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Building up the agenda

Italy's construction market is set to boom, believes Arup Italy director Gabriele Del Mese. Andrew Mylius met him in Milan

Coming up for a decade since the 'bloodless revolution' that saw Italy's political old guard unceremoniously removed from positions of power, the cleansing of national and regional government is now starting to impact on construction, says Arup Italy director Gabriele Del Mese.

The state remains Italy's largest construction client by far and its construction culture - decision making, project prioritisation, the allocation of finance and preferred procurement methods - still dictates the health of consultants and contractors.

Since 1943 when it became a republic, Italy has had 61 governments. 'Italy survives not because of its government but despite it, ' Del Mese comments.

Political fortunes still rise and fall with amazing speed but the early 1990s marked the beginning of a 'clean hands' era. Governments over the last few years have been consistent, at least, in having steered clear of corruption.

Investment in upgrading the country's transport infrastructure and public buildings is now coming on stream after 30 years of neglect. Italian construction went through a period of boom in the 1960s. In intervening decades, though, nothing like enough has been done to improve and expand the country's road and railway networks, says Del Mese.

Across the country, state railway company Ferrovie dello Stato is forging ahead with billions of dollars worth of upgrade and new build work, equipping Italy with a world class high speed rail network. Rail stations are being revamped and new stations built. Though not as advanced, road building and road improvement projects will be brought forward in the next two to three years, Del Mese predicts. Airports too need expansion and modernisation.

Italian politicians are aware that improved transport and communications infrastructure generally enables economic growth and integration. The south of the country wants to share some of the prosperity that is still concentrated predominantly in the north. It is clear that investment in infrastructure is necessary to raise national productivity. And large projects will be bolstered by grants from the European Union which is pushing for closer physical and economic bonds between member nations.

At the same time, municipal governments are looking to improve local transport, sewerage and water supply. Northern industrial city Turin, host to the 2006 winter Olympics, should be watched particularly closely.

Turin is about to embark on a spending bonanza. Bids have been invited for construction of a metro system, and suburban rail lines are to be doubled to increase capacity. National government has put up Lira 1,473bn ($670M) for road improvement and additional finance will go into construction of new highway.

Arup and Italian architect Mario Bellini have just been appointed to design a library and theatre complex in the city following an international design competition. Design of a headquarters for the regional government has been put out to competition. Money is also earmarked for schools and hospitals, says Del Mese.

And this is to say nothing of the investment in the Olympic infrastructure itself. Stadia, specialist winter sports structures such as jumps and runs, an Olympic village and hotels will need to be built. The company established to deliver all this for the Torino 2006, will be inviting tenders for design later this year.

Meanwhile, projects bogged down by political in-fighting or that have failed to get off the ground because backers were never in power long enough are being re-appraised. Some, notably the Venice flood protection scheme and the Messina Straits bridge linking Sicily with the mainland (NCEI September 2000) now look certain to go ahead.

Designs for the Venice barrage, first presented in 1984, are to be updated to take account of predicted rises in sea level and taken forward to 'executive phase', minister of public works Nerio Nesi announced at the end of March. Hopeful for the Italian premiership, Silvio Berlusconi has said he will go ahead with Messina if elected.

Yet, further change remains to be desired, Del Mese observes.

'Italy has been mismanaged for a long period, which has led to decay in the quality of design and of construction. This is a country full of talented people, many of whom haven't had the opportunity to use it.'

He explains: The state established its fee structure in 1949 and, while it wants high quality design, 'the state doesn't have a mechanism to pay for really good designers'. In 1949 a single individual or small practice would have delivered architectural design, structural and civil engineering. It (the state) is not yet prepared yet to pay for the multi-disciplinary design team now considered normal to deliver a first class project. Nor has it adjusted to the emergence of specialisms including environmental, acoustic and gotechnical engineering, or risk management, which can deliver more sophisticated design.

A further obstacle to good design comes in the form of a statutory 20% discount placed on a design and build competition winner's fee. 'This is a recipe for disaster, ' laments Del Mese.

The discount was originally imposed to counter inflated prices charged by dishonest contractors. But prices have been beaten down over the last decade at the same time as much of the industry has cleaned up its act, bringing prices into line with actual construction costs. The discount now forces firms to look for cheapest solutions, says Del Mese.

There is a shift in public sector selection methods, showing a willingness to look at new ways of buying design and construction, but still not ideal, says Del Mese. In the last couple of years firms competing for projects have been selected on the strength of their CVs. 'If the municipality wants a new hospital, for example, it will select the firm with the greatest amount of experience in building hospitals.

It can expect a competent job.'

But Del Mese fears the strategy will preclude really innovative designers from competing for or winning work, ultimately leaving the client the loser. 'The architect Richard Rogers, perhaps, has never done a hospital before. But he is one of the best architects in the world. Of course he can design a hospital, and it would be fantastic.'

Del Mese is confident that public sector procurement will evolve in the next five or so years to encourage a higher calibre of design. For the time being, though, Arup is highly selective in the public projects it bids for.

'If a competition has a bad brief we don't take part. There is no advantage to firms in doing work for a client that does not know what it wants, can not afford the kind of project defined in the brief, or that can not or will not take the project forward.'

Del Mese is still pressing the Municipality of Venice for a decision on whether it will build a passenger terminus three years after Arup and Italian architect Cecchetto won the design competition. Construction of a bridge over Venice's Grand Canal, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, has been on hold for six years.

Arup is working for the most part with private sector clients.

Privatisation is just getting off the ground. Here, 'clients are realising that there is scope for improving value for money and reducing risk pre-tender'. And the process of discussing the brief and options enables Arup to negotiate better terms.

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