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High cost of design aspirations

NEWS: Costs have spiralled ever since the parliament building was conceived.

Scotland's new parliament has been mired in controversy from the outset. Nationalist critics objected to the choice of site, next door to the Queen's Edinburgh home, Holyrood Castle. They also disliked the choice of Catalan architect Enric Miralles as designer.

Since construction got under way in 1998, the project's soaring costs have fuelled its detractors' sense of outrage.

When work first began the project was given a construction price tag of close to £50M by Scotland's first minister Donald Dewar. But in April last year members of the Scottish parliament (MSPs) imposed a £195M cap in a bid to halt runaway cost escalation. A year later, the project was breaking budget once again, forcing the MSPs to remove the price cap in June this year. This raised fears in some quarters that, unchecked, delivery of the parliament complex could eat up as much as £300M.

The project team, made up of the Scottish parliament, construction manager Bovis Lend Lease, architects Enric Miralles and RMJM, and structural engineer Arup, is to undertake a strategic review at the end of this month.

But, according to Scottish parliament chief architect John Gibbons, the scheme should now come in at close to £250M.

Completion of structural work is scheduled for December 2002 and fit out mid-2003.

There are three parts to the parliament complex: a relatively straightforward office block that will accommodate the MSPs, Queensbury House, a late 17th century listed structure, and the main complex housing the debating chamber and facilities for the parliament's staff.

Cost escalation is in part explained by MSPs' demands for more space - the design brief was set by the Scottish Office before power was devolved from Westminster to Edinburgh. The Scottish Office continues to fund the project even though it handed 'ownership' of the scheme to MSPs in 1999.

Total floor area has been trebled to 33,000m the parliament complex has grown from 400 to 1,000.

The client also altered the design of the debating chamber, which sits at the centre of the scheme.

Subtle changes in its geometry were amplified across the site.

Although no demolition of completed structures or reworking on site were required, alterations have affected the project's critical path.

The debating chamber complex is two to three weeks behind schedule.

Excluding site acquisition and preparation, final construction costs are expected to be £116M.

£100M worth of contracts will have been let by the end of this month.

But unit costs per square metre are little changed, claimed Gibbons. Much of the £250M is accounted for not by the increase in floor area per se, but by requirements for additional servicing, furniture and IT, says Gibbons.

Costs are in danger of being nudged up again, however, as the scheme's promoters pursue quality almost to the exclusion of concern for cost.

For example, service ducts are having to be incorporated into ultra slender, 240mm wide, exposed reinforced concrete beams to save space and avoid visual intrusion.

Design has been difficult and such exacting construction does not come cheap.

And the construction management procurement route, adopted to meet the scheme's tight deadlines, could well leave complex design issues unresolved for too long, requiring expensive last minute solutions.

'We have a lot of customising and engineering work going on as we progress. There is a lot of pioneering, ' said Arup Scotland associate Alan Tweedie. Few of the design and construction solutions can be delivered using proprietary systems.

Interfaces between the debating chamber's reinforced concrete walls, steel floor beams, and steel and glued wood laminate roof beams have not yet been resolved.

'Hugely complex' service design has not yet been carried out, said Bovis Lend Lease operations director Alan Mack.

It was these activities that contributed to cost escalations on other high profile government projects.

But 'nobody remembers how much the British Library or (Westminster MPs office) Portcullis House cost, ' Mack countered. 'When you have a really good building, designed to last for 300 years, the cost really isn't so important.'

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