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Feature article
Calder Woodburn rest area, Goulburn Valley Highway by: BKK Architects. photographer: John Gollings

OVGA message

‘The recent evidence on public sector capacity points to the conclusion that smart government can’t afford to be too small. In some places there is a good case for rebuilding public works capacity in key areas, to ensure that governments can interact with the private sector in an informed way.’1

Tim Roxburgh, Centre for Policy Development

The decision by the Federal Government in September 2015 to create a Minister for Cities and the Built Environment was widely welcomed across government and industry. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stated, ‘Making sure that … our cities and indeed our regional centres are wonderful places to live is an absolute key priority of every level of government, because the most valuable capital in the world is not financial capital, there’s plenty of that and it is very mobile. The most valuable capital today is human capital.’2

Since 1976 the number of architects in state government per million head of population has shown a considerable drop. The size of the abiding remnant of architectural employees varies considerably across the states however Queensland retains the highest number of architects, and Victoria the least.3 This has implications for the quality of design outcomes. Put simply, when it comes to procurement of capital works, regardless of scale or budget, it is critical that government has enough internal expertise to interact with markets in an intelligent way, and ensure that it procures the best design outcomes.

The Office of the Victorian Government Architect (OVGA) is a small team of eight, yet the Victorian State Government is the largest procurer of design services in the state, having an enormous impact on the construction industry and on Victoria’s standing as a state with which to do business. The OVGA advocates that the procurement of design services and buildings requires key design initiatives to be put in place at the early stages of a project so that there is greater opportunity for good design to be realised. During a project’s initial scoping and design phase it is possible to have a very substantial impact on the design quality. However as the project continues it is dominated by the process rigors of procurement and the contractual and commercial demands of construction. Thus the ability to impact and improve design quality becomes more difficult and expensive as the project progresses.

The OVGA’s advice, in the procurement of design services, is that it is very important that design teams be treated equally and evaluated as objectively as possible. In order to test the capacity of the design team to work with the client, it is highly recommended that the design team selection process include an interview.

Other key steps for improving procurement of design services that impact on design quality include:

  1. Ensure a realistic budget based on initial design testing and benchmarking as part of any business case
  2. When possible use Expression of Interest (EOI) and Request for Proposal (RFP) processes to procure design teams and ensure that the assessors have industry experience and expertise
  3. When using Competitions to procure design teams, ensure a two-stage submission for larger projects, a reasonable budget that reflects the brief, and pay competitors for work in stage two
  4. In assessing bids for architectural services, separate the design fees from the assessment criteria and utilise Quality Based Selection

State and local government may not always be well resourced, especially in regional areas, but if they are open to advice and quality design there is the potential to be informed and function as a smart client. Wellington Shire Council proved to be this type of client when it approached the OVGA for procurement advice and design review on the Port of Sale Cultural Hub project. This involved the redevelopment of the Port of Sale Civic Centre into a new shared use community and civic space. The OVGA highlighted the importance of providing the right budget to meet the stated ambition of the project and avoid what may have proved to be – in the long term – a false economy. The outcome of this advice led to successful negotiations by the Council and additional secured funding with a $4.5 million Federal Government grant through the National Stronger Region’s Fund. The total project cost is now $13.7 million, which includes $10.7 million for the redevelopment of the building and $3 million for the surrounding Port of Sale precinct. The OVGA advocated that it was not important to pursue the ‘affordable wow factor visuals’, noted in council’s initial brief, but rather that the focus of the architectural design should be timeless, enduring and of high quality. Further we advised that in selecting the contract, risk should be allocated fairly between all parties.


Edithvale Seaford Wetlands Discovery Centre by Minifie Van Schaik.

photographer: Peter Bennetts

Yardmasters Building by McBride Charles Ryan.

photographer: Peter Bennetts

Port of Sale sketch courtesy of FJMT Architects

When it came to the selection criteria of the design team, the OVGA noted that design capability was missing and needed to be included a key criterion. Following consultation with council this criterion was added and appropriately weighted. The intent of the OVGA was to select the design team by first undertaking a qualitative assessment of the criteria and then comparing this qualitative assessment against price within an accepted band. This project demonstrated that it is essential that the requirement for design quality is in place through all the procurement documents. While fees will be considered as part of a value-for money process, the cost of the design commission is a relatively modest financial consideration in a whole of project context and lifecycle costs.

The OVGA seeks to ensure that not only is government getting value-for-money, but that the fees on offer will lead to good design outcomes. From 2013 the OVGA worked with the Department of Education and Training to help re-introduce a fee scale that would offer a level of certainty and avoid the proliferation of fee bidding. Many emerging practices in the 1960s, such as Kevin Borland, Daryl Jackson and Evan Walker, cut their teeth on educational projects. Educational projects remain an opportunity for younger or emerging practices to find their feet and to demonstrate their design capability, innovate and broaden their design expertise.

The OVGA will continue to advocate that lowest cost is not always best value, that high quality design is not expensive or unaffordable, that whole-life cost is more important than initial capital cost, that buildings are not merely functional but offer civic significance, that efficiency and effectiveness are embedded in design and that the public values good design.

Regardless of the scale of a project, school bike shed or a synchrotron, design will always be important. Equally there is a responsibility on government to ensure that there is the necessary human capital to guide the design process, which is not only informed but can interact in a meaningful way with the private sector. Only then will every project be well designed and memorably representative of its time.

By David Islip, Principal Adviser Urban Design + Architecture



  1. Tim Roxburgh, ‘Public Works need Public Sector Skills: The lost lessons of the BER Program’ Centre for Policy Development, p. 34.
  2. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull – Press Conference, 20/09/2015
  3. Tim Roxburgh, Op cit. p 17.