Wor­ried about buses? Con­sider the schools

The Compass - - EDITORIAL - Jim Case, Fel­low of the Royal Ar­chi­tec­tural In­sti­tute of Canada, writes from St. John’s

There has been a sub­stan­tial amount of press de­voted to school buses in re­cent weeks. What topic could pos­si­bly be nearer or dearer to our hearts in a civ­i­lized, car­ing so­ci­ety?

Over 100 charges re­lated to vi­o­la­tions of the High­way Traf­fic Act are now pend­ing. Var­i­ous con­tracts with the English School Dis­trict have been sus­pended. A gen­eral state of dis­re­pair, fuel leaks, in­op­er­a­ble safety fea­tures and faulty brake lines have been al­leged.

Now many of the op­er­a­tors claim that the prob­lem is in­ex­orably tied to the Pub­lic Ten­der­ing Act, and it may come as a sur­prise to many that I am sym­pa­thetic to this sug­ges­tion. As an ar­chi­tect who has at­tempted to eke out a rea­son­able liv­ing for my­self and my em­ploy­ees for over 35 years here in the province, what do I know about school buses? Well, as to their fit­ness, I would say did­dlysquat. Such me­chan­i­cal tech­nol­ogy has al­ways eluded me.

But I can say that I un­der­stand full well what it’s like when you have made a con­sid­er­able in­vest­ment in your com­pany and your liveli­hood is un­der at­tack. When your choice is to deter­mine the low­est pos­si­ble oper­at­ing bud­get for a pub­lic ten­der bid, or lay­off your driv­ers and sell your in­fra­struc­ture, what would you do? Most of us would not know­ingly jeop­ar­dize the wel­fare of our chil­dren. But be­ing forced into bank­ruptcy, I ex­pect you might hedge your bets, so to speak. We can­not pre­sume to know the pres­sures some of these op­er­a­tors are un­der.

But al­low me take you back to a time when schools here in the province were rou­tinely con­demned. I should know - I per­son­ally and of­fi­cially con­demned many of them. Mould. Poor in­door air qual­ity. Poor light­ing. No sprin­klers. Lack of ven­ti­la­tion.

In­suf­fi­cient or ill-de­fined means of safe egress. Cookie-cut­ter schools with­out ar­chi­tec­tural in­put. If this was not the case, why did the last gov­ern­ment drain the provin­cial cof­fers re­plac­ing them?

It wasn’t that long ago. But some­thing even more in­sid­i­ous has crept into the equa­tion. In re­cent years, gov­ern­ment bu­reau­crats have taken aim squarely at ar­chi­tects by as­sem­bling a bu­reau­cratic regime de­ter­mined to drive down pro­fes­sional fees for ar­chi­tec­tural de­sign. That’s schools, hos­pi­tals, com­mu­nity cen­tres. The places we go ev­ery day, and more of­ten than not, with our chil­dren.

For decades, politi­cians awarded con­sult­ing con­tracts to their friends and those who rou­tinely padded the cof­fers of the party. Ever no­tice how or won­der why the $1,000-per-plate din­ners were packed with con­sul­tants? It was a pig trough. The more you ate, the dirt­ier you got.

How­ever, in re­cent years, gov­ern­ments have in­creas­ingly awarded pro­fes­sional ar­chi­tec­tural ser­vices based on the low­est cost bid. Within the last year, ar­chi­tec­tural ser­vices for schools have been awarded by gov­ern­ment based on pro­fes­sional fees that are as much as 70 per cent less than provin­cial and na­tional rec­om­men­da­tions. Yet, gov­ern­ment claims to be com- mit­ted to ex­cep­tional build­ings, es­pe­cially with re­spect to safety, en­ergy and the en­vi­ron­ment.

The new Pub­lic Ten­der­ing Act sug­gests that a qual­ity-based se­lec­tion process might fix the school bus prob­lem. In ad­di­tion to bid price, qual­ity-based pa­ram­e­ters could be eval­u­ated: fre­quency of in­spec­tions, age of fleet, safety fea­tures, a cre­den­tial­ing pro­gram for driv­ers.

But to ad­dress the prob­lem of pork bar­rel pol­i­tics and con­sul­tants, the ge­nius bu­reau­crats who drafted this leg­is­la­tion swung 180 de­grees and de­clared ar­chi­tec­ture to be a non-pro­fes­sional ser­vice! No longer ex­empt from the act, ar­chi­tec­tural ser­vices are now to be pro­cured based on low­est bid.

But the prod­ucts of low­est cost ar­chi­tec­tural ser­vices are poor qual­ity build­ings, a dis­in­cen­tive to in­no­va­tion, lip ser­vice paid to sus­tain­abil­ity, and jeop­ar­dized pub­lic safety.

And if you think that last item is alarmist, just who do you think is re­spon­si­ble to en­sure build­ing codes are fully ad­dressed in the de­sign of new build­ings? What pro­fes­sion as­sumes full and to­tal li­a­bil­ity for life safety in build­ings? Ar­chi­tects didn’t be­come qual­i­fied by watch­ing HGTV!

So, next time you send your kids off to school, the bus should be the least of your wor­ries. Your chil­dren will prob­a­bly only spend only an hour or so on the bus. But they will spend six hours in the school.

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