'Europe's most expensive building' under attack

Copyright: David Lawson 1999

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The design process behind Portcullis House, the UK parliamentary extension dubbed the  most expensive building in Europe, came under intense criticism at the British Council for Offices annual conference in Glasgow.  Architects Michael Hopkins & Partners and engineers Ove Arup faced a barrage of queries about the decision to plan for a 200-year life and include seemingly inflexible concrete partitions as well as select the notoriously expensive  bronze facade.

   Francis Ives, chairman of quantity surveyor Cyril Sweett said that even after ignoring  VAT and fitting out, he calculated the building cost £2,200/m2. Yet it functioned no differently to an ordinary office block, which would be expected to cost  £1,600/m2.

  'The difference has been explained because of the longer life cycle. But does it justify that difference?' he asked.  The facade was also blamed for the high cost, because it had to be bomb-proof. But Ives  said even then he would not have specified bronze. He pointed out that a young employee had dug into his tables and found that the  building could have been clad in BMW Series 7 cars for the same price.

  Blame was pushed back to the client by David Selby of Michael Hopkins. 'Parliament was very clear about what it wanted,' he said.  Suggestions by Stephen Hackaday of Bovis that earlier involvement of contractors would have led to cheaper techniques were also dismissed. 'The client wanted the whole design ready up front at the start,' said Selby. 'There was no way to involve others early.'

  Several members of the workshop asked how such a long lifespan and concrete internal walls were feasible when there was so much uncertainly about even five years ahead. 'We have already seen devolution, the House of Lords may go and we may face big changes through use of high technology,' said one.  But John Berry of Arup pointed out that the walls were needed for privacy between MPs' offices. They were also suspended, and could be dismounted during parliamentary recess.