Beautiful Design Delivered Efficiently

KINGSTON UNIVERSITY LONDON – Town House was last week announced as the winner of the 25th Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Stirling Prize.

Praised by the jury as a highly original work of architecture the Town House has been rightly celebrated for its quality of design with little, if any, reference to its use of modern methods of construction (MMC).  As Rowan Moore (architectural critic at the Observer) observed in reference to Mapleton Crescent the building has architectural qualities that are nothing in particular to do with the innovation in its construction.

Whilst it may appear somewhat odd for us, as MMC advisors, to be positive about the lack of recognition for the scheme’s construction methodology, in Moore’s statement lies a key point: MMC and architectural aesthetic are not mutually exclusive.

In an article entitled ‘the rise and rise of ugly buildings’, Moore observed that

modern buildings are mostly assemblies of factory-made packages, which get thrown together on building-site blind dates. It’s not that you can’t design good buildings with modern techniques, but it takes skill and thought.

The annual quest for the architectural ‘Best in Show’ testifies to this point. At Akerlof, we have mapped the Stirling Prize nominees over the past 10 years and our graphic below illustrates that our country’s finest has been delivered through the use of both traditional and modern methods of construction, including component-led and manufactured solutions.

Burntwood School, winner in 2015, was applauded by the judges for the technically sophisticated use of prefabricated modular structures, whilst the 2019 nominee, London Bridge Station was constructed using precast concrete platform sections as well as 1,100 aluminium roof cassettes preassembled offsite. Both examples applied MMC not as statement of design but as an enabler: the best available means to achieve the design ambition.

These are not isolated examples and yet despite data to the contrary, MMC is often accompanied by an idiosyncratic agenda about aesthetic. The challenge against modern approaches is certainly not new, nor exclusive to the build methodology. In 1959, students at the Royal College of Act founded the Anti-Ugly Action group to protest at what they saw as the prevailing mediocrity in new architecture. Several years later, the architectural critic Ian Nairn was vociferous in his view:

Stop all the architects now … the outstanding and appalling fact about modern architecture is that it is not good enough.

The truth is that ugly buildings have always been with us. In 1888, writing for Oscar Wilde’s magazine, The Woman’s World, the novelist Ouida wrote:

to drive through London anywhere is to feel one’s eyes literally ache with the cruel ugliness and dullness of all things around

This theme continues today and therefore whilst MMC may not be the antithesis to beauty, inevitably a review of the Carbuncle Cup shortlisting history (the prize given to the ‘ugliest building in the UK completed in the past 12 months of each year’) would similarly include an array of prefabricated components. Correlation does not however mean causation.

Innovations over recent years have yielded a range of new materials and methods that can unlock complex geometries, technical feats and an understanding of our buildings that complements design excellence. The tools to deliver better, beautiful buildings now exist; the resolve to use them with context and consideration does not always rise to the same level of sophistication. The Townhouse however is an example where the bar has been raised.

Richard Rogers once argued that James Stirling was the first British architect to develop a truly modern style. It therefore seems fitting that the 2021 award winner is innovative in its construction but more importantly an original work of architecture….. that creates a progressive new model for higher education.

Jamie Hillier


With a penchant for tweed and jackets with leather arm patches, Jamie began his career as a quantity surveyor, before climbing the ladder to lead major projects for a Tier 1 contractor.

Eventually expanding his book collection beyond copies of SMM7, Jamie has interest in a broad range of subjects linked to delivering better outcomes for society and the environment.

His strategic insights on MMC and behavioural science have made their way into numerous government, industry and academic publications, including the Construction Playbook, Transforming Infrastructure Performance Roadmap to 2030, the Platform Rulebook and the RIBA DfMA Overlay.

John Handscomb


Construction is in John’s blood. Learning from his father who was a planner and project manager, John began his career by working on some iconic projects in both the public and private sector.

As a procurement expert and integrator of new ways of working, John has pioneered the integration of platform principles, DfMA processes and supply chain within over £5bn projects in the last 15 years, for some of the largest building programmes in the UK. Despite his considerable expertise, John keeps it simple, communicating complicated ideas with ease and helping to equip the industry with new knowledge and skills.

Outside of Akerlof, John enjoys his executive role with technology start-up ScanTech Digital, spending time with his family, taking trips down the football, playing a bit of golf with friends and the odd pint. 

Our name is shared with George Akerlof, a Nobel Prize-winning economist.

His seminal paper, Market for Lemons, demonstrated the devastating consequences of making decisions under the conditions of quality uncertainty and unequal information between buyers and sellers, increasing the chance of buyers ending up with a ‘lemon’.

This 50-year-old concept continues to retain parallels within the construction industry.

Through our insight and experience, we can rebalance this information asymmetry on behalf of our clients, levelling the playing field to deliver better outcomes.