE's schools design panel for peer review improved as a consequence. Sorrell recognised that the process needed to be more effective. Stronger. Mandatory.

"To secure consistent good design a compulsory threshold is required," he says. "Badly designed schools will be eliminated from the process. Designs that don't meet standards will not get built and taxpayers will be guaranteed value for money."

Sounds reasonable enough. So how will the MDS work in practice?

School designs will be reviewed by CABE assessors against 10 quality criteria, backed up by a new four-part grading system with designs rated as either very good, pass, unsatisfactory, or poor. Table 1 shows how these reviews will take place within a 75-week procurement period.

Table 1: The Minimum Design Standard procurement process that now applies to the Building Schools for the Future programme. Interventions by the CABE Schools Design Panel are highlighted.

The first review takes place at the initial bid stage. At week 23 there will be dialogue with all bidders. At this stage the CABE panel will not be expecting to see final designs, although worked-up designs and models might be produced. "Serious design work will have taken place and a relationship established with the client," says Tim Byles, chief executive of PfS.

Bid teams will be expected to show an understanding of the scheme's educational drivers, how the building will meet the brief, and how the design will be environmentally sustainable.

Architects and designers will be invited to present their designs to a review panel populated by the local authority, design advisors, and the PfS. Educationalists will also be invited to sit alongside built environment experts on the review panel.

At week 30 the weakest bidder will be eliminated and the remaining two will go through to the next stage. There is a further period of dialogue before the second internal review. At this point, the MDS panel will be looking to see how the designs have developed since the first review.

A preferred bidder is selected at week 56. A further round of design audits are then undertaken until the design gets through the final CABE design quality filter to win funding.

Tim Byles believes that the MDS will be vital for a BSF procurement process that is planned to accelerate and get shorter and cheaper. "It's important to get the process right, smooth and improving," he says. "It's not always going to be 75 weeks," he added soothingly, "I have ambitions to make it very much less than that."

So, are you happier now you know how the MDS will run? Well, there are still some begged questions. For a start the review process is not finely calibrated. Striking the right balance between an objective rating system and a subjective analysis is always a problem when success or failure is the outcome.

School designs that are obviously substandard are easy to dismiss. Equally, a school design that appears stellar in all respects is easy to sanction. It's the designs that reside in the grey area that will be the real test of the MDS. Could failed bidders sue CABE if they don't get through after year's hard design slog?

If the idea of CABE's quality filters is to bootstrap-haul school designs into at least the 'satisfactory' quality category, will that provide a cast-iron guarantee that those designs will result in better buildings? In any case, is it likely for an external peer-review process to truly improve the quality of a finished product? The answer is probably no.

Operational problems in schools tend to stem from the creation of gaps between design aspiration and operational performance that are rarely visible at scheme or even detailed design. Designers may be aware of potential shortcomings or likely system fragilities - the daylighting strategy for example - but these are often not apparent until after handover. Yet the total focus of the MDS is on design. It doesn't extend to cover fine-tuning in pre-handover, handover and initial operation. All the BSF eggs are well and truly in the design stage basket.

The absence of guidance and assistance to project teams to ensure the qualities of design are followed through (and protected from cost-cutting) during construction and initial operation still leaves critical gaps in the MDS. It's these gaps through which good design intentions can easily plummet. Those lurid newspaper headlines may not be buried for good just yet.

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