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How the RIBA Competition process guided Warwick University to a first-class arts building

Discover how the RIBA Competition process was crucial to the success of the award-winning Warwick University project in its earliest stages.

01 February 2024

When the University of Warwick decided to add a new Faculty of Arts Building to its impressive campus estate in 2016, it chose to enlist RIBA’s support to run an architectural competition on their behalf. This was to prove a wise move.

The £55m building, designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, completed on time and within budget in December 2021 and was short-listed for the 2023 Stirling Prize, narrowly missing out on the supreme accolade. Both the client and architect feel RIBA’s guiding hand in the earliest stages was a crucial part of the project’s success.

University of Warwick, Faculty of Arts © Hufton and Crow

RIBA has been running competitions for a wide range of project types and budgets for private and public sector clients since the early 1980s. Widely recognised as the UK’s leading provider of design competition management services, there was a natural fit between the professional body and a client looking to procure a complex, top-of-the-range building.

James Breckon, Director of Estates at Warwick, explains: “We had a great opportunity to design and deliver a statement building, and we needed to engage the very best within the architectural profession to understand and respond creatively to this brief.

Following the advice and the experience of the university's estates committee - who had representation from professional experts - and after consultation with RIBA, it was decided to engage in a RIBA competition. We wanted to extract the very best from the profession, and - within a short period of time - appoint an architecturally led multi-disciplinary design team.”

The process

With RIBA guiding the Warwick management team, Breckon found the competition process straightforward and effective. The competition invited expressions of interest from practices; 66 applications were received, five teams of which were shortlisted to participate in the tender and design concept phase of the competition.

University of Warwick Faculty of Arts © Daniel Hopkinson

The judging panel was made up of both academics and estates professionals from Warwick and chaired by a RIBA architectural adviser Cindy Walters, of Walters and Cohen, to help steer the process.

“RIBA’s Competition team were very helpful. The RIBA adviser was excellent and provided some really useful contributions, actively participated in the process and helped us make informed decisions. We also found that it helped promote creative ideas when we were drawing up our brief.”

The architect

Feilden Clegg Bradley emerged as the winner of the competition shortlist in February 2017. Warwick’s Faculty of Arts Building is not the only RIBA competition the practice has been involved with or even won.

Founding partner, Keith Bradley, who has emerged successful on a number of occasions believes there’s a gold seal of validation attached to clients who use the scheme.

“Whenever we enter a RIBA-run competition, we know it will be a fair contest and that the client will be advised in an intelligent way by RIBA’s adviser about the proposals and the way the team will work; the chemistry involved - if you like.

It’s a skilful process from the adviser’s point of view in steering the client’s committee towards making their decision. The Royal Institute of British Architects brings a real gravitas to the discussions and the assessments.”

The design phase of the competition involves submitting design concepts alongside environmental calculations and although this represents a considerable investment of time and resource by the competitors, Bradley says this quantum of work can prove very useful once the winning team has been appointed.

“Because so much of the detail of the scheme has been worked up and tested in the competition, it gives you a very good start when you get underway on the project. That’s not always the case when we get direct commissions, as they can prove more difficult because you haven’t gone through the stages of focusing on what’s really wanted and bringing it all together. So, winning the competition provides a real momentum to the project.”

Warwick’s James Breckon had never engaged previously with the RIBA Competition process, but, unsurprisingly, was delighted with the outcome. “It’s been a great success for our students, and as the business case demanded, it has helped us to grow increasing student intake and attract talented staff to the university. It’s a really modern and inspirational place to work in.”

“Students often talk about the flying wooden staircases crossing the centre of the building, the wow factor as you enter where your eyes are drawn into the centre of the building and the many spaces for quiet and active study. It’s become the second library.”

University of Warwick Faculty of Arts © Daniel Hopkinson

Was it worth it?

He is aware of the perception amongst some that selecting an architect via this route can be costly and extend the procurement process but found that not to be the case.

“This wasn’t our experience, and the building was completed to budget. It’s not the solution for all projects, but I believe it is most appropriate for landmark buildings or where creative architectural solutions are needed in response to unusual and interesting briefs.”

His advice to clients considering the same route is succinct. “Make sure your brief is going to excite with a clear vision and sense of purpose. And start with clear budget expectations from day one, and at every opportunity keep mentioning it to the architects. You’ll get the response that this will limit creativity, but when you’ve only got a set budget to work to, the multi-disciplinary design team need to understand that.

“For us, I feel it brought out the very best from the profession as they considered solutions, and I felt honoured and wowed to hear and visualise the narratives and ideas they came up with in response to our brief.”

Watch the video on the University of Warwick, shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize 2023.

About RIBA Competitions

RIBA Competitions are widely recognised as the UK's leading provider of design competition management services.

We deliver choice, inspiration and value to clients through expertly run architectural competitions and a competitive selection processes. Established for over 40 years, we manage competitions for a diverse range of project types and budgets on behalf of both public and private sector clients.

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